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NO 157-158

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Helsinki Charter No. 157-158

November - December 2011


Transitional Justice


By Slobodanka Ast

What one finds today at the location now called Staro Sajmiste is the biggest disco club in the Balkans and in Jajinci people are barbecuing, playing football.Two big concentration camps in WWII justify historian Nikola Samardzic thesis that no where else are fighters against fascism and its victims so much humiliated and insulted, and monuments to anti-fascists smashed so barbarously and revengefully. This second killing of victims and vandalism of some 300 monuments and plaques testify of our barbarian attitude towards human suffering, the heroic struggle against fascism and towards our own history as well. Few raise their voice against this wave of barbarianism and revision of WWII.

Some 20,000 people were killed in the Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade from 1941 till 1944. In the pavilions of Sajmiste /Fair/, on the left bank of the Sava River aggressors have established concentration camp Judenlager Semlin, the biggest in Serbia. It was among first interment camps in Europe for Jews. And it was the only camp with a name that clearly indicated it. They started taking Jews to it as early as on December 8, 1941. The "bookkeeping of death" shows that till the spring of 1942, in six weeks only, 7,000 Jews, mostly women, children and the old have been gassed in a special truck. Day in day out, this windowless truck was cruising downtown Belgrade taking Jews in "unknown direction."

German authorities proudly reported to Berlin that Serbia was "Judenfrein"- cleansed of Jews - and that "the Jewish question" was solved there. Emanuel Schaeffer, head of security, said, "Belgrade is the only metropolis in Europe that cleansed of Jews."

On November 1, 1944, the Politika daily published a story headlined "Out of 12,000 Belgrade Jews, 11,000 Are Six Feet under."

Little is known about these chapters of our history. They are skipped over and hushed up. Not even "new" and revised history textbooks touch on Holocaust.

For decades Belgrade and Belgraders seemed almost disinterested in Staro /Old/ Sajmiste, a place of unprecedented suffering. During the war they kept their eyes wide shut to the concentration camp in the outskirts of the city and to the special truck cruising the streets on daily basis.Prisoners who survived remember seeing Belgraders strolling in the Kalemegdan Park.

Sajmiste was a concentration camp "humiliating not only by its inhumanity but also total exposure to Belgrade watching it silently from across the river." (D. Albahari, "Goetz and Mayer.")

VICTIMS AND FIGURES: The book "Staro Sajmiste: The Place of Remembrance, Forgetfulness and Dispute" by Jovan Byford, born Belgrader and internationally renown social psychologist, is a major contribution to the culture of remembrance and coping with the past in these areas. (Published by Belgrade Center for Human Rights, 2011)

Dr. Byford's book is a precious research work, meticulous study and a heedful writing. It provides valuable information about the pre-war Sajmiste and the horrible years of WWII but also about the post-war manipulation and marginalization, overt or covert.

Once "the Jewish question was finally solved in Serbia," Sajmiste was turned into an Anhaltelager, a concentration camp for captured partisans, political prisoners and forced laborers. From the summer of 1942 till its closure in July 1944 some 32,000 people were imprisoned there, mostly Serbs. Byford gives us a little known fact about one-third of prisoners founding their death in the camp itself: they either died of hunger or some illness or were killed by guards and camp administrators. Just a small number of them were transported to concentration camps throughout the Third Reich, usually to Germany or Norway.

In its first reports the State Commission for the Crimes Committed by Occupiers and their Collaborators concluded that some 100,000 persons had been imprisoned in Sajmiste and as many as 50,000 killed. It turned out later on that these figures were rather overblown: the actual "balance" was by two times smaller.

After liberation, in 1947, authorities adopted a five-year construction plan for New Belgrade. And then Sajmiste that had survived the Allied bombing in 1944 became headquarters of sorts: here they organized party courses and discussions, conferences of the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia, night schools, music or drama performances and even concerts by the Radio Belgrade Symphony Orchestra.

