The Enemy Within (thoughts about Victims and Camps)

author: Helena Rill
21. May 2020

“Your father was in the wrong camp.” Those were the words of a German official explaining the reasons for rejecting an application for assistance for an already aged and frail main. “If it had said Auschwitz, we would have approved the application right away, we wouldn’t even read further. But Knićanin? No one’s heard of it.”[1]

We were taught about the Second World War in school, we watched films, read books. We expect there to be a consensus, at least about the basics. The Holocaust, the casualties of the Second World War, the reign of fascism and the horrors of destruction left in its wake are (mostly) not disputed. However, if we can agree on that, why can’t we commemorate this properly, by commemorating victims and the places where lives were taken?

In Belgrade, for instance, there were a number of camps during the Second World War. Banjica and Staro sajmište are known about. How the Sajmište is marked and treated is another story. But how much do we know about the Topovske šupe camp? Have we heard of Milišićeva ciglana? Topovske šupe are barely marked, the place looks neglected and dilapidated, but at least there’s a signboard. The Milišićeva ciglana camp is not even marked.

If this is how we treat something when we have consensus, what happens with things that deeply divide our societies, such as our more recent history of the wars of the 1990s or what happened with the Danube Swabians in the aftermath of the Second World War?

I wondered why this was so, why are we not memorialising camps that we can agree on. The answer I found, which I can understand, but find difficult to accept, is that historiographically a camp such as Milišićeva ciglana was not that significant. Prisoners were transferred to Milišićeva ciglana after the Allied bombing in April 1944, when the “Zemun Reception Camp” (Staro sajmište) was destroyed. The remaining prisoners were transferred to the newly established camp for prisoners of war at the “Ciglana Milišića” in Zvezdara, near the City Hospital. According to data available to historians, on the eve of Belgrade’s liberation in 1944, mass executions of prisoners from this camp were carried out by the Germans in the vicinity of today’s Astronomical Observatory at Zvezdara. I walk past the Astronomical Observatory every week. Is there any sign to say that people were killed there? Is there any marking or signboard next to the larger building that was once Milišićeva ciglana? No. It’s as if nothing happened. And again, we are talking about victims that fall within a general consensus. And again, I wonder, what about those that don’t?

I wonder what would my mother say if the camp in Germany where she was held during the Second World War was not considered historiographically important. It was relatively small, there’s that comparison again, it was a labour camp although this is officially denied, there were no gas chambers; it turned out that it was part of another insidious plan by the Third Reich to “re-educate” people into Germans. According to official Reich documents from the time, everything was idyllic, which reminds me of official reports about camps for the Danube Swabians after the Second World War, where the situation was also described in similar terms and photographs were attached to show how people were happy and contented in the camps.[2] When I remarked that things were not exactly so, that my mother had nightmares for the rest of her life, a German historical researcher who wrote and published documents online about this precise camp said,  “Personal testimonies are interesting to family members, but you can never generalise them.” Fine, we won’t. But how would she feel if she heard all this? For this reason, here is just a small part of her testimony about that place and those times. She had not yet turned 8 when she was taken to the camp.

“I didn’t tell you, when we went there, to Germany, we went in cattle wagons. It was December 6th, and I was asking my grandmother, ‘Granny, what will St Nicholas bring me?’ […] They rounded us all up, granny, grandpa, my uncles and me. […] There was a collection centre in Krško. I remember there was a latrine, covered on top and a large seat, made of wood, with a ramp. An I remember one mother hung here child there and she jumped. […] Then they put us on trucks, to the station, and then they drove us for a few days and nights. You went to the toilet in the wagon, there were so many people, men, women, children, then, you know, they tell all sorts of stories, that they’re taking us to the slaughterhouse, and we children listened. […] The first thing I saw when we got there, and it really stuck with me, when we arrived to the hall, there were some logs, a large picture of Hitler and the hasenkreuz, I’ll never forget it. How much can a child understand… just the wagons already… I didn’t understand anything, we were going to the slaughterhouse. They lined us up and then heil… That’s how it started, Neusatzeck. […] The last year they separated us. The discipline for us children was… horrible. We were up at five, going to the water well, the flag was raised, then say heil hitler, we were dressed in sacks, practically naked, and it was cold, the winters were harsh, snow up to your knees, I was more wet than dry. God, the things that happened in those four years, I can’t even fathom now that it all happened to me. We went, they took us, it was by the fields, where we had to harvest turnips, potatoes, then the hay, all those chores, we did all sorts. We were used to working hard from home, but this… And then in the evening, sometimes we were given something to eat, sometimes not. There were guards, but what could children have done, coming back tired, miserable. […] My uncles were suspected of being partisans, so we were singled out for abuse, all the suspicious ones in one group. What I told you about, that was in the third year, or the second, I can’t remember now, I just know it was not the last, when I was at St Peter by Freiburg, when the fraufuhrer, you know, I told you about it. […] It was horrific for us, but I can just imagine what it was like for the people who were over there in those camps…”[3]

