Discussion Papers Series
The Semlin Judenlager in Belgrade: a contested memory
by Jovan Byford, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Open University, UK
Between 1941 and 1944, approximately 20,000 people perished in the Semlin concentration camp in Belgrade, Serbia. Established by Nazi Germany in December 1941, in the pavilions of what before the occupation were the Belgrade Fairgrounds, Semlin (also known by its Serbian name Sajmište) was the largest concentration camp on Serbian territory and one of the first Nazi camps in Europe created specifically for the mass internment of Jews. Between December 1941 and March 1942, approximately 7,000 Jewish women, children and the elderly - almost half of the total Jewish population of the part of Serbia which was under direct German occupation - were brought to what at the time was known as the Semlin Judenlager: the camp for Jews.
The incarceration of Jews at Semlin marked the beginning of the second phase of the destruction of Serbia’s Jews. The first phase, which lasted between July and November 1941, involved the murder of between five and six thousand Jewish men, who were shot as part of retaliatory executions carried out by the German army - the Wehrmacht - in response to acts of insurgency and sabotage. Jews interned at Semlin were members of their families whose age, gender or physical condition precluded them from being used as hostages in reprisal shootings. Ultimately however, they suffered the same fate. In just six weeks, in April and May 1942, the Jewish inmates at Semlin were systematically murdered by the use of a mobile gas van which had been dispatched to Belgrade from Berlin especially of that purpose.
Shortly after the gas van completed its deadly mission, Serbia was declared ‘Judenrein’ – cleansed of Jews – and Semlin became an Anhaltelager, a temporary detention camp for political prisoners, captured partisans and forced labourers. Of the 32,000 inmates of the Anhaltelager (most of whom were Serbs), around a third perished at the camp, mostly from starvation, exposure, or disease, or were murdered by the guards and members of the camp administration. The others were transported to labour camps throughout the Third Reich, mostly in Germany and Nazi-occupied Norway. (1)
In the context of the Holocaust’s six million victims, the destruction of 7,000 Serbian Jews might seem like a minor episode, a local tragedy of relatively little broader consequence. And yet, the fate of Jews who perished in the Semlin Judenlager has attracted significant interest from historians of the Holocaust, who have described the killings with the gas van in the spring of 1942 as an important landmark in the escalation of the Nazi policy towards Jews. One of the preeminent historians of the Holocaust, Christopher Browning, suggests that ‘the development of the gas van and its use to murder the Semlin Jews presaged the efficiency and routinized detachment of the death camps’. (2) In his view, the killing at Semlin was ‘the consummation, in Serbia of a wider plan to destroy European Jews’ which later culminated in the mass killings in Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. (3)
In spite of its importance as a place of the Holocaust, for much of the post-war period the tragic history of the Semlin camp occupied a marginal place in Yugoslav/Serbian public memory. Both under communism and since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, relevant institutions failed to appropriately honor its victims or preserve the memory of their suffering. Today, almost seventy years after the liberation of Belgrade, the site where the camp was located, locally known by the name Staro Sajmište – the Old Fairgrounds - stands practically in ruins. (4) The former camp complex, located less than a mile from downtown Belgrade, is a derelict and impoverished settlement, inhabited by a few hundred families who maintain the dilapidated buildings and unpaved paths, often at their own expense. Scattered among the residential properties are several artists’ ateliers (remnants of an artists’ colony that existed there in the 1950s), but also car repair shops, stores, warehouses and workshops – as well as a high school, tourist agency, bookshop, restaurant, even a small stage which for the past ten years has served as a venue for rock concerts, boxing matches, theatre plays and dances. Residents of Belgrade remain largely unaware that amid the vegetation on the left bank of the River Sava, right next to the busy Branko’s Bridge, are the remnants of a Nazi concentration camp. The only reminder that Sajmište represents a place of remembrance are two largely forgotten and partially damaged memorials, one form the 1980s and another from the 1990s, which survive as mementos of inadequate attempts at memorialization in previous decades.
