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Sajmište concentration camp (Serbian Cyrillic: Концентрациони логор Сајмиште, German: Semlin Judenlager, pronounced [sâjmiːʃtɛ]) was a German run Nazi concentration camp located on the outskirts of Belgrade, on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia (today Novi Beograd municipality of Belgrade, Serbia). It was established in December 1941 and shut down in September 1944. The majority of Serbian Jews were killed in the Sajmište camp.
In 1941, Axis powers conquered Kingdom of Yugoslavia and dismantled its territory into several entities and puppet states. Belgrade became the capital of Serbia south of Sava and Danube, which was under formal rule of the government of Milan Nedić, but in fact administered by Nazi forces. The area of Srem (Syrmia), on the left bank of Sava river, came under control of Independent State of Croatia, while adjacent Banat was under direct German control. The occupiers sought to "solve" the Jewish question in Serbia. The initial plan was to expel male Jews into camps in Danube Delta or concentration camps in Germany. However, as the planned islands were flooded, the Germans asked the Croatian Ustaše (and got their agreement) for having Sajmište as a transit camp for the Serbian Jews.
On May 30, 1941 the German military administration defined what a Jew was, demanded the removal of Jews from the professional and public service, started registration of Jewish property, introduced forced labor, forbade the Serbian population form hiding Jews (Beherbergungsverbot), and ordered all members of the Jewish community to wear the yellow badge. Communists in German-occupied Serbia orchestrated an uprising there, to which the Germans responded by requiring Jews in Serbia to supply forty hostages weekly.
The camp was formed on the left bank of the Sava river, near the railway bridge at the entrance into Belgrade where the pre-war trade fairground (sajmište) was located. This territory which was, at that time, deserted, uninhabited and marshy, was several kilometers from Zemun and formed a part of NDH (Independent State of Croatia) territory.
In the beginning, Sajmište was almost exclusively meant for Serbian resistance fighters, Serbian Jews, and subsequently for Serbian Roma and political prisoners. Even as the murder of male Jews was underway in the winter of 1941, the military administration chief, SS-Gruppenfuehrer Harold Turner, enacted the first measures for interning Jewish women and children in the Sajmište concentration camp near Belgrade, reporting to his Nazi bosses:
|“||Preliminary work for Jewish ghetto in Belgrade completed. Following the liquidation of the remaining male Jews, already ordered by the commander in Serbia, the ghetto will contain approximately 10,000 Jewish women and children.||”|
Most of the inmates were Serbian opponents of the occupation, as well as Serbian Romani people. The Wehrmacht claimed that military reasons justified the interning of women and children. Counterintelligence (IC/AO) in Saloniki reported:
|“||All Jews and Gypsies are being transferred to a concentration camp near Semlin... They are clearly informants for the rebels.||”|
The concentration camp administration had approximately 500 Jewish men who were exempted from shooting. They administered the camp in so-called "self-administration" and were responsible for distributing food, dividing up labor, and organizing a Jewish guard force which patrolled along the barbed wire fence inside the camp. The camp commandant since January 1942 was SS Untersturmführer Herbert Andorfer. The camp's exterior was guarded by 25 men of German Reserve Police Battalion 64.
Supplies were provided by the "Department of Social Care and Social Institutions of Belgrade’s Municipal Authorities". At the beginning of December 1941, German authorities ordered Jews in Belgrade to report to the Sicherheitspolizei and to hand over their house keys. From December 8 until 12th, Germans took them to Sajmište. Conditions in the camp were extremely difficult - the damp and the cold, hunger and epidemics. As camp inmates starved and froze to death, Jewish men (the number is unknown) were led away to be shot by German firing squads in Belgrade. They were killed in the same manner, in the same place and by the same people as were the Banjica camp prisoners. After all men were shot, 6,280 women and children were killed in a special gas truck on their way to Belgrade and buried in Jajinci.
The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust states:
|“||Mass murders of Jews took place in Jajinci, Jabuka, Zasavica (near Šabac), and Bubanj (near Niš). By December, most of the Jewish men had been killed; the rest - a group from Niš, and several hundred men had been put to work in the Sajmište camp, near Belgrade, were murdered in February and March 1942, respectively.||”|
On October 20, 1941, Turner attended meeting with other Nazi officials including Security Police Sicherheitspolizei chief Wilhelm Fuchs, Franz Rademacher (in charge of Jewish affairs at the German Foreign Ministry) and two men from Adolf Eichmann's office, Franz Stuschke and SS-Obersturmbannführer Friedrich Suhr. These men decided to arrest all the Jews in Serbia and imprison them at Sajmište concentration camp, and thereafter to transport them to the east (presumably to be murdered) once transport became available, which would not be before the summer of 1942. Pursuant to this plan, between December 1941 and February 1942, all Jewish women and children in Serbia (7500 to 8000 people) were taken to the Sajmište camp. Bad food and completely inadequate shelter and sanitary conditions (for example, there was a single shower for all the prisoners) killed large numbers of people. Informations from some sources lead to conclusion that 250—450 Jews executed on February 1942 on location Trostruki surduk were brought from Sajmište concentration camp.
Turner and the other Nazis responsible for the camp did not care of course how many people died, because the plan was to murder all the people in the east anyway, and the more that did not need to be transported the easier it would be to kill the survivors. However, as it turned out, it wasn't possible to transport the people as early as Turner and the others had hoped, and so a decision was made to kill the people at the camp in Serbia. The means by which this would be done would be carbon monoxide poisoning, with the exhaust from internal combustion engines. Accordingly, the camp authorities arranged with their masters in Berlin to have a gas van sent out to Belgrade. (Gas vans had already been used in Poland and other places to murder people.) From March to May 1942, the Nazis used the gas van to kill all the Jews imprisoned in Sajmište. This accounted for almost all the Jews in Serbia. (Of the Serbian Jewish population of 16,000, the Nazis murdered approximately 14,500.) Most of the survivors were either being hidden by Serbian friends or had joined the Partisans.
In November 1943 SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, the officer in charge of Aktion 1005 (later executed for his numerous crimes against humanity) came to Belgrade to organize the destruction of the evidence of the Nazi crimes at Sajmište concentration camp. This plan, devised by Heinrich Himmler when the war turned against Germany, was to disinter and burn the bodies of the murder victims. Blobel organized a unit of fifty Sicherheitspolizei and German military police, and 100 Jewish and Serbian prisoners to carry out this gruesome task. Similar actions were undertaken at about the same time at other locations where the Nazis had murdered and buried large numbers of people, for example, at Rumbula in Latvia and Belzec extermination camp in Poland.
In 1944, Sajmište was hit 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.
Sajmište is still not a memorial center. The location is proclaimed a "Cultural Heritage of city of Belgrade" in 1987, and a monument was erected on April 21, 1995. A campaign to create a memorial center was initiated in April 2006.