Sajmište concentration camp

Concentration camp
Belgrade Old fairground central tower.jpg
The central tower of the Sajmište fairgrounds, 2010.
Location of Sajmište within occupied Yugoslavia
Location of Sajmište within occupied Yugoslavia
Location of Sajmište within occupied Yugoslavia
Coordinates44°48′46″N 20°26′42″E / 44°48′46″N 20°26′42″E / 44.81278; 20.44500
LocationStaro Sajmište, Independent State of Croatia
Operated by
Original useExhibition centre
OperationalSeptember 1941 – July 1944
InmatesPrimarily Serbs, Jews,

The Sajmište concentration camp (pronounced [sâjmiːʃtɛ]) was a Nazi concentration and extermination camp during World War II. It was located at the former Belgrade fairground site near the town of Zemun, in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The camp was organized and operated by SS Einsatzgruppen units stationed in occupied Serbia. It became operational in September 1941 and was officially opened on 28 October of that year. The Germans dubbed it the Jewish camp in Zemun (German: Judenlager Semlin). At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, thousands of Jewish women, children and old men were brought to the camp, along with 500 Jewish men and 292 Romani women and children, most of whom were from Niš, Smederevo and Šabac. Women and children were placed in makeshift barracks and suffered during numerous influenza epidemics. Kept in squalid conditions, they were provided with inadequate amounts of food and many froze to death during the winter of 1941–42. Between March and May 1942, the Germans used a gas van sent from Berlin to kill thousands of Jewish inmates.

With the gassings complete, it was renamed Zemun concentration camp (German: Anhaltelager 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, Chetniks, sympathizers of the Greek and Albanian resistance movements, and Serb peasants from villages in other parts of the NDH. An estimated 32,000 prisoners, mostly Serbs, passed through the camp during this period, 10,600 of whom were killed or died due to hunger and disease. Conditions in Sajmište were so poor 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 the units of SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, and thousands of corpses were exhumed from mass graves and incinerated. In May 1944, the Germans transferred control of the camp over to the NDH, and it was closed that July. Estimates of the number of deaths at Sajmište range from 20,000 to 23,000, with the number of Jewish deaths estimated at 7,000 to 10,000. It is thought that half of all Serbian Jews perished at the camp.

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 were given short prison sentences in West Germany and Austria, respectively, though Enge never served any time given his old age and poor health.


The Belgrade Fair before World War II

The site that became the Sajmište concentration camp during World War II had originally been an exhibition centre built by the Belgrade municipality in 1937[1] in an attempt to attract international commerce to the city.[2] The centre's modernist pavilions featured elaborate displays of industrial progress and design from European countries, including Germany. Its architectural centerpiece was a large tower which was used by Philips to transmit the earliest television broadcasts in Europe.[3] Much of the centre stood empty and unused until the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941.[2] The country was dismembered following the invasion, with Serbia being reduced to Serbia proper, the northern part of Kosovo (around Kosovska Mitrovica), and the Banat, which was occupied by the Germans and placed under the administration of a German military government.[4] 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.[5] The civilian administration in the country was headed by SS-Gruppenführer Harald Turner, who commanded the 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.[6]

map showing the partition of Yugoslavia, 1941–43
A map showing the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia from 1941–43.

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: Nezavisna Država Hrvatska).[7] 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."[8][9] NDH authorities, led by the Ustaše militia,[10] subsequently implemented genocidal policies against the Serb, Jewish and Romani populations living within the borders of the new state.[11] Zemun, the town where the Sajmište fairgrounds were located, was ceded to the NDH.[12] The occupation of Zemun – during which non-Croats such as Serbs, Jews and Roma were relentlessly persecuted by the Ustaše – would last until late 1944. By this point, more than 25 percent of Zemun's pre-war population of 65,000 had perished.[13]

A large-scale uprising erupted in Serbia following the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Although they took no part in the rebellion, Jews were targeted for retaliatory execution by the Germans. The Germans soon implemented a number of anti-Jewish laws, and by the end of August 1941, all Serbian Jewish males were interned in concentration camps, primarily at Topovske Šupe in Belgrade.[14]