In a recently published book entitled Staro Sajmište: A Site Remembered, Forgotten, Contested I explore in detail the post-war history of the site of the Semlin Judenlager and seek to uncover the roots of this longstanding neglect. (5) In the book, I approach the ‘Sajmište question’ from two distinct, but equally important angles. The first relates to the site as a physical space. Sajmište comprises the area of some 0.2 km2 of land on the left bank of the River Sava. Before the Second World War, as well as during the period under Nazi occupation, the site was on the periphery of the capital city, enclosed on one side by the river and the others by inhospitable marshlands which separated Belgrade and the nearby town of Zemun. After the war, with the westward expansion of the city and the construction of what is today New Belgrade, Sajmište found itself in the very centre of the emerging metropolis, marking the space that connects the old and the new part. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that since 1945 Sajmište has attracted the interest from experts in the fields of architecture and urban planning, as well as from city and state officials who viewed its future mainly in terms of the urban and economic development of Belgrade. In fact most plans for the site’s development since 1945 sought to incorporate it into the urban matrix of the capital city, largely ignoring its tragic history. Sajmište was, and still is, widely regarded as a piece of land that is simply too valuable to be ‘just’ a memorial museum, or a heritage site.
On the other hand, in the 1960s Sajmište came to be recognized as an important symbolic space and place of historical significance. Since then, its tragic fate has been the subject of official, institutionalized, albeit not always particularly widespread or public remembrance. The post-war history of Sajmište was largely determined by the interplay of those two perspectives – i.e. by the clashes, but also efforts to find a compromise between those who were keen to commemorate the site’s tragic history, and those who viewed the fate of Sajmište solely in the context of Belgrade’s urban development.
The fate of Sajmište after 1945 was made more complicated by the fact that even among those who sought to transform this space into a memorial complex, there were (and still are) differences of opinion about what it is that Sajmište symbolizes. Put differently, for much of the post-war era, Sajmište was a contested space not only in terms of whether or not it should be a memorial site, but also in terms of what is memory-worthy about its past. Only for the local Jewish community, which has traditionally had little say over the site’s future, has Sajmište always been, first and foremost, a place of the Holocaust. Others, however, did not see it this way. During the communist period, like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Jewish victims of the Holocaust were subsumed under the category of ‘victims of fascism’, and remembered only in the context of the broader memorialisation of the People’s Liberation War, anti-fascist resistance and, in the case of Yugoslavia, the Socialist Revolution which coincided with the Second World War. In commemorative ceremonies held at Sajmište, as well as in the official historiography of the camp, motifs of ‘resistance’, ‘Yugoslav unity’, ‘heroism’ and ‘revolution’ dominated the proceedings, at the expense of the Holocaust. The inscription on the first memorial plaque unveiled at Sajmište in 1974 mentioned ‘forty thousand people from all parts of our country’, who were ‘brutally tortured and killed’ there. Thus, the suffering of Jews was interpreted as no more than a manifestation of the broader ‘reign of terror’ instituted by the Nazis against the Yugoslav civilian population. The memorial made no reference to the Semlin Judenlager, or the fact that Jews were the only group of interns of this camp (and the only community in Nazi-occupied Serbia) who were the object of systematic and complete destruction. An identical inscription appears on a second memorial, erected at Sajmište in 1984, which still exists.
The onset of post-communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought along a new, and very different, interpretation of the history of Sajmište. The late 1980s were a time when the cult of ‘the fallen hero of the People’s Liberation War’, dominant during the communist era, gave way to a new interpretation of the Second World War. At its core was the story of the Serbs’ collective martyrdom in the Independent State of Croatia between 1941 and 1945. In particular, the gaze of Serbian historians, politicians, church leaders and the media became fixated on crimes which the Croatian Ustashe units committed against Serbs, Jews and Roma at the concentration camp Jasenovac. (6) As a place of, above all, Serbian suffering Jasenovac quickly became the focal point of national memory for the Serbs. Regrettably, in the context of the Yugoslav wars of succession, it also became the object of instrumentalisation and was transformed into a source of Serbian nationalist mobilization. The broader ideological shift in the remembrance of the Second World War directly affected the interpretation of Sajmište. In re-writing the history of the Semlin camp, the Serbian nationalist elite accentuated the tentative links between this camp and Jasenovac, and in doing so transformed Sajmište into a place for commemorating not the Holocaust in Serbia, but Serbian suffering in the Independent State of Croatia. Annual commemorations held at Sajmište in the 1990s, in front of the large ‘monument to the victims of genocide’ erected there in 1995, often completely ignored the history of the camp that once stood there, or the fate of Serbia’s Jewish community. Instead, the site was used as a memorial ‘outpost’ for Jasenovac, a camp located some 300km to the west, in Croatia.