She came back from the camp four years later.

The first camp she was in was located at a Dominican monastery. There is no signboard to indicate what happened there during the war. There probably isn’t one in St Peter either, but I’m just speculating. So, I see that we’re not the only ones with issues around memory and marking. It seems we all have things to talk about, think about and deal with.

Why am I writing about all this now? I want to make it visible: even if she had been in the most wonderful camp in the world – she was in a camp and she suffered, she had nightmares to her dying day. I don’t want to generalise, I want her suffering over four years in a camp in Germany to be recognised, the reason for her severe distress at seeing a swastika. Also, why is her story about the camp important, or about the Ciglana camp or Topovske šupe? Because they do have direct links with the present. Because if we do not respect those victims, around which we more or less have a consensus, how will we ever respect others? Because it is important to respect all victims. That would maybe, just maybe, mean that we have learned something.

Camps again, but after the Second World War

And now we get to the camps on which there is actually no consensus. Though, do we need it? What happened to the Danube Swabians in Vojvodina after 1945? What was Knićanin, Gakovo or Bački Jarak? Camps again? How is it possible that so many people died there, mostly children, the elderly, women? Or to go a bit further – what happened during the 1990s in Sremska Mitrovica, for instance, or Stajićevo – if we just limit ourselves to Vojvodina.

That history can play games is illustrated by the next example. We’ll stay in Vojvodina – in Zrenjanin and its surroundings. The building of the former camp in Zrenjanin, known as the Stari mlin, was used as a concentration camp from 1942 to 1944 for Jews, Serbs, Roma, communists and partisans. After liberation and until 1948, it became a camp for the German minority. After that, it was mostly used as a storehouse. It is now in ruins, but it is designated as a cultural heritage site of great importance. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, though.

In the vicinity of Zrenjanin is another well-known camp, the Knićanin camp for Germans after the Second World War (that’s the “wrong” camp from the beginning of this text), and close by is the camp in Stajićevo were prisoners from Croatia were held in the 1990s.

The thing that definitely connects these two camps, in Knićanin and Stajićevo, apart from their proximity, it the way they are talked about and marked. For many places that I encountered researching the camps for Danube Swabians, it was said that they were not camps but collection centres, and collection centres are based on international law, as one Belgrade lawyer told me.[4] Well, I guess that makes it alright then. And Stajićevo was also, according to some, managed as a collection centre. There are five confirmed sites in Serbia where prisoners of war from Croatia were held in the period from October 1991 to August 1992: Stajićevo, Begejci, the correctional institutes in Sremska Mitrovica and Niš, the military detention facility in Belgrade on Ustanička Street. It is estimated that between 5000 and 7000 people were imprisoned there. A visit by former camp prisoners to Stajićevo was planned on two occasions in 2009, but kept being postponed “because the police could not guarantee their safety”(?!). There were further arrangements in 2017 that were never actualised. The memorial plaque that was meant to be installed in 2009 never was.[5]

How have we become so insensitive to others? Who suffered the most? Does that mean we don’t talk about anyone else? We don’t talk about some camps because people suffered more, were treated with more cruelty in others? The discomfort I feel as I write about this, unable to hold on to the thread, makes me almost nauseated. Can we talk about other execution grounds when we have, to invoke fresh wars again, Srebrenica? Can we talk about Milišićeva ciglana when we have Staro sajmište or Banjica? Can we talk meaningfully about camps for Germans in Knićanin and Gakovo though we also had Nazi death camps? Do we dare talk about Stajićevo when our own were killed in Operation Storm? Why do we constantly have to compare (ourselves)? Why can’t we respect others’ victims and pain, and not just our own? Daniel Gaede from the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation says something about this:  “I think this is one of the difficult things we still argue about: ‘who suffered more?’ ‘How do you measure that?’“[6] Questions keep multiplying: when did we become insensitive to others? Is it precisely because others want to make some victims visible and want to actually equalise narratives, is that what makes us more determined to not see some things, some victims? What if you have both in your family? Whose story has the right to be public? Do you use it? Do you feel shame anyway, even if it was “righteous”?

