Hidden Belgrade (39): WWII in Belgrade in 10 Memorials

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As the capital city of Yugoslavia, Belgrade was one of the first targets of the Axis forces when they declared war on Yugoslavia on April 6 1941. On the first day of the war, the city was carpet-bombed, and along with many casualties, many of Belgrade’s key institutions were destroyed, most notably the Serbian National Library at Kosaničićev venac, which contained many invaluable manuscripts.

During the Nazi occupation, Belgraders were regularly targeted by the Nazi occupying forces and their puppet government which controlled the rump German military protectorate. The greatest losses were borne by Belgrade’s sizeable Jewish population, centred around Jalija and Zerek (now refred to as Dorćol) almost 90% of which lost their lives during the war in Belgrade, however the Nazis also targeted Roma and Serbs who opposed the occupation. One of the most traumatic reprisals, was the public hanging of anti-fascist at Terazije on August 17 1941, which, after the war prompted remodelling of the whole square, whose elegant candelabras became synonymous with Nazi brutality.

Thus it is unsurprising that Belgrade’s darkest days are commemorated with a lot of, mostly abstract, monuments – now known around the world as “spomeniks” after Jan Kempenaers’s 2010 photo series, and further popularised (and throughly researched) by Spomenik Database (you can find my interview with its founder here) and New York MoMA’s 2018 exhibition of Yugoslav architecture.

Spomenik enthusiasts, as well as other history and architecture buffs, can spend a good day exploring the largest sites listed here (there are also dozens of plaques around the city as well as monuments dedicated to individuals), most of which are located close to the city centre (with notable exceptions of Kosmaj and Jajinci).

I put GoogleMaps links to all the captions to help you find them better

Cemetery of the Liberators of Belgrade 1944

Relief at the Entrance to the cemetery

Dedicated to Partisan and Red Army forces which liberated Belgrade on 20 October 1944, this memorial cemetery holds the remains of around 1,400 Partisans and 900 Red Army soldiers. This was the first major WWII memorial built in the city according to the designs of Branko Bon, opened in 1954, and features a lot of grand socialist realist art, such as a relief at the entrance made by Radeta Stanković as well as a sculpture of a Red Army solider made by Augustinčić.

Memorial to the Serbian Jews

Bogdan Bogdanović’s first work from 1951 (and final resting place) inside Belgrade’s wonderful leafy Sephardic cemetery, foreshadows his ample use of symbolism, from the architectural debris used in teh construction to the shape of the monument which evokes the Tablets of the Law, brought down from Sinai by Moses.

Alley of the Fallen Patriots (1941-45)

Stylised candelabras/gallows recalling Terazije hangings of 1941

Part of Belgrade’s majestic New Cemetery designed by Bogdan Bogdanović and Svetislav Ličina to hold the remains of anti-fascists who died in Belgarde within a garden bordered by concrete walls, this monument is highly symbolic and contains a miniature of Belgrade’s Terazije square, in the honour of those who were publicly hung there.

Once there, it’s worth visiting Ličina’s Alley of Meritorious citizens where some of the greatest Yugoslav and Serbian artists and politicians are interred.

Monument to Belgrade Dock Workers Killed in WWII

Located at the initial Belgrade port area on the Sava, this 1954 sculpture by Radeta Stanković is a yet another representative of Yugoslav socialist-realist art (and masculinity, of course). Although the phisique seems highly stylised and almost super-human, Stanković’s model, according to Novosti, was a Belgrade wrestler who lived on the corner of Kosovska and Nušićeva steet.

Flaming Menorah of Jalija

Glid’s sculptures are also part of memorials at Dachau, Mauthausen-Gusen and Yad Vashem

Designed by one of Yugoslavia’s best sculptors, Nandor Glid, this monument is harrowing memorial to the suffering of the Jews under Nazis. It carries additional emotional weight given that many members of Glid’s family almost entirely perished in the Holocaust, and also as it is located in what used to be part of Jalija, Belgrade’s original Jewish district.

Memorial to the Victims of Terazije Hangings

This monument is often unseen by those passing Terazije, due to its dark look and simple cylindrical shape, however this work of Nikola Janković, erected in 1983 is certainly worth a second look.

Jajinci Memorial Park

One of the first, and one of the last completed memorials, Jajinci was one of the greatest sites of suffering in Belgrade. Between 65,000 and 80,000 civilians were murder here, as the site the former Yugoslav Army shooting range, and you can still see the wooden stakes to which the victims were tied. The first socialist realist monuments were erected in 1951, however its centrepiece, a shining steel bird rising to the sky was made in 1988 by Vojin Stojić.

Kosmaj Monument

This iconic, star-shaped monument dedicated to the uprising in Serbia in 1941, was unveiled for the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Anti-fascist struggle. It was designed by Vojin Stojić and Gradimir Medaković, on one of the promonotories of Kosmaj mountain. Although difficult to get to by public, it is certainly worth considering renting a car to reach it (and maybe stopping at the nearby Kabinet Brewery for a beer).

Monument to Yugoslav Airmen 1941

Built in 1994 and designed by Miodrag Živković, of Tjentište and Kragujevac fame, this is one of the last monuments commemorating one of the first actions during the war: the valiant but doomed attempt of the pilots of Royal Yugoslav Airforce (which was headquartered in Zemun) to stave off Nazi bombers on April 6 1941. Although at the same times bleak and wonderful, it is somewhat of the departure from other “spomeniks” in that it commemorates valour of non-communist fighters, something that for ideological reasons was not done during SFRY.

Sajmište concentration camp complex

The most controversial of all memorials, Staro Sajmište was a notorious Gestapo-run concentration camp on the New Belgrade side of the Sava, which was ceded to the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), and claimed lives of over 40,000 out of 80,000 inmates who passed through it between 1941 and 1944. Initially its victims were Belgarde Jews, but then it started also being used for persecution of Roma, NDH Serbs and anti-fascists in general.

The controversy stems from the fact that the site of Staro Sajmište, clearly the largest place of suffering in Belgrade, is yet to be developed into a full memorial complex. Even SFRY authorities were reluctant to memorialise this camp, and there was even a plan to demolish it completely. Meanwhile, the buildings of the camp, which were initially built for Belgarde’s Art Deco first fair, have been used for residential and commercial purposes. In a series of bizarre twists, the building which was “Nikola Spasić” pavilion before WWII, and then served as the camps gruesome hospital, then housed New Belgarde municipal development office and is now a children’s daycare.

Still although it is widely claimed that Sajmište is unmarked, that is not really true. There is an imposing monument on the banks of the Sava built in 1995 to commemorates the horrors of the camp, making it the last of the „spomeniks“. It was designed by Miša Popović, and symbolises two praying hands flying up in the air and is dedicated to all victims of the camp.

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