The central tower of the Sajmište fairgrounds, 2010.
|Location||Staro Sajmište, Independent State of Croatia|
|Operated by||German occupational authorities|
|Original use||Exhibition centre|
|Operational||28 October 1941–July 1944|
|Inmates||primarily Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists|
|Number of inmates||92,000|
The Sajmište concentration camp (German language: Konzentrationslager Sajmište, Croatian language: Koncentracijski logor Sajmište , Serbian language: Концентрациони логор Сајмиште, pronounced [sâjmiːʃtɛ]), also known as the "Jewish camp in Zemun" (German language: Judenlager Semlin), was a Nazi concentration camp in Staro Sajmište on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during World War II. Located on the outskirts of Belgrade, it was established on 28 October 1941. Intended to detain Serbs, Jews, Roma and others, the camp was run by German SS-Untersturmführer Herbert Andorfer, who became notorious for using a gas van to kill thousands of Jewish inmates. With the extermination of the original Jewish inmates, the camp was renamed "Concentration Camp Zemun" (German language: Ahhalte Lager Semlin) and served to hold one last group of Jews who were arrested upon the surrender of Italy in September 1943. During this time it also held captured Yugoslav Partisans, Serbian Chetniks, sympathizers of the Greek and Albanian resistance movements, and Serb peasants from villages in other parts of the NDH. During this period, conditions in Sajmište deteriorated to such an extent that some began comparing it to Jasenovac and other large concentration camps throughout Europe. In 1943 and 1944, evidence of atrocities committed in the camp was destroyed by units led by SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, and thousands of corpses were exhumed from mass graves and incinerated. The camp was closed in July 1944. Estimates of the number of deaths at the camp range from 23,000–47,000, with the number of Jewish deaths estimated at 7,000–10,000. It is thought that half of all Serbian Jews perished at Sajmište.
Most of the Germans responsible for the operation of the camp were captured and brought to trial. Several were extradited to Yugoslavia and executed. Camp commander Herbert Andorfer and his deputy Edgar Enge were arrested in the 1960s after many years of hiding. Both men were subsequently given short prison sentences in West Germany and Austria, respectively, although Enge's sentence was never carried out due to his age and poor health.
The site that became the Sajmište concentration camp had originally been an exhibition centre built by the Belgrade municipality in 1937 in an attempt to attract international commerce to the city. It stood decrepit and empty until the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. Following the invasion, Yugoslavia was dismembered, with Serbia being reduced to its pre-1912 borders and placed under a government of German military occupation. Milan Nedić, a pre-war politician who was known to have pro-Axis leanings, was then selected by the Germans to lead the collaborationist Government of National Salvation in the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia. The civilian administration in the country was headed by SS-Gruppenführer Harald Turner. He commanded Einsatzgruppen Serbien. Originally led by SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Fuchs, and later by SS-Gruppenführer August Meyszner with SS-Standartenführer Emanuel Schäfer as his deputy, the group was responsible for ensuring internal security, fighting opponents of the occupation, and dealing with Jews.
Meanwhile, the extreme Croat nationalist and fascist Ante Pavelić, who had been in exile in Benito Mussolini's Italy, was appointed Poglavnik (leader) of an Ustaše-led Croatian state – the Independent State of Croatia (often called the NDH, from the Croatian language: Nezavisna Država Hrvatska ). The NDH combined almost all of modern-day Croatia, all of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of modern-day Serbia into an "Italian-German quasi-protectorate." NDH authorities, led by the Ustaše militia, subsequently implemented genocidal policies against the Serb, Jewish and Roma population living within the borders of the new state. The territory of the former Belgrade municipality was divided between occupied Serbia and the NDH, with the area where the Sajmište fairgrounds were located coming under Croatian control. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, an uprising erupted in Serbia. Although they took no part in the rebellion, Jews were targeted for retaliatory execution by the Germans. Anti-Jewish laws were quickly implemented by the Germans and by the end of August 1941 all Jewish men in Serbia were interned in concentration camps, primarily at Topovske Šupe in Belgrade.
