News 13 May 14

Belgrade to Build Nazi Death Camp Memorial

The new city authorities in the Serbian capital have vowed to finally build a memorial at the site of the largest Nazi concentration camp in the region, where 7,000 Jews died.

Marija Ristic
A building at Staro Sajmiste. Photo: Siri Sollie/BIRN.

After years of unfulfilled promises to create a memorial to the Jews who died at the Judenlager Semlin camp in Belgrade, now known as Staro Sajmiste (the Old Trade Fair), the newly-elected city government said it would soon make public a plan for the project.

“It was never clear to me why the Old Trade Fair was not marked as a concentration camp, even though some other places are marked,” Belgrade city administrator Goran Vesic said in a statement to coincide with the capital’s newly-established remembrance day commemorating the killings of Jews during WWII.

“It is our intention that in the next few years we mark this place as a site of memorial for our citizens who were killed only because they were Jews,” Vesic said.

The trade fair complex in the New Belgrade area of the capital was originally built in 1937 and consisted of a central tower and five pavilions - Italian, Czechoslovak, Romanian, Hungarian, and one for the Dutch company Philips.

After the Nazi invasion in 1941, it was transformed into the largest concentration camp in south-east Europe, known as Judenlager Semlin.

From December 1941 until May 1942, the occupying Nazis imprisoned and killed about 7,000 Jewish women and children in the camp. Jewish men had already been taken away and executed between July and November 1941 at a camp called Topovske Sume.

As early as May 1942, the Nazis claimed that Serbia was judenfrei - free of Jews - one of the first nations in Europe to be given this grim designation.

By then about 80 per cent of the pre-war Jewish population of Serbia of about 33,000 had been wiped out.

The former camp barracks and other buildings around it currently house a few restaurants.

Apart from one plaque and a monument dedicated to Jewish victims, there is little sign that it was once the biggest Nazi death camp in the region.

This was one of the reasons that Belgrade’s Jewish community decided this year to mark May 10 as an annual day of remembrance.

However Ruben Fuks, president of the Serbian Jewish Community Association, noted on Saturday that the Belgrade authorities had long been promising to build a memorial complex at the former camp.

“In the last few years, we have heard various promises. At this point we cannot say that there were any improvements, but let’s hope,” Fuks said.

After May 1942, by which time most Jews in the city had been killed or had fled, the jail changed its purpose and became a work camp for political prisoners of all nationalities.

A Yugoslav state commission formed after the war declared that about 100,000 people were imprisoned at the camp by the Nazis and later by the Communists who came to power in the country, and that a total of 48,000 people died there, including the 7,000 Jews.

Despite the fact that in 1987, the camp was declared a place of high architectural, historical and cultural significance for Belgrade, the planned reconstruction of the complex was dogged for years by unresolved property issues.

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