The Prisoner of History

Charles Simic
Charles Simic, age seventeen, with some of his paintings, Oak Park, Illinois, 1955

It is hard for me to believe that I was born in Belgrade, and not in New York City, for I have a pretty good idea what it was like to live in New York in 1938. I can picture what the New Yorkers were doing in various neighborhoods and streets, the buildings and apartments they lived in, how they dressed, what they ate in restaurants, and where they went to see a movie and go dancing, while I lay around in my crib on Majke Jevrosime Street in Belgrade, playing with my toes and giving loving looks to a large teddy bear propped up next to me.

I even have a photograph to prove it and another one of me, when I was a bit older, being pushed in a stroller by my mother down a street full of people. It is the spring of 1941 and I appear exceedingly pleased with myself, as though after much nagging I had finally persuaded her to buy me a toy, although, unknown to either one of us, Hitler and Stalin and their armies had already made plans to turn me into an American poet.

I remember nothing about the day that photograph was taken, but I do have a vague recollection of what happened next. On April 6, 1941 (Palm Sunday), Belgrade was bombed by the Nazis at five in the morning. There was no declaration of war or any warning that the planes were coming. A building across the street was hit and set on fire and I was thrown out of my bed and landed on the floor in a shower of glass from the broken windows. The bombing went on for four more days, killing some 20,000 people and destroying several hundred buildings. I imagine there are many Europeans of my generation whose first memories are also of fire, smoke, and streets lined with ruins.

In the days after the bombing, Yugoslavia was occupied by the German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian armies, and a bloody civil war erupted between various domestic political factions and ethnic groups, making life hell for most people, except for children like me who, not knowing any better, took it all in stride. Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom. In 1944, it was the American and the British bombers that brought death and destruction. As bad as that was, I recall the good times I had then, for while the grown-ups were busy with their troubles, I ran around with other kids and did pretty much as I pleased.

When the war was over and…

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