In the fall of 1941, Turner ordered that all Jewish women and children in Serbia be concentrated in a camp. At first, the Germans considered creating a ghetto for the Jews in the Gypsy quarter of Belgrade, but this idea was quickly dismissed for it being "too filthy and unhygenic." When several other plans to intern the Jewish and Romani population of Belgrade failed, a concentration camp was established on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Sava river and located in full view of Belgrade's central Terazije Square. The camp was positioned in a manner which made escape almost impossible. It was located near administrative and police centres, as well as the Belgrade central railway station, which allowed for the efficient transport of Jews to the camp from many towns in the region. Its purpose was to detain Jewish women and children who the Germans claimed "endangered" public safety and the Wehrmacht. Dubbed the "Jewish camp in Zemun" (German language: Judenlager Semlin), Sajmište was intended to hold as many as 500,000 people captured from rebels areas across occupied Yugoslavia. The name "Semlin" was derived from the German word for the former Austro-Hungarian frontier town of Zemun, where the camp was located. It was officially opened on 28 October 1941. Despite being located on the territory of the NDH, the camp was controlled by the German military police apparatus in occupied Serbia. NDH authorities did not object to its establishment and told the Germans that it could be located on NDH territory as long as it was guarded by them, rather than by Serbs.
Soon after the camp was established, SS-Scharführer Edgar Enge of the Belgrade Gestapo became its commander. At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, approximately 7,000 Jewish women, children and old men were brought to the camp, alongside 500 Jewish men and 292 Romani women and children. Most of these people were from the outlying Serbian towns, primarily Niš, Smederevo and Šabac. Women and children were placed in makeshift barracks that were barely heated. Consequently, a high number of detainees, especially children, died in the winter of 1941–42. Starvation was widespread, and Jewish inmates appealed unsuccessfully to Serbian authorities for more food to be provided to the camp. The 500 male Jewish inmates were then given the task of running the camp's so-called "self-administration" and were made responsible for distributing food, dividing up labour, and organizing a Jewish guard force which patrolled along the camp. The exterior of the camp, however, was guarded on a rotation basis by twenty-five members of Reserve Police Battalion 64. The Romani detainees in the camp were kept in an unheated hall in which inmates slept on straw separate from non-Romani prisoners.
In January 1942, SS-Untersturmführer Herbert Andorfer was appointed to replace the inexperienced Edgar Enge as commander of the camp. Enge was subsequently made Andorfer's deputy. That month, German military authorities demanded the camp be cleared of Jews in order to accommodate the growing numbers of POWs taken in the war with the Yugoslav Partisans. By February, the camp held about 6,500 inmates, ten percent of whom were Romani. In early March, Andorfer was informed that a gas van had been sent to the camp from Berlin. The vans had been delivered upon the request of the German military administration chief in Serbia, Harald Turner. Stricken with guilt over having to play a central role in the murder of these Jews, some of whom he had developed good relations with, Andorfer requested a transfer. This was denied. In order to ensure the quickness and efficiency of the gassings, he then made announcements to make prisoners believe that they were to be transferred to another, better-equipped camp. He went so far as to post fictitious camp regulations, and announced that prisoners would be allowed to take their bags with them. Many detainees registered for the supposed transfer, hoping to escape the camp's terrible living conditions. Inmates who had volunteered to leave the previous evening would climb into the van the next day in groups of between 50 and 80. The drivers of the van, SS-Scharführers Meier and Götz, would distribute candy to children in order to win their affection. Afterwards, inmates would climb into the van, whose doors would be sealed shut. The van then followed a small car driven by Andorfer and Enge, before crossing the border into the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia. It was here that inmates were gassed, before being taken to the Avala shooting range, where they were dumped into freshly-dug mass graves by Serbs imprisoned by the Germans. These gassings became routine, and the gas van would arrive daily, except on Sundays. Rumours quickly began to circulate about the gassings, with news reaching German troops stationed in Belgrade, and even some Serbians. It is thought that these gassings took the lives of as many as 8,000 inmates, mostly women and children.
