Belgrade has for long been divided from its surroundings by its rivers, Sava and the Danube, that were since the 18th century also international borderlines. This changed in 1918 and the city was finally able to deliberate about expanding across its rivers as well. In 1934 the first car/pedestrian bridge on the Sava was built in the place of present-day Branko bridge. Belgrade’s first step on the other bank of Sava was started in 1937 when the building of the new exposition area (sajmište) started. In its centre was a tall tower in which the management was seated while around it spread pavilions owned by different states (Rumania, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Germany…) or companies (Philips, Auto Union…). All of them were done in variations of the modernist style. The exposition area served to display the successes of the Yugoslav economy, as well as the advance of modern science and technology – cars, aeroplanes, parachutes, TV etc, were attracting the largest crowds. However, in 1941, after the German occupation of Serbia, the exposition area was surrounded by barb wire and turned into a Nazi concentration camp. In 1941 here were gathered the Jews of Belgrade who were all killed in spring next year in gas trucks. After that, the concentration camp served for incarnating the Serbs from Croatia (on whose territory it now was) and various enemies of the occupying forces who were from here sent to become slave workforce in Germany, Norway etc or were sent to Croatian death camps such as Jasenovac. The end of the Staro Sajmište concentration camp came in April of 1944 when it was all but destroyed in American bombing so that Nazis moved the prisoners to other camps. The total estimated death toll in this camp is set at 25,000 (of that around 10,000 were Jews). After WWII the half-destroyed site was used for the much-needed living space for Belgraders. New, residential pavilions were added in the following years. For a period of time, part of the site was used by artists as ateliers. Despite several plans, the area was left almost unmarked. A small monument commemorating the site was placed in the late 1970s and a large monument to victims was erected in 1995 (by Miša Popović) on the riverbank of Sava. Since the end of WWII, this was the area occupied by Belgrade’s poor. In several last decades, it was populated mostly by Belgrade Roma or by the refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The last committee that should have started the transformation of Staro Sajmište into a memorial site was formed in 2017 but has not met since.
TEXT BY VLADIMIR DULOVIĆ
1937Exposition area with pavilions
2018 Residential, restaurant, car repair, various businesses
2018 State, private
Form of government
1937 Parliamentary constitutional monarchy
1970 Socialist federative republic
2018 Parliamentary democracy
Spatial Planning Agency
1970 Urban Planning Institute Belgrade
2018 Urban Planning Institute Belgrade
Type of heritage and protection
2018 Cultural monument
Interview with Simon Simonović
SS: Well that’s quite interesting because even though they’re from, let’s say, the most socially deprived groups, they are very varied and among them, there are those who know the history of that place really well – what it was and what it represented and what it should mean. But there are also people who – especially when we’re talking about Roma families who are squatters there, who are totally unintegrated socially, whose children are growing up in a building about whose history they know nothing and their ancestors were probably victims, in that concentration camp and they don’t know a single story about it… How can I put it, we can’t blame them, they were never offered that knowledge and those stories. What makes it really strange is that whole space is made up of buildings that we all know what they were but today they serve a completely different purpose. So that famous Belgrade restaurant, which is housed in a building that was primarily a mortuary and that is by its very architecture a very severe and unpleasant structure – that’s where Belgraders with secondary or higher education sit and eat every day as though nothing ever happened there. I think that’s one of those things or problems we have collectively as a society with reflecting on our past and our history. Until that changes, until everyone starts thinking about those things and why some events are important, until then even as a society we won’t be able to externally change those values, to influence that.
VD: Tell me, do you think Belgraders, the people you know, are generally aware where the Old Fairground is? We all know, I assume most people know, that it was a concentration camp. Are people aware that it was actually at that location?
SS: I think that considering how we as a society and a culture mark that place, that’s how much ordinary people remember. Thinking about my peers and my friends, yes, I think that most people are at the level that they know it was some kind of camp but going a bit deeper and talking about what kind of camp, what happened there? I think those are topics not everyone would know how to talk about.
