News 08 Apr 15

Belgrade Again Promises Nazi Death Camp Memorial

Seventy years after the end of World War II, the Belgrade city authorities have repeated promises that a memorial at the largest Nazi concentration camp in the region will be built next year.

Ivana Nikolic
A building at Staro Sajmiste with the central tower in the background.Photo: Siri Sollie/BIRN.

Planned reconstruction work on the central tower of the Judenlager Semlin Camp in Belgrade, also known as Staro Sajmiste (the Old Trade Fair), where 7, 000 Jews died during WWII, will mark the beginning of the building of a new Memorial Centre, the state commission in charge told BIRN on Wednesday.

“The [feasibility study] project on the tower will be finished by the end of this year, and [then] the works will start and be finished during 2016,” said Jovan Culibrk, head of the memorial commission.

However artists who have been using part of the former central tower of the death camp as their studio for decades must first be moved out, Culibrk said.

“Also, at the moment we are having a discussion about what the memorial itself should look like. Different topics will be covered [at the centre], like the Holocaust, genocide against the Roma, and the fight against fascism,” he said, adding that the memorial will also be used as a research centre and an archive.

But it will take many years to finish the centre, he cautioned.

Aleksandar Necak, from the Belgrade-based Museum of Genocide Victims and Terraforming, an NGO focusing on human rights and anti-Semitism, said he was pessimistic about the project, however.

Playground in front of the tower which served as the administration building of the camp. Photo by Siri Sollie.

“It will not be built, as the people who decide about the Memorial Centre are not ready and don’t have the financial ability to actually solve the problem,” Necak told BIRN, also alleging that there was a lack of political will to build the memorial.

The last promise to finally build a memorial at the site was made by the then newly-elected Belgrade city government last May.

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.

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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