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Seventy years after the end of the war, Belgrade is finally building a memorial at the site of the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast Europe.
Three buildings at Staro Sajmiste [The Old Trade Fair], which was once a German concentration camp, are to be refurbished in 2013 and converted into a space for exhibitions, lectures and conferences on the WWII Holocaust.
The Central Tower and the Italian and Czechoslovak pavilions will be restored to form part of a memorial dedicated to the thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma killed here during the war.
“This site must be saved from oblivion – that is a human and moral obligation for us all,” Zeljko Ozegovic, president of Belgrade’s commission for the refurbishment of Staro Sajmiste, said.
Staro Sajmiste was built in 1937 as a Trade Fair and consisted of a Central Tower and five pavilions – Italian, Czechoslovak, Romanian, Hungarian and a pavilion for the Dutch company Phillips.
After the German invasion of 1941, the Trade Fair was transformed into the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast 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”, or “free of Jews”, one of the first nations in Europe to receive this grim designation.
By then about 80 per cent of the pre-war Jewish population of Serbia of about 33,000 had been eliminated.
After May 1942, by which time most Jews had been killed or had fled, the camp 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 48,000 people had been killed at the camp, while about 100,000 people were imprisoned there.
Today the old camp barracks and other buildings function as homes for a sporting club and a couple of restaurants.
After decades of neglect, restoration of the site will start with the restoration of the Central Tower.
“The Tower should be the place where we remember the victims,” Aleksandra Fulgosi, architect from the Institute for Cultural Heritage Preservation, which is in charge of refurbishment, told daily newspaper Politika.
“It should also educate people, as young people need to know what happened here during the war,” he said. “It should also be the place where we document and present preserved materials – videos, stories, photographs.”
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Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…