Wandering round the vast, neglected site straddling Belgrade’s Sava river, Aleksandar Mosic admits his project is ambitious.
Mosic, a former board member of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, wants to recreate the Belgrade Fair exhibition ground and thus build a proper memorial to the victims of what he describes as “the forgotten concentration camp” — the Sajmiste camp that the site was turned into during World War II by the occupying Nazis.
Within six months after Sajmiste was set up in December 1941, all 8,000 Jews from the Belgrade area who had been rounded up and imprisoned there had been murdered. None of the Jews sent to the camp survived.
What made Sajmiste unique was its location in clear view of Belgrade’s residents.
“It is the only camp in Europe which was so visible; the inmates were not hidden from the view of the rest of the population and that was the intention; to intimidate other Serbs by showing them what was going on inside because Serbs were much more courageous in resisting the Fascists than other nations,” says Mosic, chairman of the newly formed Old Fair Memorial Association and author of the book “The Jews in Belgrade.”
The first phase of the project would see the surviving tower reconstructed and converted into a Holocaust museum containing documents, testimonies and photographs of lost Jews from Serbia. During the time the site was used by the Nazis, the three-story building was used as the commander’s tower.
“We want to rescue the memory of the camp and its victims,” he says. “There is no monument to the Jews who died or no real education specifically about the Jewish Holocaust.”
A monument was erected on the riverbank eight years ago to all 40,000 Serbs who died in the camp, but Mosic points out that there is no specific monument to the Jewish victims. One item that will definitely be missing from the museum, however, is a list of all those interned in Sajmiste, since all such lists were destroyed by the Nazis.
The project would also involve rebuilding several exhibition halls in an effort to revitalize the site. Most of the buildings were flattened by American aerial bombing in 1945.
The project faces many hurdles. There is a shantytown on the grounds that is inhabited by approximately 200 people who would have to be rehoused.
The biggest hurdle of all could be financing. “We have no budget from the government so we are totally relying on donations,” Mosic says.
Despite the difficulties, Mosic, 84, is determined to at least get the project off the ground.
“It is a very ambitious project as the site is in very bad shape and the project will involve a lot of work. We are big in hopes and good will and small in means,” says Mosic, who escaped internment at concentration camps because, like many Balkan Jews, he was fighting with the partisans against the Nazis.
“We want to return the site to the way it looked when it opened in 1935, with the Holocaust Museum as the central feature as a monument to Serbian Jews who died in the Holocaust. Just as other former concentration camps in Europe have been converted into memorials so this should be too,” says Mosic, one of 30 volunteers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the memorial association.
Slavko Maksimovic, the association’s secretary, estimates that the first phase of the project would cost at least $2.5 million. “We want to turn this into a lasting memorial to the people who died and to the suffering all those kept here endured,” he says. “It will take time but we hope that the central building, the Holocaust Museum, could open within two or three years.”
The site could also eventually house a theater, a museum about Belgrade, a hotel and a school of music and fine arts.
Before the war there were 10,400 Jews in Belgrade and roughly 16,000 in the whole of Serbia. Almost 90 percent were killed in the Holocaust.
Sajmiste was destroyed by U.S. bombers in raids which killed 80 people at the camp and injured 170. The bombers’ intended target was the nearby railway station.
Davor Salom, secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia and Montenegro, renamed following the disintegration of Yugoslavia as a country, says the Sajmiste project will be an important contribution to the memory process.
“We are forgetting the Holocaust too quickly, and this Holocaust Museum and the reminder of what this site was will help fulfill our obligation to the memory of thousands of Serbian Jews and millions of Jews worldwide who were killed during World War II,” he says.
The local town council is supporting the project in principle, says Mosic, and he estimates that the whole project could take 30 years to complete.
“I know I won’t be alive to see the whole project completed, but my sincere hope is to live to see the first phase finished and the opening of the Holocaust Museum,” he says.
Anyone interested in helping to fund the project can contact Slavko Maksimovic at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.