“the clarity of everything is tragic”
I still have a memory of a stack of old magazines I used to thumb through at my grandmother’s house almost sixty years ago. They must have dated from the early years of the century. There were no photographs in them, just engravings and drawings. I was especially enthralled by scenes of battles that were most likely depictions of past Balkan wars and rebellions. They were done in the heroic manner. The soldiers charged with grim determination through smoke and carnage; the wounded hero lay with his chest bared in the arms of his comrades seemingly happy as to how things turned out. It was the kind of stuff that made me want to play war immediately. I’d run around the house shooting an imaginary rifle, crashing down on the floor mortally wounded, then immediately jumping up again to fire at the enemy until my grandmother ordered me to stop. Her nerves were frayed enough already since there was plenty of real shooting to be heard all around us.
The year was 1944, the Russian army was closing in on Belgrade, the Germans were digging in to fight, while the Americans and the English took turns bombing us. If one escaped the city, one was in even greater danger, since a civil war raged in the countryside between Communists, royalists, and several other factions, with civilians being killed indiscriminately. Like many others, my parents went back and forth. Even a six-year-old had numerous opportunities to see dead people and be frightened. Still, I made no connection then, that I recall, between what I saw in those magazines and the things I witnessed in the streets. That was not the kind of war I and my friends were playing. This may sound unbelievable, but it took war photographs and documentaries that I saw a few years later to impress upon me what I had actually lived through.
One day when I was in third or fourth grade our whole class was taken to a museum to see an exhibition of photographs of atrocities. The intention, I suppose, was to show the youth of a country whose official slogan now was “brotherhood and unity” what the fascists and their local collaborators had brought about. We, of course, had no idea what we were about to see, suspecting that it would be something boring, like paintings of our revolutionary heroes. What we saw instead were photographs of executions. Not just people hanged or being shot by a firing squad, but others whose throats were being cut. Ordinarily, we took the opportunity of these class trips to tease the girls and generally make a complete nuisance of ourselves, but that day we were mostly quiet. I recall a photograph of a man sitting on another man’s chest with a knife in his hand, looking pleased to be photographed.
As terrifying as the scenes were, they tend to blur in my mind except for a few vivid…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.