Staro Sajmište: Belgrade's forgotten concentration camp

08/02/2013

Serbian Parliamentary Speaker Nebojša Stefanović has renewed the government's pledge to build a memorial complex on the site.

By Harriet Salem for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 08/02/13

photo

Staro Sajmište, a former concentration camp in Belgrade, is today used as housing for about 2,500 low-income residents. [Harriet Salem/SETimes]

Beneath Brankova Bridge on the edge of Belgrade centre, an ungainly set of concrete buildings cluster around a panoptical tower. Chickens strut between snow-covered stacks of wood, smoke rises from tin roofs, children laugh and play unaware of the site's sinister past.

The complex, known as Staro Sajmište, became the largest concentration camp in Southeastern Europe after the Nazis, supported by the Croat Ustaša, occupied Serbia in 1941. It was there that 7,000 Jews -- more than half of Serbia's Jewish population -- were interned before being exterminated in mobile gas vans in early 1942.

Despite its historical significance as part of the Holocaust, there is no memorial or museum at Sajmište. Since the 1950s the site has been used as state-provided accommodation for some of Belgrade's poorest residents. Today, around 2,500 people live in the former concentration camp.

At this year's Holocaust Memorial Day service held on January 27th, Serbian Parliamentary Speaker Nebojša Stefanović renewed the government's pledge to build a memorial complex on the site. Previous campaigns by the Jewish community and leading Serbian media outlet B92 for the site to be properly remembered have been unsuccessful.

Ruben Fuks, president of Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, said he has been in contact with the ministry of culture and local politicians, but no firm agreements had been reached.

"We understand that the way that the site has developed so far is a consequence of history and necessity," Fuks told SETimes. "We want a proper memorial, but the current situation is a reflection of the poor economic state of the country. Living people have to take some priority over memorials. It is not an issue of malevolence."

Underpinning Sajmiste's lack of memorialisation is its complex and multifaceted past. Built in the 1930s as a trade fair facility in the centre of an emerging metropolis, the land is in a highly lucrative location.

"Since 1945, most plans for development have sought to incorporate it into the urban matrix of the capital city, largely ignoring its tragic history," Jovan Byford, a historian who has conducted research on Sajmište, told SETimes. "Sajmište was, and still is, widely regarded as just too valuable to be 'just' a memorial museum, or a heritage site."

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The site was used as a labour camp for more than 30,000 Serbian political prisoners between May 1942 and July 1944. More than 10,000 were murdered or died due to exposure, starvation or diseases. In both the Tito and Milosevic eras it was these Serb victims that assumed primary importance in the politicised narrative of Sajmište.

"This image of Sajmište persists today, pervading ongoing debates about Sajmište's future as a memorial space," Byford said. "Such narratives fail to adequately recognise the importance of Sajmište specifically as a place of Holocaust."

Fuks said the genocide of Serbs and the Jewish Holocaust shouldn't be seen as competing narratives.

"Alongside a specific memorialisation of the Jewish Holocaust there should also be commemoration of Roma and Serb victims," Fuks said. "The Serbs were also systematically subject to a pogrom by occupying German and Croat forces, why should they not also have a memorial?"

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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