Learn about the history of Staro Sajmište and the IHRA’s involvement with safeguarding the site.
Learn about the history of Staro Sajmište and the IHRA’s involvement with safeguarding the site.
Staro Sajmište, the former Belgrade fairground, built in 1937 in modern-day Serbia, is the site of a concentration camp established during the German occupation from 1941-1944. Initially, it was a used to intern primarily Jewish women and children. Later, it was a detention camp for mostly Serb civilians and members of resistance movements. Approximately 6,300 Jews and later, over 10,600 prisoners (mostly Serbs) were killed here.
From December 1941 to May 1942, the SS interned about 7,000 Jews within the “Judenlager Semlin” at the former fairground. Some died from hunger, disease, and mistreatment; the vast majority were killed in a specially designed gas van. In the Summer of 1942, Yugoslavian partisans and Chetniks, including many Serb civilians, were imprisoned at the Anhaltelager Detention Camp. There were around 32,000 prisoners in the camp, who were to be sent to various forced labor camps in Germany and Norway. In 1944, the camp was bombed by the Allies and badly damaged. On 17 May the camp was turned over by the Germans to the Ustasha authorities, then closed as the Partisans and Red Army approached.
Following the first three phases of the site – the construction of the fairground in 1937, the Judenlager Semlin from December 1941–April 1942, and the detention camp from 1942–1944 – the city began to repurpose the site after the war. From 1948 to 1951, the site became the heart of urban development for New Belgrade. After 1951, the area became the birthplace of modern art in Serbia. In 1992, the new Serbian state indicated that it would turn the site into a permanent place of Holocaust commemoration. In 1995, an official, state-sponsored monument was erected, which commemorates Serbs, Jews, and Roma. In 2013 and 2019 respectively, the Belgrade and national governments reiterated this commitment. However, commercial ventures continue to operate within former camp buildings.
Since Serbia joined the IHRA in 2011, successive IHRA delegates have worked with local groups to raise awareness of these sites and the importance of preservation. In autumn 2019, an IHRA delegation visited the site and again advised officials to establish a memorial to Holocaust victims. Although both commemorations and activities unrelated to remembrance take place at the site, in February 2020 the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia passed a law to create the “Memorial Center Staro Sajmište” and permanently preserve the site. The new Memorial Center was established in 2022 and focuses on restoration and organizational development. The central tower is almost fully restored and will serve as the main exhibition space.
IHRA Chair Ambassador Karel de Beer visits Serbia and participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the World War II Genocide Victims’ Monument at Staro Sajmište in Belgrade along with the Serbian President, Mr. Boris Tadic.
President Tadic expresses his determination to make Staro Sajmište a permanent monument for Holocaust remembrance to the representatives of the local Jewish community, the Israeli Ambassador, and Ambassador Beer.
Additional participants include the Minister of Labor, Minister of Culture, Media and Information Society, the President of the Jewish Community in Serbia, the City of Belgrade, and the Municipality of Novi Beograd. The commemoration is attended by Holocaust survivors, descendants of the victims, former camp inmates, representatives of the ministries, and members of the diplomatic corps.
During the Debrecen Plenary Meetings, held from 2–5 November 2015 under the Hungarian Presidency, IHRA experts and Heads of Delegation discuss Staro Sajmište as part of their deliberations on how to support and preserve endangered memorial sites in all IHRA Member Countries.
The site is facing threats posed by urban development and an unclear future for the memorial complex. Following the Debrecen Plenary Meetings, an IHRA delegation participates in a program on the future of Staro Sajmište.
Comprised of IHRA Chair Ambassador Mihnea Constantinescu, IHRA Secretary General Kathrin Meyer, and Bruno Boyer, an expert from the IHRA’s Memorials and Museums Working Group (MMWG), the visit includes a site visit to the former concentration camp complex. The delegation meets with the commission responsible for the future of the site, city and government officials, and the Head of Serbian Delegation to the IHRA, Ambassador Roksanda Nincic. The visit marks an important stage in the IHRA’s focus on safeguarding Staro Sajmište. It is covered in the national press and the IHRA Chair, Ambassador Constantinescu, speaks at the site.