Over the years, the two very different interpretations of Sajmište– one drawing on the traditions of the cult of the People’s Liberation War and the other on the ideology promoted in the late 1980s and the early 1990s by Serbian nationalists – have generated a rich pool of motifs, images and symbols, which persist to the present day and pervade on-going debates about the future of Sajmište as a usable memorial space. Their continuing presence and resilience is important because what they have in common is the failure to adequately recognise the importance of Sajmište specifically as a place of the Holocaust. The fact that in Serbia today the Holocaust is, for the most part, not treated as a distinct object of memory and a unique case of human suffering, is a legacy of the way in which events at Semlin were remembered both during communism and in the post-communist period.
In recent years, however, another interpretation of Sajmište has acquired wider currency in public discourse in Serbia. Its emphasis is not on the war-time history of Sajmište, but on its function before 1941. The Belgrade Fairgrounds, whose pavilions were converted into a concentration camp in 1941, are today often hailed as a jewel of pre-war Yugoslav architecture and a symbol of the entrepreneurial spirit of Belgrade’s business elite of that era. This aspect of Sajmište’s past is presented as equally important as its tragic war-time history, if not more so. Thus, a number of recent initiatives regarding the future of Sajmište, including those endorsed by the city council or by professional bodies such as the Belgrade Institute of Urbanism or the city’s Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, have emphasized Sajmište’s ‘multi-layered’ history, and argued that it can never be just a memorial to the victims of the concentration camp that once stood there. Instead, they appealed for Sajmište to be returned, at least in part, to its original, ‘authentic’ function, as a place for trade fairs, cultural events, commercial activities and mass entertainment. According to these proposals, one or two of the smaller buildings would house a museum devoted to the Semlin camp and the Holocaust, while the rest of Sajmište would be freed up for uses that have little to do with Holocaust memorialization.
Few in Serbia have raised their voice against the notion that the destruction of Jews at Semlin, or the suffering of any of the camp’s 20,000 victims, represents just one of several equally memory-worthy aspects of Sajmište. In this context, it is worth recalling that Semlin is not the only concentration camp with a pre-war history. The Dachau camp in Germany, for example, was built in a former munitions factory. Before it was converted into a detention camp for Jews, the Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste, Italy, was a rice-husking facility. Part of the Jasenovac camp in Croatia was located in the workshops and factories which before 1941 belonged to the wealthy local businessman Ozren Bačić. And yet, it is inconceivable that anyone would advocate that memorials in Dachau, Trieste or Jasenovac should be devoted in equal measure to the different ‘phases’ in the history of these sites, or that they should be returned, at least partially, to their original, pre-war function. Any such suggestion would be rightly regarded as an unacceptable attempt to erase the traces of a tragic past, and as an insult to victims. Regardless of what went on at the sites of concentration camps in Europe before the rise of Nazism or the onset of German occupation of Europe, from the moment the first victims were brought there, there has only been one relevant object of memory.
Clearly, the same criteria do not seem to apply to Sajmište. This is, above all, because of its central, ‘exclusive’ location, on the bank of the River Sava, which is why Sajmište was never regarded by the authorities as a unique heritage site, which ought to be preserved in line with the norms which govern the conservation and memorialization of authentic sites of Nazi concentration camps. Therefore, despite their pretentions to be fresh, innovative and original, the recent initiatives promising to ‘renew’, ‘renovate’ or ‘gentrify’ Sajmište and transform it into a ‘functional space’, are just a continuation of a well-entrenched tradition of neglect.
Staro Sajmište in Belgrade deserves to be transformed into a proper memorial, one that would provide a continuous and powerful reminder of the gap in the life of the Serbian capital left behind by the near complete destruction of its Jewish community. Belgrade and Serbia owe this memorial also to the thousands of other non-Jewish victims who were killed in Semlin between 1941 and 1944. However, before this long-overdue objective can be realized, some deeply entrenched assumptions (one might even say illusions) about what Sajmište is or what it should be will need to be revisited and reassessed. If not, mistakes from the past will be repeated, the Holocaust will continue to linger on the margins of Serbian public memory, while its victims will remain unrecognized as worthy of remembrance and respect.
(4) In this paper the word ‘Semlin’ will be reserved for the Nazi concentration camp, while the Serbian term ‘Sajmište’ or ‘Staro Sajmište’ will be used to refer to the site where the camp used to be located.
- What happened in the Semlin Concentration Camp in April and May 1942 and why was this of particular significance in Holocaust history?
- Why do you think there were and are different opinions about what Semlin symbolizes, taking into consideration the history of the region?
- Do you agree with Jovan Byford that it is important to transform places like Semlin into a Holocaust memorial site? Why?
- Do you think a compromise agreement could or should be made for the preservation of the site? Why?
- How would you approach preserving the site while taking into consideration the value of the land, its location, and historical significance?
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.