My Belgrade home is not far from the centre of the city and close to the two famous football stadiums in Belgrade. These are the Partisans and Red Star football teams. I took a walk along the Bulevar Oslobodenja. This is a tree lined main road that leads away from the city. In the grass verge grow wild red poppies.
To the right is a leafy lane that leads to the district of Banjica. I took this road and found it an up hill walk. On the right are houses and on the left is a walled area belonging to the army. It is a housing and administrative complex. It was a pleasant walk. There was a cool breeze enhancing the comfortable walk upwards.
After a short walk I came to a tiny opening in the Army complex. It had been hidden by tree foliage until the walk brought you on top of it. It was an ordinary and uninteresting gateway. The metal gate and its high railings looked very authoritarian and foreboding. It was an entrance that did not need a no-entry sign. Its design instinctively told you not to venture further.
At first I thought it was the entrance to the army complex. However, hidden behind foliage was the name of the building. I looked at the wording. The writing was in Serbian. I was surprised by what I had found. It was the museum entrance to the Banjica Concentration Camp. I entered and followed a winding cobbled stone route into the court yard. This was much friendlier in appearance. I walked towards a heavy, oak panelled door.
A lady appeared. She seemed happy to see a visitor. I was the oinly one. She spoke Serbian and German. Unfortunately, she only spoke a little English. Just enough to confirm that the museum was open and I would be welcome to visit it. The lady was the museum curator. I followed her has she lead the way inside. I walked down the flight of stairs into the building’s interior. There were murals of people painted on to the wall on my right. The way to the exhibitions was to my left. There were two rooms linked by a corridor.
The first room was a recreation of a cell. Apparently the NAZIs converted much of the building into cells like this. It was a dormitory setting consisting of wooden beds. These were sparkly covered in very thin sheets and bedding. Underneath were neatly stored the personal effects of the individuals that were housed in the cell. There were suitcases on top of which were bedroom slippers and dress shoes as well as outdoor boots. I believe that the prisoners were segregated with the Jews, hostages, partisans, and others kept in separate cells.
The European Union guide book to Belgrade Museum states that the Banjica Concentration Camp was opened in July 1941 and was closed down in October 1944. The linking corridor held a memorial list of the families and individuals that were held in the camp. The listing recorded the person’s name, their date of birth and year of death. This last piece of information was for a few prisoners 1941 but mainly the years 1942 or 1943.
The saddest listings I saw were for the Kaufman and Karaglanovich families, To the Kaufman family was born a baby daughter in 1941. The new-born child was given the name Ruth. It was with sorrow that I then read that baby Ruth, along with her family and Rose, her 10 year old sister died in 1942. The Karaglanovich family had two children. They were boys. The eldest was 8 year old David who was born in 1934 and his younger brother Marko who was born in 1938. They along with their parents also perished in 1942. [Bill: Do we know how they died?]
I was allowed to photograph the reconstructed cell and the wall memorial. Unfortunately when we entered the main exhibition room I was requested not to take photographs. I am not sure why. I would have thought that she would have wanted the information and images collected by the museum to be deseminated. [Bill: Did she explain why?] The curator did take pity on me. So that I would have a photographic record she gave me the European Union Museum Guide pamphlet. This contained 4 small pictures of the main exhibition room. Later I was able to scan this document and obtain good quality pictures that show how the exhibits are displayed.
The corridor led into the main exhibition hall. Here the wall displayed held pictorial and documents that revealed the history of the camp. The pictorial imagery was a collection of sketches drawn by the prisoners. Below these images were exhibition cases holding what had been the person belongings of children. There were dolls, art and craft work and other toys. Altogether there were 26 exhibition cases of child related artefacts.
The wall display chronicled how the concentration camp was operated. Unfortunately these displays were in Serbian so it was difficult to gain a full understanding of this. There was a photograph to suggest that camp prisoners were murdered by being gassed in specially sealed transport vans.
The dominant exhibition item was a scale model of Banjica Concentration camp. It showed the main building which appeared to be a 1930 design. There was a wall around it. At the corners were watch towers. The main gate was on the street. The building had formally been a Yugoslavian army barracks which after the Nazi occupation in 1941 became the Concentration camp. Banjica was liberated by Tito’s partisan’s in October 1944. When World War II ended the site reverted to its former usage and this is still its function to the present day.
A display recorded the grim concentration camp statistics. The museum curator explained the information which was written in Cyrillic script: The Concentration camp held 4,166 adult inmates. The prisoners were divided up into the following groups; 3,714 adult males and 452 adult females, total 4,166 adults. There were also 530 children making a grand total of 4,696 people. The prisoner age groups were 0 to 7 Years - 24; 7 to 14 Years – 20; 14 to 17 Years - 36; 17 - 21 Years - 450; 21 – 35 Years - 1,912; 35 - 50 Years - 1,232;
Over 50 Years - 483. There was a special category for 9 individuals but I did not understand the curator’s explanation. These figures are based on the surviving records. Banjica's records survived but at
Samjimiste the records were destroyed by the Nazis. I do not know if people went unregistered. There may well have been much larger numbers of people held here. Here I am haicapped by the text being in Serbian.
Surprisingly, several photographed show very well dressed prisoners. They seemed to be wearing their own clothes. Men wearing suits and well manicured woman wearing pleated skirts. These photographs might have been taken at the beginning of the camp’s existence. Other photographs show men wrapped in blankets and wearing clothes with worn appearance. Their booted footwear and leggings suggest they may have been Partisan members or other resistance fighters.
