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Outcry as preschool sets up in former Nazi concentration camp

Kindergarten to join other businesses operating inside Staro Sajmište, in Belgrade, Serbia, as long-planned Holocaust memorial remains unbuilt

The greying, box-like building that houses the Savsko Obdanište kindergarten has had many uses over the years.

At one point it was a restaurant; when you step through the front doors you find yourself surrounded by musty, brown 1970s-style dining furniture.

Further inside, a door leads into what is now a cavernous sports hall, the clanging sound of weights reverberating from the gym upstairs. A stairway decorated with hand-painted Disney characters directs visitors up to the proposed kindergarten.

Nothing about the building’s current uses hints at its most troubling past incarnation: as a makeshift hospital in a Nazi concentration camp.

Although Staro Sajmište has been touted as the location for a proposed Holocaust memorial since the early 1990s, progress to approve it has been slow. In the meantime, parts of the site have been sold to private owners.

When residents of Belgrade heard that the site was going to host a kindergarten, set to open this autumn, they were outraged. “The kindergarten is inappropriate when you consider what took place there,’’ says Robert Sabadoš, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia.

“But what’s an even bigger scandal is that pubs have been located down there for years, decades even. There even used to be a nightclub.

“That site was a place of misery and suffering and that can’t be allowed to be forgotten.”

Situated just a couple of kilometres from downtown Belgrade near the banks of the Sava River, the Staro Sajmište camp opened in 1937 as a trade fair complex consisting of 11 buildings. In 1941, when the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia, they converted it into a concentration camp.

Around 100,000 Jews, Serbs and Roma passed through its gates before the liberation of the city in October of 1944. More than 40,000 were killed. Some died from overexertion or torture, while others were gassed in buses en route to mass graves outside Belgrade.

In the years since, some of the buildings were turned into tavernas, artists’ ateliers, a live music venue and even offices for Serbia’s ruling political party, while the rest have decayed. Staro Sajmište still makes headlines in the local media every few years when a new business sets up shop, but the controversies have been fleeting.

The kindergarten, however, is different. The building was bought by Miodrag Krsmanović, a local businessman in 1998, when Serbia was undergoing a chaotic wartime transition from socialism to capitalism.

Krsmanović rejects the accusations of desecrating a place of historical significance, arguing he saved the building from ruin.

“I’ve been battling for 20 years, investing in this building, caring for it, nurturing it. I bought it in a terrible state – totally ruined,” he says. “It didn’t even have a roof, it was completely rotten. They should compare the state of this building in ‘98 and today. They should all be saying ‘thank you kindly, sir, excellent work, sir’.”

Krsmanović says he was unaware of the history of Staro Sajmište when he bought the building – and in this he would not be alone. The Holocaust in Serbia is a neglected topic; it took until 1974 for a memorial plaque to be installed on the site. In socialist Yugoslavia, the genocidal campaign against Serbia’s Jews was widely interpreted as part of the Nazi’s general reign of terror. Many Serbians still see the Holocaust as something that happened in far away places, such as Auschwitz, not a short walk from downtown Belgrade.

“The people [who operate businesses at Staro Sajmište] aren’t to blame for the failure to build something on that site. Three-quarters of them probably don’t even know what unfolded there,” says Sabadoš. “That’s a symptom of a failure of our collective memory.”

Both men blame the state for the disrepair of Staro Sajmište, and are critical of the decision to sell it off in the first place. Krsmanović says state attorneys have attempted to evict him “seven or eight times”, but have been unsuccessful because the sale was legal; he claims he would gladly sell if the state offered to buy it back.

Staro Sajmište isn’t the only former concentration camp in Belgrade to have been subject to commercial development. In 2005, the land that houses the ruins of the Topovske Šupe camp was bought by the local property developer Delta Holding. The company intends to move the ruins, brick by brick, to an adjacent plot of land so it can build what it says will be the biggest mall in the Balkans. This plan has provoked a backlash from the local Jewish community.

In the Czech town of Lety, meanwhile, an industrial pig farm was constructed on the site of a camp that held Roma internees during the second world war. Opened in the 1970s, the farm was purchased by the Czech government in 2017 and demolished last year. Kathrin Meyer, executive secretary of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, says it is the only other known example of a camp transformed into a place of business.

She says the cases highlight the conundrum of what to do with sites tainted by a history of human suffering.

“There can be no single ‘correct’ way of preserving a former concentration camp,” says Meyer. “Each site has its own unique and deeply disturbing history, and it is ultimately defined by the horrific events that took place there. The priority must be remembering the victims and survivors. To do this, remembrance sites must serve to educate and inform the world based on facts.”

Budapest’s House of Terror Museum is a useful example of how this might be done successfully. Located on one of the most elegant boulevards in the Hungarian capital, between 1944 and 1989 this majestic 19th-century building was used by successive totalitarian regimes as a torture facility. In 2002, it reopened as a museum commemorating the people brutalised there.

Belgrade’s Jewish community retains hope that a memorial centre on Staro Sajmište might some day serve similar aims. A law paving the way is currently being drafted, but remains some way from completion.

“A memorial centre needs to have an educative function,” says Sabadoš. “A statue where people go to lay a few flowers a couple of times a year isn’t enough. It needs to be a place where people can go to hear, to learn, to understand the extent of what took place there – and that it’s not out of the question that the same thing could happen again tomorrow if you’re not vigilant.”

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