When youth brigade moved out, Sajmiste accommodated the Directorate of the Construction of New Belgrade. But new tenants moved in as well. In 1952 the city of Belgrade allocated several pavilions to the Association of Painters of Serbia. So the place of once the biggest concentration camp became, as some put it, "a cure for Belgrade's open wounds." In their memoirs some authors even called it "Belgrade's Montmartre" or spoke about its "gypsy-like bohemianism."

Till 1960s no monuments in the places of once Nazi or Ustashi concentration camps were built. The priority was given to monuments to partisans killed in battlefield. Concentration camps seemed not to fit into the "big narration about the glorious struggle for liberation and the glorious partisan fight," Byford quotes historian Kaike Karge.

Hence, the monuments erected in Bezanija and Sajmiste touch not on the Jews killed there.

"Despite the place it should have taken in collective memory as the location of unprecedented suffering and hardship, the Sajmiste concentration camp was marginalized in the post-war period," says Dr. Jovan Byford, senior lecturer at the Open University, Great Britain.

CRUCIAL DISPUTE: Dr. Byford's book is not only a finely written product of studious research on Staro Sajmiste but also on a larger social context. It speaks of many ideological delusions, the strategy for selective and functional remembrance, vacillations and responsibility of domestic historiography, decades-long marginalization of Holocaust and the latest revision of history.

Throughout the post-war period Sajmiste has been the topic of a crucial dispute: should it be (only) a place of remembrance and what should be worthy of remembrance, says Dr. Byford.

In the aftermath of WWII authorities treated Sajmiste as a symbol of "Belgrade's revolutionary past," resistance to fascism and hardship of Yugoslav peoples. The fact that it was a place of Holocaust was hushed up. During Milosevic's "years of denouement" Serbia's nationalistic elites were instrumentalizing and misusing Sajmiste routinely: the history of the concentration camp was assimilated promptly into the growing nationalistic discourse, dominated by Jasenovac and allegations of "genocidal" Croats. Sajmiste was picked up as an ideal location to mark the suffering of Serbs, Jews and Roma in the Ustashi NDH /Independent State of Croatia/, almost a branch of Jasenovac or "a part of the Jasenovac concentration camp system." Addressing the book's launch historian Olga Manojlovic-Pintar drew the attention to the fact that the Sajmiste concentration camp was separated from the NDH territory under a special decree.

Loudest of all in the attempt to stamp Sajmiste as a mark of Croats' disgrace, Dr. Milan Bulajic suggested that a museum weirdly named "Museum of the Death" and dedicated to the victims of Ustashi terror in the first place should be constructed on the spot. Turning a blind eye to the real history of Sajmiste, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of Serb-Jewish Friendship sided up with him. Slobodan Milosevic himself was in favor of the idea.

The fact that Jews were not only first victims but also the only category of prisoners in the concentration camp (and the only community in the occupied Serbia) that were planningly and systematically killed has never been adequately recognized. Awareness about Holocaust as a specific historical phenomenon and unique case of human suffering that deserves attention and respect has been non-existent, underlines Dr. Byford.

Over the debates on Sajmiste - an utterly neglected and devastated spot in Belgrade today - the voices accentuating its pre-war history are at present louder and louder. For them, Sajmiste and its pavilions above all stand for "monuments of the pre-war constructivism," "pearls of Yugoslav architecture of 1930s" and "symbols of entrepreneurship of Belgrade's and Yugoslav elites of the era." These debates completely miss an adequate recognition of a political context, says Dr. Byford. This is surely not unintentional: there is a new key to the interpretation of history now. Namely, Sajmiste was not only a trading spot, a place one could exhibit products of entrepreneurship. Sajmiste was also in the service of politics: in mid-1930s, at the time of Stojadinovic's premiership, Yugoslavia was more and more oriented towards Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The growing influence of the Third Reich and Italy was visible in Sajmiste too. The biggest pavilions assigned to these to states exhibited their economic domination and promoted Nazi and fascist regimes, says Dr. Byford.

Old photos show Nazi flags outside the German pavilion and its interior decorated with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. After Germany's aggression against Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Czech pavilion was renamed the Pavilion of Czech-Moravian Protectorate. The general public did not react to that.