VD: How do foreigners react when you take them there and tell the history of that whole location?
SS: They’re pretty surprised, especially on the tours I do. The Old Fairground is actually the first stop, the first place they visit. Many of them are there for a sightseeing tour and imagine they’re going to see some of the sights of the city. So the first impression when I bring them to the Old Fairground and tell them, “This is a very significant and symbolic place for the development of this city”, they say, “You’re joking?” But when they hear the story, I think that symbolically leads them onto the idea that things aren’t as they seem, that Belgrade is a place with a lot of history but that that history is often hidden or lost.
VD: What do you think that says to them, and to all of us, about the culture of memory in Belgrade? Can we really take that as a testament and a symbol of how we process most of the past? Is it an area where we have a longstanding policy or do you think it’s changing somehow?
SS: I think you defined it best just now. It really is a testament to how we relate to memory. It is our memorial to memory. That’s how we process memory and it represents and symbolises that. And in that sense, the Fairground is a reflection of the state of our society.
Interview with Ružica Dević
RD: That is also very interesting and just as I was reading and remembering those plans – there were really varied plans for the Fairground, some of which would surprise you, some you will have heard of and some you wouldn’t. And yes, the Fairground has that unlucky fate that it is a very commercial area, in the sense that it is on the riverbank, that it is in the centre of the city and there are many urban plans according to which that area should be an economic, business and commercial centre and in that sense there were many initiatives for the Fairground to be demolished and on more than one occasion. Those plans were, for this or that reason, interrupted. Never because someone said, “Hang on, there was a concentration camp there, don’t” but more for financial reasons. And I really believe that one of the main reasons why the Fairground, why that tower and that space weren’t totally levelled was because of the people who live there. There are those arguments, “how can those people live there, it was a concentration camp, people died there”… I can never judge those people who live there. They live there because they have nowhere else. Even at that time when in the 50s there was an artists’ commune, I read something about it, and those artists who went into those pavilions and made ateliers there, that was a temporary solution. They weren’t too happy about it and they used it because they had to. I believe that the Fairground would be in an even worse state than it is now if those people weren’t living there or had lived there or had an atelier there. So I see them as some kind of guardians of that space. It would definitely have been demolished if they weren’t there.
And what I believe will happen to the Fairground is, unfortunately, since we now again have a Commission deliberating how the Fairground should look like a memorial, as a memorial park or monument, how it will be. All the time there is this tendency for the Fairground, precisely because of its turbulent history, because it was a fairground before the Second World War, because it was a concentration camp for Jews, after that a camp for political opponents, for partisans and other enemies of the Nazi regime, because it was an artists’ commune, etc. I think that those narratives will be folded into one, that we have to venerate the whole history of the Fairground. So again the primacy of the Fairground as a place where women and children were killed, that is a concentration camp for Jews and Roma, will be lost – instead all of those narratives will be folded into one by becoming a memorial by the fact that we will remember it for its very advanced architecture, we will remember the victims of the fascist regime, all of the victims, we will remember all of the artists who worked there, because some very famous artists worked there. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll manage to do the culture of memory thing in the right way even though it’s very important how we will remember the Fairground because of all the other memories we need to deal with… I cannot link this to the 90s and with all those memorials that are being erected now and that are from the 90s and with all those places that remain unmarked… If we now manage to memorialise the Fairground in the right way, give it its proper function, then there’s a chance that in the future we will have memorials or commemorative markers, a plaque in the 13th May neighbourhood of Batajnica where there were mass graves of Albanian civilians killed in Kosovo. In that, I can believe. If that doesn’t happen, if the Fairground ends up being a spaced used for commercial purposes or if there’s, as it was originally intended, some kind of opera house or some cultural content, and in some context there’ll be a museum for the suffering of the Second World War, with that kind of general name, then I do not believe we will have the right culture of memory for the 90s.