IHRA Chair, Ambassador Georges Santer, lead visits to Staro Sajmište and Topovske Supe in Belgrade, Serbia. Holding official meetings with senior members of the government and the mayor of Belgrade, the IHRA Chair seeks the acceleration of memorial plans for safeguarding Holocaust sites at Staro Sajmište and Topovske Šupe.
During the meetings, Ambassador Santer expresses that despite several commitments and statements since 2011, little progress had been made towards creating a memorial and remembrance site at Staro Sajmište or Topovske Šupe. The Chair also stressed the urgent need for maintenance. Touring the site with local historian Dr. Milan Koljanin, the Chair expresses that the commercialization of the site had negatively affected the memory of those who were murdered there during the Holocaust. Encouraging ministers and the Mayor of Belgrade to quickly publish plans and allocate funding for memorials at these sites, the IHRA Chair receives promising responses and reassurances by several government officials regarding the imminent establishment of a memorial site at Staro Sajmište.
Following the tour, the Chair meets with senior members of the Serbian government, including Mr. Zoran Đorđević, Minister of the Ministry for Labor, Employment, Veterans and Social Policy – the ministry responsible for memorial sites – to argue that the Serbian government should expedite the implementation of plans to preserve the sites like Staro Sajmište. He receives a briefing on a draft bill enabling the beginning of preservation work on the Serbian sites and during a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, is informed that funds for the restoration of the central tower at Staro Sajmište would be secured by January 2020. The Chair offers tje IHRA’s expertise and support as the preservation plans are considered, as renovation work is to begin around June 2020.
IHRA Chair Ambassador Santer is accompanied by IHRA Deputy Executive Secretary Lennart Aldick, Christian Wee (Chair of the IHRA’s Memorials and Museums Working Group), and Martina Maschke (former Chair of the IHRA’s Committee on the Genocide of the Roma).
During the Luxembourg City Plenary Meetings, held from 2–5 December 2019 under the Luxembourg Presidency, IHRA experts and Heads of Delegation discuss the latest developments concerning Staro Sajmiste and Topovske Šupe.
Assistant Minister Drača Muntean from the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Information presents the draft law on the Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište.” The IHRA Chair and the Plenary applaud the positive developments surrounding the site’s preservation and the IHRA’s commitment to it.
The Law on the Memorial Center is adopted by the Serbian Parliament.
Ambassador Georges Santer, Chair of IHRA, comments on the adoption of the Law: “The IHRA commends the Serbian government and the Parliament – which supported the relevant law without any votes against – for their efforts to preserve the memory of the Serbian, Jewish and Roma communities murdered at Staro Sajmište. […] The Serbian people deserve an authentic site of remembrance for the crimes of the Holocaust and so safeguarding memorial sites, such as Staro Sajmište and Topovske Šupe, is a necessity and obligation for all of our Member Countries, and the IHRA and its experts will continue to support Serbia with advice and expertise during the implementation phase of the law.”
The Law on the Memorial Center enters into force, assuring the protection of Staro Sajmište and Topovske Šupe.
The law on the Memorial Center envisages the establishment of two museums, one dedicated to the first phase of the camp, and the other to the second phase of the camp. The Center, including its offices, museums, commemoration hall, archives, library, and venues for exhibitions, educational activities, seminars and conferences, will be in the original buildings of the camp, once they are reconstructed and returned to their original form. These buildings and the Old Fairgrounds site are protected by law as prime cultural heritage. At this point in time, the offices of the Memorial Center are temporarily housed in a modest postwar building (that had previously been used as an educational venue). In addition, the government allocates funds, through the Ministry of Culture and Information, for the beginning of the reconstruction of the first camp building, the Central Tower. This building, located at the center of the site, is a symbol of the site and the multiple changes of its function in its long history. The reconstruction is scheduled to begin soon.
The Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište” is registered.
The Center is a new cultural institution founded by the Government of the Republic of Serbia and based on the lex specialis passed by the Serbian Parliament that became effective in 2021. Dedicated to the camp located on the Staro Sajmište site in the heart of today’s Belgrade, the Center is now operational and will become the central Jewish memorial site in Serbia.
The main tasks of the Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište” are to memorialize, document, research, educate, and disseminate the multifaceted and tragic narrative of the wartime Nazi camp as well as to promote, in public memory, the historical image of events, victims, perpetrators, resistance and suffering.
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