By Liam Hoare
By the banks of the River Sava that flows through Belgrade, near the site of the Staro Sajmište concentration camp, there stands a Holocaust memorial whose inscription reads in part:
This is the place where the Nazi concentration camp at the old fairground used to be during the occupation of Yugoslavia between 1941 and 1944. War crimes and genocide against one hundred thousand patriots, members of the Yugoslav national liberation movement, children, women and elderly, were committed here. … The victims were mostly Serbs, Jews and Roma. This memorial is dedicated to all of them. It is also dedicated to the victims of the notorious Ustaše concentration camp of Jasenovac, victims of the Hungarian occupation who were washed ashore in Belgrade, as well as the heroic resistance to the Nazi terror and all Yugoslav citizens, victims of genocide.
Established in April 1995 by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević at the height of its fascistic war of annexation and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, this dedication is indicative of how the Holocaust is remembered in Serbia. The essential Judaic centrality of the Holocaust has been lost here – Jews are but one victimized group, secondary to Serbs and a part of a wider campaign carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators in Croatia and Hungary against the ‘Yugoslav national liberation movement’ and ‘the heroic resistance to the Nazi terror.’
“The narrative in Serbia is that we were an anti-Nazi country, which in part is right. But, we had a Nazi-Serbian government in Belgrade and concentration camps, but children don’t really learn about that,” Sonja Viličić told me, whose organization Haver Srjiba is involved in expanding Holocaust education in the Serbian school system. In Serbian textbooks, “Jews are mentioned but not as the focal point of the Nazi regime” and teachers are unlikely to have the tools to cut through the established narrative to give students a fuller, truer picture of Serbian history during the Holocaust, which is far more difficult and complicated than the above inscription would have it.
What is not mentioned, as Viličić pointed out, is that after the conquest and deconstruction of Yugoslavia by the Axis powers in April 1941, Serbia was reduced to a rump state called the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia, which included Belgrade. In this area, the Wehrmacht had military control but in August 1941 established the Serb puppet Government of National Salvation as the administration body in the territory. The Serbian authorities “do not accept the fact that, in Belgrade, we had a Nazi-Serbian government,” Viličić said. Staro Sajmište was established in December 1941 and Serbia was declared Judenfrei by August 1942.
Serbian schoolchildren are far more likely to know about the Jasenovac concentration camp, established by the fascist Ustaše movement within the puppet Independent State of Croatia in August 1941, than Staro Sajmište. Present estimates published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum show that between 77,000 and 99,000 people were put to death in Jasenovac between 1941 and 1945, around half of whom were Serb victims of Croatian fascists. (The Ustaše murdered between 320,000 and 340,000 Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia during the war, while more than 30,000 Croatian Jews were killed either in Croatia or at Auschwitz-Birkenau.)
The Independent State of Croatia was a fascist state, the Ustaše was a fascist movement, and the Serbs were victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide during the Second World War – that much is evident and it must be remembered. The emphasis on Jasenovac, however, serves an ulterior purpose. In electing to emphasize Serbian suffering at Croatian hands over Jewish and Roma suffering in Serbia, the Serbian government has been attempting to construct a national identity that places victimhood at the heart of the Serbian narrative, all the while inflating Serb identity by negating those of its neighbors, in this case Croatia.
How the Holocaust is remembered in Serbia, then, is essentially immature, and caught up in the complicated legacy of occupation, collaboration, and resistance in the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War, as well as the unresolved national conflicts left over from wars of the 1990s. It eschews complexity – the idea that Serbia was both a victim of and collaborator in the Holocaust – for the simpler notion that the Serbs were but causalities of fascism, ultra-nationalism, and ethnic hatred.
This elemental and nationalistic understanding of the Holocaust in Serbia is reflected in the treatment of their Holocaust memorials. Promises upon promises have been made by the Serbian government to turn Staro Sajmište into a memorial site, but nothing has ever come of them bar the one plaque on the fairgrounds and the aforementioned monument on the riverside. Only “Visit to Staro Sajmište. Measures and criteria of memory” – a project of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southeast Europe and the Forum for Applied History – keep the history of the site present via an online multimedia representation.
“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,” Ruben Fuks, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, has previously said.
Worse still is the fate of the concentration camp at Topovske Šupe, also in Belgrade. Its history is less well known even than that of Staro Sajmište, but between August and December 1941 4,300 inmates of the camp – opened on the site of a former military barracks – perished there, primarily Jewish and Roma men. A plaque has been installed adjacent to the site, but the main buildings are neglected and dilapidated. Some have been repurposed by light industrial or commercial enterprises.
Topovske Šupe has fallen out of memory to such an extent that, in 2013, it was even purposed that the buildings on the site be demolished to make way for a €160 million mega mall – the biggest in the Balkans, no less. It even turned out that an Israeli architectural firm was behind the project, denying that they could be accused of being “insensitive to anything relating to the Holocaust” in spite of their involvement.” As of October 2015, no work had been done on the site and it seems as if the project has been shelved after protests from the Jewish community of Belgrade.
“It’s a disgrace. It’s a location that’s very unknown to the general public,” Miodrag Rajevic, Secretary of the Jewish Community of Belgrade, told me. When the Jewish community recently held a commemoration at Topovske Šupe, no one from city or state government came to pay their respects.
Photos from Topovske Šupe