The fate of Staro Sajmište is a manifestation of the complicated legacy of occupation, collaboration, and resistance in the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War and the Holocaust.
By Liam Hoare
On December 8, 1941, the Gestapo established a concentration camp on the exhibition grounds (sajmište) in Belgrade. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia had been occupied by Nazi Germany in April of that year and the capital broken into pieces between the fascist puppet Independent State of Croatia and German military administration in Serbia. Between December 1941 and May 1942, Staro Sajmište was a point of internment and death for thousands of Serbian Jews and Roma, executed in mobile gas chambers. Serbia was declared Judenfrei by August 1942. Staro Sajmište ceased operations in July 1944.
After the Second World War, during the reconstruction of Yugoslavia along socialist lines, Staro Sajmište became not a place of commemoration and reverence but emergency housing for low-income individuals and families, and a space for small businesses and artists’ studios. While successive Serbian governments have displayed an intention to change the status quo on the site, it remains a neglected area of mixed use to this day with only minimal evidence of memorialization, some of which negates the essential Judaic centrality of the Holocaust.
The fate of Staro Sajmište is a manifestation of the complicated legacy of occupation, collaboration, and resistance in the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War and the Holocaust, as well as the unresolved national conflicts left over from wars of the 1990s.
Staro Sajmište is built around a central tower. During the Holocaust, the tower functioned as an administrative building where new camp inmates were registered. The possessions of murdered Jews, clothes and shoes, were stored here prior to sorting. Beginning in the 1950s, the building was given over to artists as studio space.
The Italian pavilion, now home to the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia, is located across from the main entrance to the fairgrounds. When in 1942 Staro Sajmište functioned as an extermination camp, the mobile gas van would wait at the entrance to the camp before taking its victims to their death.
The former Turkish pavilion housed a bathroom with several showers. It had a secondary function as the morgue where the dead were stored prior to their transfer to mass graves outside of the boundaries of the camp. Staro Sajmište had no crematorium. Now, there is a restaurant in the building.
What is today low-income housing was intended to be the offices of a construction firm tasked with building the new districts of Belgrade that today surround the camp.
Behind these housing units are makeshift constructions adjunct to the barracks built after the Second World War on the site of the former Yugoslav pavilion. During the Holocaust, the wives and children of murdered Roma were housed in said pavilion.
Later, on the banks of the river Sava, this monument – the symbol of the broken flower – was put up in 1995 (on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day) by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević at the height of its war of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The monument’s inscription contains one specific reference to Jewish suffering, incorporated into a narrative emphasizing Hungarian and Croatian occupation and Serb resistance.