What activity got you arrested and imprisoned there? In the beginning it was a place to hold hostages. Having a ready supply of hoistages saved the NAZIs the troubke of rounding people up. There was a ready supply of vivtims available for their reprisals. There was not much chance hostages would survive. As a result of Chetnik and Partisan activities, the hostages were almost all shot. Later a person’s race was a factor. Many prisoners were held because they were Gypsy or Jewish. The age distribution suggest that only a few families were held here. The families held here were Jews and Gypseys. We do not know why these families were held here rather than at Samjiste. The Memorial shows must families were killed in 1942. After that it is possible that the camp held larger numbers of partisan prisoners. Serbian members of the Communist party were held in this camp. Hiding Jewish people was a very serious offence. So too was hiding explosives and weapons. The camp held captured members of insurgency groups, particularly Tito’s Partisan fighters.
There were details of the administrators of the concentration camp. A photograph showed the Gestapo officer called Willy Friedrich who was the commandant of the camp. Gestapo is a term often misued. I', not sure just what security unit Friedrich belonged. He was returned to Yugoislavia after the War where he was tried and executed.
It soon became apparent that this was not the only concentration camp in Belgrade to exist between 1941 and 1944. There were several other places that The Nazi used to hold prisoners. The former old trade fair site called Sajmiste, on the Sava River in what is now New Belgrade became a holding and then a concentration camp for Jewish people.
There was a display of line drawings that illustrated the daily life of the inhabitants, drawings depicted inmates standing conversing with each other. Some drawings showed people sitting around the camp. There were several drawings which showed eating and drinking scenes. Some of the prisoners had drawn by a very skilful artist. These sketches showed men, woman and children.
There was one sketch of a boy aged about 14. His name was Jaban Todorovich. He was sketched wearing his own clothes. An open neck shirt, a jacket and a leather cap. The sketcher depicted him in a strong way. The boy was shown to have a proud, hopeful expression. His eyes looked bright and intelligent that missed nothing.
There was sketch of a younger boy of about 7 or 8 years old. His drawing was above a display cabinet. The item underneath the boy’s picture was a small sailing boat. It seemed to have been hand made. Had the boy made it? Was he successful in finding water deep enough to enjoy watching it sail?
The boy was called Maln Lokan. His hair was well groomed. He had also been depicted with a proud, happy disposition. He too wore his own clothes, an open neck shirt beneath a sleeveless jersey.
The display cabinets devoted to children’s artefacts also contained valuable clues about how children perceived the camp. How they spent their time and the activities they got up to inside the camp.
A boy named Nikola had made a friend in the camp called Boji. He had made a drawing for him on a piece of slate. It showed the imposing 1930 designed building. Two vehicles which look like buses were about to turn left to pass through the main gate into the camp.
On the outer edge was a floral design. The translation of the wording around the picture means ‘Concentration Camp Banjica. To my friend Boji from Nikola.’
There was a display of table games the children played. Some appear to have been handmade others might have been brought with the children when they came to the camp. These were various board games, chess and playing cards. Most of these were pocket size games.
There was a tiny notebook in which a child had kept a diary. The hand writing was neatly done and written very carefully. Another tiny note book showed a sketch of a child sweeping the floor.
There were many examples of engravings done on thin flat pieces of metal as jewellery items. Some of these tags fitted around the wrist as a bracelet, while others had a hole at the top for fixing to a neck chain.
There were several handmade pen and pencil cases that had been made out scrap material. They were very attractive but the pen and pencils were missing.
There were many examples of dolls. All of these were depicted wearing Balkan national costume outfits. These had been carefully looked after and clearly their appearance indicated that they were very much loved toys. Some of the girls had hand - knitted clothes for their dolls and they had also made tiny shoes for them also.
There were several amusing cuddle toys. One in particular caught my eye. It was two little kittens, one black, one white. They had comical facial expressions which made me smile. I hoped that the child that they originally belong to was also able to smile and have fun with them.
There was a miniature doll set. It showed costuming of the 18th century. It told a story. A visitor had arrived and a boy was presenting a bouquet of flowers to the visitor,
The girls had embroidered material with interesting pictures about Bahjica and their families.
The odd man out was a boy’s watch. It was the only time piece on display.
The remaining exhibition cases held concentration camp artefacts. These were a miscellaneous collection of things which included a revolver, manacles, shoes and boots.
The killing of the Banjica prisoners appears to have occured elsewhere. One way was to load the prisoners into gas vans. They were killed by the motor exhaust fumes which were pumped into the gas vans. I know the gas vans wre used for Jews and Gypseys. Captured partisans may have been hung or shot. The bodies were then placed in mass graves. It is my understanding that a village near to Belgrade called Jajinca was one of the execution sites for Banjica inmates. They may also have been buried there. A photograph showed a gas van. Other photographs showed execution by hanging and firing squad. Inmates were transferred to other concentration and labour camps throughout Nazi occupied Europe. It was at these places that more killing took place.
My visit over I made my way up the lane to the main road to catch a trolley-bus into the city centre to have lunch with a friend. While I travelled my thoughts were about the things I had seen at Banjica. An unexpected discovery of one of Belgrade’s museums.
Museum of Banjica concentration camp
Wikipedia - Banjica Concentration Camp
Belgrade City Museums – European Union Pamphlet. The following photographs of the Main Exhibition room and area, Nikola’s slate engraving and the model of the concentration camp are scanned from this booklet.
Other photographs are from the Intrepid Photograph collection.
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