Staro Sajmište was built as an art-deco fairground to promote modernisation of Yugoslavia by providing the newest wares and technologies, mostly from the West.
It was opened by a consortium of local businessmen on September 11, 1937, with a few expansions (notably the Turkish and German pavilion) constructed in 1938, based on the designs by Rajko Tatić, Miroslav Lučković and Đorđe Lukić.
It was the first step of Belgrade across the Sava, next to the beautiful new Kind Alexander I bridge, which was to turn Yugoslavia’s capital into a metropolis.
However a sick twist of fate that made Sajmište a showcase of modernity’s worst evil: large scale, industrial-scale genocide perpetrated by the Nazi Germany.
As soon as Yugoslavia fell to Nazi hands in April 1941, the territory of Srem (Syrmia), where Sajmište lies, was annexed by the Independent State of Croatia, however given the strategic importance of the point, Germans retained control of the left bank of the Sava around Belgrade.
As they started shooting Jewish men, the Nazi authorities chose Sajmište as the place for interment of Serbia’s Jewish women and children until they would be transported to the deathcamps in Poland and Gemany. It was on 23 October 1941, that Judenlager Semlin was ordered into existence, named after the German name for Zemun.
Although formally on the territory of Independent State of Croatia, it was entirely run by the German occupying forces, as Ustaša government in Zagreb barred Serbs from working in the camp, due to its own racial laws (although it still requested authorities of occupied Serbia to pay for the costs of the camp).
Over the course of the next three years it was here that over 7000 Serbian Jews were brutally killed by the SS between 1941 and 1942. It was one of the first sites of systematic genocide of Jews, mostly the elderly, women and children, using gas vans.
These adapted vans were brought to the camp in Mach 1942, after a particularly harsh winter claimed lives of many hundreds of the camp’s inmates. The German-made van, adapted so that its exhaust fumes could be used to choke people sitting at its back, was put in use after the camp authorities grew impatient with their inmates and assumed they will never be transferred further to the main concentration camps.
Within two days in March, the gas van was used to kill 800 Belgrade Jews who remained in two Jewish hospitals, and in then in the following two months, it was used on the Jews interred in the camp. Over 7000 bodies of its victims were buried in Jajinci by Serbian prisoners.
That number amounted to almost half of all pre-War Serbian Jewish population, which led the occupying Nazi authorities to (thankfully, inaccurately) declare Serbia “Judenfrei”. During this period, the camp also claimed lives of 500 itinerant Roma women and children (who were also considered untermenschen by the Nazis).
Afterwards, the camp continued its operation as Anhaltlager Semlin, and it was here where those destined for force labour were kept. Out of over 30,000 people who passed through it, about 11,000 inmates, mostly Serbs from the territory if the Independent State of Croatia, were killed either by force of unhygienic conditions.
One especially brutal episode happened during April 1944 Allied bombing when hundreds of inmates perished after bombs hit the site and they tried to escape.
Due to its complicated history and potentially inflammatory political implications the site was never properly memorialised during SFRY, having received a monument only in 1995.
It was first turned into HQ of the Office for construction of New Belgrade, then it housed workshops for many prominent local artists (such as Mića Popović), while some of the buildings became makeshift social housing, especially for the refugees from the wars in Yugoslavia during 1990s.
Although there have been many plans to memorialise it properly and most Belgraders are aware of its grim history, the buildings at Samjište have no special use.
Now one of the pavilions, which initially belonged to the charitable Nikola Spasić foundation but housed the camp hospital, is turned into a private childcare facility, and others are offices and restaurants.
- Open University in London made this great site to memorialise Sajmište with a lot of fantastic resources including letters from Hilda Dajč, a Jewish woman who worked in the camp’s hospital