Why do we not have museums or marked sites, why are the places neglected, why are some without even a signboard, without any marking? Because we as a society do not remember meaningfully, only declaratively. Why are the victims from Topovske šupe commemorated by a plaque installed by the Jewish Community, and not the state or our society? Why is the monument in Knićanin installed by victims and their descendants? Isn’t this something that has marked the whole of society, and not just their descendants?  And all these memorial signboards would say, among other things, to quote the historian Milovan Pissari from when he spoke about the initiative to preserve the former camp at Topovske šupe, “that we have to be aware that there were policies that resulted in the deaths of millions of people,” and that “one of the ways to prevent this from happening again is precisely through the culture of memory and education about what happened.”[7]

What will appear in Zrenjanin, and in a few other places in central Banat, something that we have consensus on – to go back to the beginning of this text – is the “stumbling block” that will be installed in memory of Jewish Holocaust victims. These are cobblestones encased in metal bearing the name, year of birth and death, and place where the person was killed. The blocks have a raised relief so that people would stumble over them, the aim being to draw attention to those who were killed. Almost eight decades later.

Branka Prpa writes in Vreme about remembering sites of killings in Belgrade and victims from the Second World War. However, her every word can be applied to the present and to all the region:

“The conclusion is ultimately meant for us, the living. We share a common fate with our dead and communicate with them exclusively through compassion. The execution sites of Belgrade where the citizens of Belgrade and many others lost their lives cannot and must not remain unmarked. Historiography and individuals must bow before human suffering. The executioners must be held accountable for their crimes, but the main enemy is within us. It lives in our ignorance, our indifference, or our inability to imagine a future that would see us take responsibility for our past. Evil persists because it is often ideologised, but no ideology can justify crime, because if a justification is accepted, it turns into an endless threat. Our predecessors lost their lives because, like us, they believed that the meaning of human existence should be expressed through happiness and freedom. By mourning them and punishing their surviving executioners, we ourselves confirm our own purpose in the long line of human existence.”[8]

Then there will be no wrong camps, or wrong victims, but only their suffering.

[1] Thomas Dapper, Putevi za Mramorak [The Roads to Mramorak], in:  O „nestanku” nemačkih nacionalnih manjina – Jedno teško poglavlje u istoriji Jugoslavije 1941-1955. godine [On the “disappearance” of German national minorities – A difficult chapter in the history of Yugoslavia 1941-1955]. Publisher:  Fondacija Beg, proterivanje, pomirenje i Centralni podunavskošvapski muzej, p. 188. Knićanin was a camp for Danube Swabians from 1945 to 1948. In it, 7767 cases of death were documented, but unofficial numbers are much higher.

[2] Rill, H, Stojčić, M. Na tragu podunavskih Nemaca [On the Trail of the Danube Swabians], Centre for Nonviolent Action, p. 52.

[3] From an interview conducted on 15 December 2007. Transcript of audio recording.

[4] Beoković, Jelena: Istraga o logorima kod Zrenjanina [Investigation of the Camps near Zrenjanin], Politika, accessed on 15 May 2020.

[5] Stupar, Dalibor: O logorima za Hrvate i Bošnjake u Srbiji tokom devedesetih [Camps for Croats and Bosniaks in Serbia during the 1990s], VOICE,  accessed on 14 May 2020. See also:  Tončić, Bojan: Logori u Srbiji: brižljivo čuvana istina [The Camps in Serbia: A Carefully Kept Secret], Remarker

[6] Kultura sećanja na Balkanu i u Nemačkoj: Jedno je lice užasa [Culture of Memory in the Balkans and in Germany: One Face of Horror], Centre for Nonviolent Action, p. 10.

[7] Pissari: Zaštiti nekadašnji logor Topovske šupe od propadanja [Protect the Former Topovske šupe Camp from Ruin], Danas 28 October 2019.

[8] Tihi susedi [Quiet Neighbours], Vreme,  accessed on 15 May 2020



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