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.
My parents had no ambition to stray far beyond the city where they were born, but like millions of others all over Europe, they found themselves homeless as a result of events beyond their control. Separated for over a decade, they were reunited in the summer of 1954, when my mother, my younger brother, and I disembarked from a ship in New York City and were met there by my father. He wore, as I recall, a white linen suit and a light blue shirt that made him look so American in our eyes that we were surprised that he spoke Serbian and knew our names.
Even that first day in America, I had a hunch that nothing would ever be the same. For someone older, that was bound to be terrifying, but I was sixteen years old, coming from a destroyed and impoverished continent, the son of parents who had not been together in a decade and no longer seemed to like each other very much, and I had no wish to look back. I could feel my old identity slipping away as I explored Manhattan and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. European cities were orderly and easier to read than this American megalopolis. Their grand old buildings and stylish hotels and cafés were confined to certain neighborhoods, while their pawnshops and pool halls were relegated to parts of town some people never got to see. Not so in New York, where one was likely to stumble across a skyscraper standing right next to a two-story shack with a shoe-shine parlor, or a double row of rundown movie houses with huge marquees advertising horror films and westerns, a short distance from the elegant Fifth Avenue and that apogee of Beaux Arts architecture, the New York Public Library.
Of course, there was also the problem of language. I could read English more or less, but speaking was a different matter. The shock of asking for directions and not being understood was mortifying. Every day in America, I realized, I would have a fresh opportunity to embarrass myself each time I opened my mouth. Nevertheless, the claim that an immigrant can never feel at home again didn’t prove to be quite true in my case. After a couple of years, even with my conspicuous accent, I felt that there was no other place for me but America.
This created a problem whenever I came in contact with other immigrants, many of whom loathed everything I liked about my new country. I don’t remember exactly when it first crossed my mind that America had given me an opportunity to escape everything I secretly disliked about the old life. Not even the revered role of an intellectual in exile, haunted by twentieth-century history and nostalgia for the culture of Europe, ever appealed to me in the least.