Roma victims must not be forgotten
“By the end of the year the City of Belgrade will declare the Autokomanda area as public property, and the Memorial Center Topovske Šupe will be built there.” This statement from the Deputy Mayor of Belgrade, Mr. Goran Vesić, published on 5th of May 2021 on the official website of the Belgrade City Authorities, has raised several doubts.
In his interview for Večernje Novosti Mr. Vesić stated: “When the Detailed Regulation Plan is completed and adopted (by the City Assembly) at the end of the year, and when the area is declared as public property, the City will, together with the Jewish community, immediately announce a public call for design and construction of the memorial. Not only Jewish, but also Serb hostages were held and killed here by the German occupier. The great injustice inflicted on the Serbs and Jews will be corrected.”
Concentration Camp for Jewish and Roma Men
In the fall of 1941, at the area of Autokomanda in Belgrade, the former Royal Yugoslav Army military barracks (known as Topovske Šupe – “Cannon Sheds”) were turn into a concentration camp for Jewish and Roma men who served as hostages for mass retribution shootings by Germans. About 5,000 Jews and about 1,500 Roma passed through the concentration camp at Topovske Šupe. All were shot at execution sites around Belgrade.
Authentic Sites in Belgrade
German concentration camps at Topovske Šupe and Judenlager/Anhaltelager Semlin at Staro Sajmište, as well as the camp at Banjica, are some of the most important authentic Holocaust sites and sites of terror and suffering of Jews, Serbs, Roma, members of resistance, and other victims held and killed at various detention and killing sites in and around Belgrade during the Second World War. These places have yet to become places of remembrance and learning because regrettably they are still not today..
A Shopping Mall
The news that a memorial center will be built at the Topovske Šupe site is great, as I hope that it means that the issue of preserving this authentic site has definitely been resolved and that the plans for turning this area into a shopping mall are now abandoned or properly adjusted. It is not exactly clear what will happen with the shopping mall plans. It is also important to learn more precisely about what area Mr. Vesić was referring to and whether both of the remaining authentic buildings will be included.
Where are the Roma?
What immediately caught my eye in this statement was that there was no mention of the Roma people at all. On the other hand, it was stated that “Serbs were also killed there”, which is not accurate. Thousands of Serb victims were killed at Anhaltelager Semlin at Staro Sajmište, at Banjica, and many other places around Belgrade but not at Topovske Šupe.
It is impossible to even imagine a memorial center at Topovske Šupe which would exclude the Roma. Any such memorial must include the history of the prewar life of Belgrade Roma, their persecution during the German occupation, the important role of the collaborators, in particular Nedić’s Government and his police and the consequences of this persecution still present in the Roma community today.
Law about Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište”
It is not clear how this plan fits with the Law on the Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište”, which was adopted by the Serbian Parliament in February 2020. Namely, this law already includes the creation of a memorial center at “Topovske Šupe”.
Is this an announcement of the beginning of the realization of the aforementioned law or is it a completely new initiative, or maybe a start of a new cooperation between the City and the State authorities in the realization of this project?
The law on the Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište” stipulates that, in addition to focusing on the site at Staro Sajmište, the Memorial Center “will be established as a cultural institution with the aim of nurturing the memory of the victims of the Nazi concentration camp at Topovske Šupe”.
The law also stipulates that “a particular Program Board for the museum of the Jewish Transit Camp Belgrade – Topovske Šupe” will be formed within the Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište”. Article 12 of the same law explicitly defines that the territory of the Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište” includes, in addition to the premises of the Former Belgrade Fair on the left bank of the Sava river (Staro Sajmište), “the premises of the Jewish Transit Camp Belgrade – Topovske Šupe”.
Places of Oblivion must become Places of Remembrance and Learning
Regardless of these doubts, we welcome every move of the City and the State authorities that ensures the preservation of authentic Holocaust sites and all sites of suffering, and their transformation into spaces for remembrance and education.
It is not easy but if this work will be conducted properly, which means professionally and with courage, the future Memorial Center “Staro Sajmište”, which would include Topovske Šupe, could emerge to become one of the most important European centers for education and research about the Holocaust, Samudaripen and other shared and unique World War II experiences. Such a Memorial Center could become one of the most important centers for countering distortion, manipulation and politicization of this history, both in the region and across Europe. Alternatives are rather gloomy.