Hidden Belgrade (20): Zemun’s Memories and Memorials

From its time as Taurunum in the Roman empire, all through today, Zemun was a vibrant city, often on the border of empires and as such a place of constant change and diversity. In the 19th and early 20th century, it housed a mix of Serbs, Croats, Germans and Jews, but due to the turmoil of WWII, much of its multicultural character changed. Throughout its history it also lost its castle (where Sibinjanin Janko (Jan Hunyadi) died after defending Belgrade), its old German calvary (which is only remembered in the name of Kalvarija), its Sephardic Synagogue, while many of its iconic places still exist as shadows of their former self: the Command of the Air Force Zemun designed by Dragiša Brašovan is still a ruin after NATO bombing, while the Ashkenazi synagogue and innovative Evangelical rotunda, serve, respectively, as a restaurant and a club.

Zemun cemetery, however keeps the memory of the people who helped built it, and marked it. Even its symbol, the Serbian Orthodox Church of St Demetrius, perched on the top of Zemun’s loess plateau and visible from afar, is a testament to its diversity. Built in late 19th century in the honour of the wife of Grigorije Hariš, a local merchant, it was designed by Svetozar Ivačković, a prominent Serbian architect, but certain tradesmen named Joseph Marx, Samuel Kohlmeyer and Jovan Kistner, worked on its construction.

The cemetery grounds house the remains of people of all faiths and none, throughout Zemun’s turbulent history. This is illustrated by the fact that some its most famous “residents” are grandparents of Theodor Herzl, founder of the World Zionist Organisation, as well as the members of Zemun’s mafia, for which it was famous since late 1980s, including its most prominent member – Ljuba Zemunac.

Ljuba’s memorial, which has him immortalised as a boxer, after getting killed in Frankfurt, set an example for graves of all tough guys throughout Serbia. Indeed, much like a broken column on a grave signifies an end of a family line, an image of a buff shirtless guy, ideally with big golden chains, signifies mafia.

Then there is a beautiful crucifix and a chapel in the catholic part of the cemetery, as well as the remains of the old defensive wall on its eastern frontier.

Apart from the “celebrities” and monuments there are countless graves, poignantly telling stories of families and their tragedies: one about a stewardess who died in a plane crash, another about an industrialist who made it big , and yet another about a flight pioneer who lost his life in an accident.

Much like the more opulent New Cemetery on the other side of the Sava, Zemun Cemetery is a fantastic place for history and architecture buffs, and helps us remember all those who shaped this city before us.



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