A little background
On the left bank of the River Sava in Belgrade, Serbia, lies the dilapidated remnants of the Old Fairground, a complex of exhibition halls built in 1937 that represented the very core of Serbia’s industrial development. Still commonly referred to as the Old Fairground, this area now has a strong association with artistic development and houses studios, shops, mechanics workshops, car sales outlets, residential areas and Roma settlements. With the exception of two memorials at the site, there is little in the landscape to indicate that, during the Second World War, the Old Fairground structures were taken over by the Nazi occupying forces for the purpose of killing and interring Jews, Roma and political prisoners.
Mobile gas vans and mass graves
Between the 8 December 1941 and May 1942, it is estimated by historians that around 7,500 young, elderly and female Jews and Roma interred in what was known as Judenlager Semlin were murdered in mobile gas vans and buried in mass graves on the opposite side of the Sava River.
‘Serbien ist judenfrei’
Following the announcement on the 8 June 1942 that ‘Serbia is free of Jews’ (‘Serbien ist judenfrei), the camp became Anhaltlager Semlin, a detention site for around 32,000 communists, partisans and Chetniks, of whom it is estimated by historians that around 10,600 were killed.
One of the very first chapters in the Final Solution
The killings in the Judenlager have been described as ‘one of the very first chapters in the Final Solution itself’ and have been the subject of many notable investigations by historians (Browning 1991, 68). The Anhaltlager has received less attention, but a narrative of the camp’s history has still been provided. However, public knowledge concerning the site and the events that occurred there appears to be limited both locally and internationally. The layout of the camp and the physical evidence relating to it that still survives in the modern landscape has also not been investigated.
A complex dynamic environment
Understanding the spatial layout of the camp and devising plans for memorialisation has been complicated by the fact that Staro Sajmište represents a ‘Living Death Camp’. This phrase reflects the fact that the landscape in which the camps were housed is, and has been since 1944, a dynamic one where the living and the memories of the dead coexist.
Overall research aims:
- To define the extent and nature of the former camp at Staro Sajmište as it existed during the Holocaust
- To identify successive phases of the site’s occupation
- To define what remains of the former camp in the modern landscape and to determine how the successive phases of the site’s occupation have influenced the alteration or preservation of camp features
- To present, through an analysis of archaeological survey data and cultural memory research, the various layers of history of Staro Sajmište with a view to informing future memorialisation plans
This was achieved through:
- The collection of documentary, cartographic and photographic resources relating to various phases of the history of Staro Sajmište
- The use of topographical, geophysical and laser scanning data alongside airborne imagery to generate spatial analysis of the former camp area and to characterize existing surface and buried remains
- The synthesis of the gathered data in order to create revised plans of the camp and successive phases of the site’s occupation
- Cultural memory research, to include the collection of oral and written testimonies, video footage, documentary evidence, in-field observations and landscape analysis
- The presentation of the documentary, cartographic, photographic and physical evidence in a fashion that makes it suitable for use in education, heritage management and commemoration
In summary, the research has facilitated:
- A detailed analysis of the surviving Semlin camp structures
- The identification of buried remains of other Semlin camp buildings and infrastructure
- The production of the first comprehensive map of the camps, based on the analysis of aerial imagery and in-field survey
- The creation of a three-dimensional model of Staro Sajmište. The model comprises of laser scanning and Ground Penetrating Radar data so that the above- and below-ground remains present at the site, dating to various phases of its history, can be visualised and examined
- A detailed analysis of the wider landscape of the Semlin camps and the processes of extermination and internment carried out there by the Nazis
- A greater understanding of how the landscape of the camps has evolved since the end of the Second World War
For more information about The Living Death Camps project see:
- Forensic Architecture Research Group. 2014. Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
- Forensic Architecture Research Project
- Sturdy Colls, C. 2013. ‘The Archaeology of the Holocaust’, British Archaeology 130, p. 50-53
Read more about The Holocaust Landscapes Project:
- Holocaust Landscapes Project Overview
- Alderney Archaeology and Heritage Project
- Staro Sajmište: the Living Death Camp