Concert at WWII Nazi camp sparks shame

The site where some 48,000 Jews, Serbs and Gypsies perished will host a British rock band.

serb nazi camp 224 ap (photo credit: AP)
serb nazi camp 224 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Stray dogs wander forlornly around the rundown gray brick barracks that used to house of one of the most notorious World War II Nazi death camps in the Balkans. Soon, the site where some 48,000 Jews, Serbs and Gypsies perished in the 1940s will be throbbing to the rhythms of rock music. For Serbia's small Jewish community, the weekend concert at the Sajmiste camp near the center of Belgrade is the latest indignity to befall a site they say needs to be saved from decades of neglect and deterioration. "It's like holding a wedding at a graveyard," said Aleksandar Mosic, a Jewish chairman of the camp's memorial center, ahead of the concert by British band Kosheen. Nearly all of Belgrade's 8,000 Jews were killed at Sajmiste soon after it was set up in 1941 at the site of the Belgrade Fair exhibition ground, Mosic said. Thousands of leftists and Serb nationalists also were killed at the camp. What made Sajmiste unique was its location in clear view of Belgrade's residents, on the western bank of the Sava River. The capital's downtown area is located on the eastern side of the Sava, about 200 meters from the prewar fairgrounds. Since World War II, new Belgrade has spread across the river, and developers consider the Sajmiste site prime real estate. "It was the only death camp in Europe which was so visible," said Mosic, 88, who wants to build a proper memorial to the victims of what he describes as "the forgotten concentration camp." "The intention was to intimidate the Serb population by letting them see what was going on inside the camp," he said. "For our small nation, the Sajmiste camp was as horrendous as Dachau or Sachsenhausen in Germany." Most of the inmates were murdered while being transported in "gassing trucks" - vans with their exhaust pipes attached to the sealed cabin - to mass graves on Belgrade's outskirts. Sajmiste, or Judenlager Zemlin as Germans used to call it, was eclipsed in size by Jasenovac, the biggest death camp on Yugoslav territory. About 20,000 Jews, in addition to tens of thousands of Serbs, Gypsies and Croatian anti-fascists, died in that camp run by Croatia's Nazi puppet regime, unlike Sajmiste which was directly under German command. About a million Yugoslavs died in World War II, many of them Serbs who had joined a Communist-led uprising against the German occupation. Three-quarters of Yugoslavia's prewar Jewish population of 71,000 people also perished. Many Jews, like Mosic, joined the resistance, and about 4,000 fought with the communist-led guerrillas. A dozen were proclaimed national heroes, the highest decoration in former Yugoslavia, and 14 became generals in the post-war army. Belgrade authorities said they can do nothing about the rock concerts which are now held inside a circular hall topped with a brick tower that used to be the camp's hospital, because the building has been sold to a private entrepreneur. "It is awful that such concerts are being held there, but the building was illegally sold" by the capital's previous authorities, said New Belgrade mayor Zeljko Ozegovic. "We have been appealing the legality of the purchase for years." Poseydon, the company that bought the hall, says the concerts simply make business sense. "The concerts are the most profitable events we can hold here, and this place has to live off something," said company spokesman Nenad Krsmanovic. Rare Jewish survivors of the camp are outraged. "Do those people know what really happened here?" said Mihailo Berberijan, 101. Mosic said the surviving tower should be returned to the state's ownership, and converted into a Holocaust museum containing photographs and documents of the lost Serbian Jews. A small cracked marble plaque dedicated to the Yugoslav victims is mounted on a wall surrounded by high weeds and empty beer cans. But it doesn't specifically mention the Jews. "The only former camp in Europe which doesn't have a monument for the killed Jews," Mosic said. "It's our shame."