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Semlin Judenlager

This is a website worth spending some time on and looking at every page:

This website is linked to a British Academy funded research project on the post-World War Two memorialisation of one of the main sites of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Serbia, the Semlin Judenlager. Established by Nazi Germany in December 1941 on the outskirts of Belgrade, Semlin (also known by its Serbian name Sajmište) was one of the first concentration camps in Europe, created specifically for the internment of Jews. Between March and May 1942, approximately 7,000 Jewish women, children and the elderly (almost half of the total Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Serbia) were systematically murdered there by the use of a mobile gas van. After the Jewish interns were killed, Semlin was turned into an Anhaltelager, a temporary detention camp for political prisoners, captured Partisans and forced labourers, most of whom were subsequently transported to various labour camps in Germany. Between May 1942 and July 1944, 32,000 inmates (mainly Serbs) passed through the camp, of which 10,600 were killed or died of starvation, exposure, or disease. Semlin was the largest concentration camp in Nazi occupied Serbia.

In spite of its importance as a place of the Holocaust, the Semlin Judenlager played a marginal place in the memorialisation of the destruction of Serbian Jewry in post-war Yugoslav/Serbian society. The research project seeks to explain why this is the case by looking at the representations of the camp in Yugoslav/Serbian historiography of the Second World War, in the media and at commemorative ceremonies between 1945 and the present. It explores the nexus of ideological and institutional dynamics implicated in remembering the Holocaust in Serbia, and specifically the manner in which the memory of the destruction of the Jews was assimilated within the dominant symbolic orders, first within multi-ethnic Yugoslavia – where the heroism of the Partisans, rather than the victimisation of the civilian population, constituted the primary object of memory – and later within the post-Yugoslav ideological milieu, which was dominated by Serbian nationalism and preoccupied with the suffering of Serbs under the Ustasha regime in Croatia during the Second World War.

In exploring the creation, maintenance and transformation of the memory of the Semlin camp since 1945, the project also considers a number of broader issues relevant to the understanding of Holocaust memorialisation in Eastern Europe, including the dynamic relationship between the historiography of the Holocaust and its place in public remembrance, and the continuities and discontinuities between the Communist and post-Communist periods in the way in which the destruction of Jews is understood and remembered.

At present, the website contains a brief history of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Serbia, a history of the Semlin camp between 1941 and 1944, and an insight into the life at the Semlin Judenlager through the letters of a nineteen year old inmate, Hilda Dajč, which are made available for the first time in the English language. Also, it contains an account of the post-war fate of the site of the Semlin camp, which outlines the various attempts over the years to commemorate the victims. Finally, the site offers a ‘virtual tour’ of the main sites in Belgrade relevant to the history of the Holocaust.

Once you are done with the website, do yourself a favor and order Gotz and Meyer by David Albahari – you will find yourself finishing it in one sitting:

Embodiments of the banality of evil, Gotz and Meyer are two German SS noncommissioned officers who drive a truck in which, over a period of weeks, they gas to death 5,000 Jewish inmates of a Belgrade concentration camp. “They are conscientious, they always arrive on time, they are calm and cheerful… their uniforms tidy, their step light,” and they even hand out chocolates to cheer up the children they are about to kill. The nameless narrator of this haunting Holocaust story, a Jewish teacher in post-Cold War Belgrade, fixates on the two men to get a handle on the murder of his parents’ families by the Nazis. Serbian novelist Albahari (‘Bait’) imagines the mundane circumstances of their lives as their obscene task dulls into everyday routine, and delves into the history of those who died in the camp. He elaborates the details of the Nazi extermination apparatus, how the carbon monoxide gas acts, the hopeless stabs at normality by the imprisoned Jews. Eventually, the narrator’s flat, prosaic recitation of facts merges with hallucinatory reveries in which both his relatives and their murderers come to life. Even as his attempts to extract meaning through a historical recreation of the catastrophe grow increasingly futile, they yield in the end a numbed but moving elegy.

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“What would I have done?” is a fundamental question in Holocaust literature. Translated from the Serbian, this stirring novel draws on a wealth of archival materials, maps, and Nazi bureaucratic records about the concentration camp at the Belgrade Fairgrounds, from where, over five months in 1942, 5,000 Jews were loaded into a truck and gassed. A Serbian Jewish college professor looks back now and obsessively imagines himself as perpetrator, victim, and bystander. Who were the two drivers who connected the exhaust pipe each time so that the fumes killed the passengers? How did it become just a routine job? Who buried the heaped corpses? What if one kid tried to resist? How could Belgrade citizens not know? There are no chapters or even paragraphs, but the spacious text is simple and eloquent, and readers will be drawn into the professor’s obsessive first-person narrative in which the horror is in the facts of bureaucratic efficiency and the unimaginable evil in ordinary life.

Comments

  1. #1 Rea
    November 4, 2008

    Bora, this is really an interesting blog and I have already shared it with quite a number of my friedns all over the world. Thanks. Mom

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