In Belgrade, a struggle to excavate an urban Nazi camp

Some 7,000 Jews and thousands of Serbs were murdered at Staro Sajmiste but site’s location makes it prime real estate, complicating plans for a memorial and museum

An aerial picture taken on September 3, 2019 shows the location of a former Nazi camp, known as 'Staro Sajmiste' in Belgrade, used as a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Serbia of the World War II. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP)
An aerial picture taken on September 3, 2019 shows the location of a former Nazi camp, known as 'Staro Sajmiste' in Belgrade, used as a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Serbia of the World War II. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AFP) — Moments after she was born in a wartime Nazi concentration camp in Belgrade, Estera Bajer was furtively smuggled out in a bag.

Nearly eight decades on, she has one wish: to live to see a memorial built at the site where her mother and some 7,000 other Jewish women, children and elderly people were taken to their deaths during the Holocaust.

“So the next generations can see and know what happened there,” says the petite, bright-eyed 77-year-old, at her apartment in Belgrade’s suburbs.

The former camp, known as Staro Sajmiste, sits on prime real estate in the Serbian capital, flanking the left bank of the Sava river across from the city’s historic heart.

A children’s playground at the location of a former Nazi camp during World War II, known as ‘Staro Sajmiste’ in Belgrade, August 20, 201. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP)

Yet few visitors — or locals — would know it exists.

Its central tower is crumbling, while the lawn beneath it is strewn with children’s seesaws and washing lines.

Surrounding buildings have been converted into homes and businesses, including a restaurant in what was the morgue.

The camp’s former hospital, restored by a local businessman who bought the building from the government in the 1980s, has hosted a nightclub, gym and restaurant over the years.

Owner Miodrag Krsmanovic opened a kindergarten last year too, in what, he told AFP, he hoped was a “new beginning for this entire area.”

But he shuttered it a few months ago after it was decried in the local media as disrespectful to the dead.

The only sign that this run-down corner of the city was the site of mass internment and death — initially of Jews and Roma, and later of thousands of mainly Serb prisoners — is a small plaque.

A larger monument was erected in 1995 further out on the river bank.

“You’d never know it was once a concentration camp,” laments Bajer.

Jews, Serbs, Roma

Jovan Byford, an historian based in Britain, said he had long been “troubled” by the site’s neglect, adding that the reasons behind it have changed with the times.

The buildings, which as well as the central tower comprise a circle of separate pavilions, were first built as a fairground in 1937.

Four years later, Nazi occupiers seized the infrastructure as a place to lock up Jewish women and children.

They had already executed nearly all of Serbia’s Jewish men, mostly by firing squad at another location.

Serbian businessman Miodrag Krsmanovic, owner of the building of the camp’s former hospital of a former Nazi camp, known as ‘Staro Sajmiste’ walks in his gymnasium in Belgrade, on August 20, 2019. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP)

In spring 1942, after around several hundred Roma were also interned, a special gas van was brought from Germany to empty the camp.

It made around 65 trips from the site through downtown Belgrade to a mass grave outside the city, killing its occupants on the way with an exhaust pipe that had been diverted inside.

By August, Serbia was declared free of Jews.

Ninety percent of the Jewish population — which numbered 16,000 in what was Serbia at that time, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center — had been murdered.

However the suffering on the left riverbank continued.

Until the end of World War II, the site remained a concentration camp for more than 30,000 mostly Serb political prisoners, resistance fighters and forced laborers — a third of whom died from torture and disease.

Buried histories

When the new communist Yugoslavia rose after the war, there was a push to focus on the future and sweep troublesome divisions under the rug.

The camp’s buildings became dorms for youth brigades, who traveled from across Yugoslavia to build up that side of the river, known today as New Belgrade.

In the 1950s, artists set up studios there.

Serbian citizen Ester Bajer, who was born in a former Nazi camp, known as ‘Staro Sajmiste’ poses in her house in Belgrade, on August 23, 2019. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP)

“Everybody was in that frame (of mind): that we are building something new, something better, and what happened in history was bad and let’s try to forget,” says Robert Sabados, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia.

Bajer, who spent her first three years in an orphanage before being adopted by non-Jewish relatives after the war, learned about her family’s history as she grew older.

But it was a topic only discussed at home.

“Nobody was talking about (what happened there) during the former Yugoslavia,” she says, of Staro Sajmiste.

After communism collapsed and Yugoslavia was riven by wars in the 1990s, buried histories like that of Staro Sajmiste surged back to the surface.

Since then, several attempts to build a museum at the site have been hampered by a lack of political will and funds and have not advanced for over a decade.

Last month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic acknowledged there had been “mistakes… in regard to the memorial center” and promised “faster progress.”

The government says it is drafting a law for the museum plans.


Byford, who sat on a former committee to design a memorial, says authorities have long been resistant to sacrificing a precious riverside property to non-commercial purposes.

“If someone made a decision to build a shopping center there, they would relocate people very quickly,” he said.

People pass by the central tower at the location of a former Nazi camp during World War II, known as ‘Staro Sajmiste’ in Belgrade, September 8, 2019. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP)

Further complicating the issue are competing visions of who the memorial should remember.

In recent decades, Serb nationalists have tried to “appropriate” the site as a symbol of the broader persecution of Serbs during WWII, particularly at the hands of Croatia’s Nazi puppet state, says Byford.

As a result, the Jewish community wants full autonomy to design parts of the museum focusing on Jews.

“We don’t want it politicized,” said Sabados.

But he added that it was in all Serbs’ interests to excavate their history.

A museum, he said, would be “a warning for everyone; that it’s possible that this can happen to anyone.”

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