When the gassings stopped, few inmates remained in the camp, mostly non-Jewish women who had been married to Jews. They were released several days later, after having been sworn to secrecy. Apart from Sajmište inmates, the 500 patients and staff of the Belgrade Jewish Hospital, as well as Jewish prisoners from the nearby Banjica concentration camp, were also killed in the gas vans. The last Jewish prisoner in Sajmište was killed on 8 May 1942, and the gas van used at the camp was returned to Berlin on 9 June 1942. It received a technical upgrade there and was then transferred to Belarus where it was used to gas Jews in Minsk. Shortly after exterminating the Jews in Sajmište, commander Andorfer and his deputy Enge were assigned to different Security Police assignments. Andorfer was subsequently promoted and decorated with an Iron Cross 2nd Class for the role he played in the camp.
With the extermination of the original Jewish inmates, the camp was renamed "Concentration Camp Zemun" (Ahhalte Lager) and served to hold one last group of Jews who were arrested upon the surrender of Italy in September 1943. It also held captured Yugoslav Partisans, Serbian Chetniks, sympathizers of the Greek and Albanian resistance movements, and Serb peasants from villages in the Croatian Ustaše-controlled regions of Srem and Kozara, where they had been detained in the Jasenovac concentration camp. During this period, conditions in Sajmište deteriorated to such an extent that some began comparing it to Jasenovac and other large concentration camps throughout Europe. Afterwards, the camp became the main transit camp for Yugoslav prisoners and detainees on their way to labour locations and concentration camps in Germany.
By the end of 1943, the Germans made an effort to erase all traces of the atrocities committed in the camp by burning records, incinerating corpses, and destroying other evidence. This task was undertaken by SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, who arrived in Belgrade in November 1943. Upon arrival, he ordered the head of the local Gestapo, SS-Sturmbannführer, Bruno Sattler, to form a special detachment that was to be responsible for the exhumation and burning of bodies. The detachment was composed of ten security policemen and 48 military policemen led by Lieutenant Erich Grunwald. The digging battalions were composed of 100 Serbian and Jewish prisoners. Exhumations occurred from December 1943 to April 1944, and thousands of bodies were burned. All of the prisoners who were present during the exhumations were shot, except for three Serbs who managed to escape. The camp was closed in July 1944.
Of the 8,000 women and children who passed through Sajmište, only six survived the war. It is estimated that half of all Serbian Jews were killed in the camp. However, estimates of the total number of deaths vary. The Staro Sajmište memorial estimates that 23,000 people perished in the camp, of whom 10,000 were Jews. The Yugoslav State War Crimes Commission estimated that as many as 40,000 may have been killed in the camp, including 7,000 Jews. Mojzes states that the number of deaths may have been as high as 47,000 from a total of 92,000 inmates. Cohen states that 7,500 Jews were killed in the camp.
Most of the Germans who were responsible for the operation of the camp were captured and brought to trial. Many of those who had been prominent German officials during the occupation of Serbia, including Harald Turner, Wilhelm Fuchs and August Meyszner, were extradited to Yugoslavia by the Allies after the war, where they were executed. Camp commander Herbert Andorfer managed to escape with the assistance of the Roman Catholic Church, which helped him flee to South America. He returned to Austria from Venezuela in the 1960s. He was subsequently apprehended and tried on the minor charge of being an accessory to murder, to which he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment. Andorfer's deputy, Edgar Enge, was apprehended in the 1960s and sentenced to one-and-a-half years imprisonment. However, his sentence was never carried out due to his old age and poor health. German guards suspected of executing Serbian prisoners were never tried, although they served as witnesses in several trials in West Germany.
After the war, Belgrade Jews murdered during the Holocaust, including those at Sajmište, were not commemorated by Yugoslavia's new Communist government. At present, the old Sajmište fairgrounds are marked by small plaques and a statue to commemorate those detained in the camp. The plaques were dedicated in 1974 and 1984, respectively. In 1987, the Sajmište fairgrounds were given cultural landmark status by the government of Yugoslavia. A 10-meter high monument created by artist Miodrag Popović was erected on the banks of the Sava in 1995. However, no memorial centres or museums have ever been built on the former campgrounds. Today, the area where the camp was located is used as a state-run facility housing low-income residents of Belgrade. It is estimated that as many as 2,500 people presently live on the grounds of the former camp.
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- In Belgrade, man wants memorial to a 'forgotten concentration camp'
- Semlin Judenlager in Serbian public memory
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