FROM THE MEMORIAL RIVERSIDE TO MANHATTAN: Shilly-shallies were many. Some suggested that the 300-meter-long riverside promenade should be proclaimed "a memory promenade," a "memento of heroic days of progressive humankind's struggle against fascism." "A memory promenade" was then clean forgotten being replaced by the idea about an opera house erected on the spot! The media were brimming over with a cacophony of views by architects, artists, urban planners and, of course, politicians. They expounded about some Sava amphitheater, a Third Millennium Project, "a new Manhattan," Serb Yad Vashem, the most attractive spot of the city.Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences gave the tone to these deliberations.

The 1992 detailed Belgrade city plan defines Sajmiste as "a memorial," but also elaborates what buildings should be restored and "adjusted to their future use" - in other words, a section of this place of suffering would be a spot for trade, tourism, business and other commercial events. The detailed city plan evidently paved the way to commercialization of Sajmiste, says Dr. Byford.

There were many faces to this marginalization of Holocaust at Sajmiste. For instance, some officials have listed all victims of Sajmiste in their speeches: freedom fighters, urban guerilla, patriots, innocent victims, all peoples and nationalities, including Albanians. But they never touched on Jews.

A MERRY PARTY: Bids on restoration of Sajmiste continued in late 1990s and after the October 2000 change of the regime. On behalf of his party, Milutin Mrkonjic, enthusiastic as ever, was advocating strongly a "Europolis," a new center of the city with splendid streets and squares, business towers and buildings. What Byford notes in his book is that at the peak of the election campaign in 2008 the same Mrkonjic again pulls out the idea about "Europolis," the project he calls "the biggest chance for Belgrade's development capable of attracting 25-billion-Euro investment and securing 100,000 new jobs!"

It was only after a rock concert in the "Poseidon" club in one of Sajmiste pavilions scandalized the public in Serbia and abroad that the views emerged that Staro Sajmiste had to be marked with dignity and protected, the more so since revisionist tendencies were most visible at the time - above all, the revision of WWII and the attempt at rehabilitation of Milan Nedic and Dimitrije Ljotic. Indicatively, Jovan Byford, an English professor, is by far more sensitive to and concerned with historical remembrance than Serbia's mainstream intellectual elite that is seemingly shocked, sheds "patriotic" tears but does nothing to prevent further sacrilege of this spot of Holocaust. How else can one explain the fact that even after the said scandal people are partying until down at once concentration camp - they go there for fashion shows, dancing competitions and even box matches. Byford quotes a bizarre detail: a restaurant was opened in a pavilion that used to serve as a morgue. The public did not react to that.

While relevant officials and their work groups, but some associations also, deliberate "a memorial function" vs. "highly expensive location" of Staro Sajmiste, Byford poses a crucial question: What is it after all that can possibly be exhibited or traded with in the once concentration camp? Suppose one advocates today "profit making" from, say, Auschwitz, Dachau or Jasenovac!

Debates on Sajmiste as a part of Belgrade's urban matrix continue to this very day: every now and then some wealthy and influential entrepreneurs speak of a "splendid location" with a "memorial" but "something extra" as well. We should have our "Pompidou Center," they say. These days, during Hanukkah marked in Belgrade Synagogue, even President Tadic said that Sajmiste should be turned into a memorial center of sorts. Byford diagnoses lucidly the confusion characteristic of these debates: people probably agree today that the memory of the concentration camp should be marked but hardly on what it is that should be remembered. Should Sajmiste be a place of remembrance of the killed civilians in the occupied Serbia? Or should it be remembered as "a part of the Jasenovac system?" Or, as a symbol of Jews' and Serbs' common suffering? Or a Holocaust spot? Or a concentration camp in the territory of NDH, which, consequently, testifies that "Serbs had nothing to do with Holocaust?" Or a symbol of anti-fascist ideals and freedom-loving spirit, even of general tolerance?

Dr. Jovan Byford's book is a precious contribution to our historiography and all the planners of Staro Sajmiste reconstruction must read it carefully before they take up such historically significant enterprise.


NO 157-158

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