The site of the Exhibition Grounds - separated from downtown Belgrade by the River Sava - survived the Nazi bombing on 6 April 1941 relatively unscathed. Debris and shockwaves from nearby detonations (including that caused when the retreating Yugoslav Army blew up the King Alexander Bridge) shattered most of the windows and created holes in the roofs of several pavilions, but there was no major structural damage to the buildings.
For the first six months of the occupation, the pavilions stood vacant and abandoned. After the partition of Yugoslavia, the River Sava became a state border separating Nazi-occupied Serbia from the newly created Axis satellite, the Independent State of Croatia. The left bank of the Sava opposite Belgrade was, formally at least, part of Croatia, with the site of the Exhibition Grounds marking its most easterly point. However, because Nazi authorities sought to retain direct control over the border (especially given its proximity to the Serbian capital) the area on the Croatian side of the river remained, for the most part, under the authority the German military command in the nearby town of Zemun (Semlin in German).
In the autumn of 1941, at the time when Serbia's male Jewish population was being annihilated by Wermacht's firing squads, the Nazi administration started to look for a suitable location where it could intern the remaining Jews - The women, children and the elderly whose age, gender or physical condition precluded them from being used as hostages in reprisal shootings. Their intention was to detain the Jews until the spring of 1942, when they would be deported to a 'reception camp in the east'. The initial plan was to establish a detention camp near the town of Sremska Mitrovica approximately 70km west of Belgrade, but shortly after the building work began, it transpired that the chosen location is prone to flooding, so construction was halted and the site abandoned.
On 23 October 1941, the Nazi authorities decided that instead of building a new camp, they would convert the Belgrade Exhibition Grounds into a suitable detention facility. The site was not an ideal location for a concentration camp given its proximity to the city, but officials were running out of time and ideas, and the large vacant pavilions presented an expedient solution to their problem. Because the Exhibition Grounds were under the jurisdiction of the local command in Zemun (Semlin), the camp was named Judenlager Semlin - Camp for Jews Semlin.
The proposed site for the Semlin Judenlager was formally on Croatian territory, so before the camp could be established necessary permission needed to be obtained from the government in Zagreb. This was, of course, a mere formality, which was completed via the German Foreign Office headquarters in Berlin. The only conditions imposed by the Croatian government were that there should be no Serbian guards or militiamen on its territory and that the camp must be supplied by the authorities in Belgrade.
The adaptation of the pavilions was placed in the hands of the German state-owned construction company Todt. Throughout November 1941, a group of around 200 Jews who were still interned at the camp Topovske šupe were driven to the exhibition grounds to work on converting the pavilions into camp living quarters. They built rows of wooden bunk beds, on three, sometimes four levels, not dissimilar to those which existed in other Nazi concentration camps. Also, they constructed makeshift toilets and outdoor taps. Barbed wire was laid around the camp's perimeter, while the camp command set up its headquarters in the Central Tower.
On 8 December 1941, all Jews who registered with the authorities in Belgrade were ordered to report to the offices of the 'Jewish Police' (Judenreferat) in George Washington Street. After handing over the keys to their properties, they were taken through Belgrade and across the recently constructed pontoon bridge over the Sava to the newly established Judenlager Semlin. By 12 December, there were already over 5,000 interns at the camp, with the figure eventually rising to 7,000.
The first 5,000 or so Jewish women and children who arrived at Semlin were placed in the largest building, the Yugoslav Pavilion No. 3. The damaged roof and broken windows meant that rain, snow and strong northerly winds penetrated the interior, making living conditions unbearable. Four small furnaces could not adequately heat an area of some 5,000m2, so interns suffered from cold, frostbite and pneumonia. Because of overcrowding, each intern had less than half a metre of space on the bare wooden bunk beds. When new consignments of interns started to arrive in January 1942, they were placed in Pavilion no. 1, where they faced similarly inhumane conditions.
Food for the camp inmates was prepared in the kitchen located in Pavilion No. 4. Daily rations consisted of water, weak tea, stale cabbage or potato soup and a small piece of dry corn bread. The poor diet was in part the result of the fact that Serbian collaborationist authorities in charge of food distribution in the city placed the 'Jewish camp' at the bottom of their list of priorities. Even though there were more than a thousand children at Semlin, the city administration announced on 3 February 1942, that 'food deliveries to the Jewish camp can be made only after the needs of all other residents have been met'.
The appalling conditions in the Semlin camp took their toll on the camp population, especially as the winter of 1941/1942 was one of the coldest on record. Between December and March some 500 Jewish interns died of exposure, disease or hunger. According to one of a very few survivors, Šarlota Ćosić (who was subsequently released on account of being married to an 'Aryan') corpses were stored in the former Turkish Pavilion, which functioned both as a shower room and a makeshift morgue. Every few days the dead were carried across the frozen River Sava where they were collected for burial at the Jewish cemetery. The camp had an infirmary located in the Spasić Pavilion, which was staffed by a doctor, Moša Alakalaj and the nurse Hilda Dajč.
The German guards subjected the interns to regular beatings and humiliation. According to survivor testimonies, guards frequently took photos of women inside the camp toilets, which the interns found especially degrading. A dozen or so detainees were shot, mainly for attempting to smuggle letters out of the camp via the Jewish hospital staff who visited the camp. Shooting were carried out in the open space between Pavilions 3 and 4.
In addition to the Jewish interns, some 500 or so Roma women and children were brought to Semlin in December 1941. In the eyes of the German racial laws Jews and Roma were treated as equally 'inferior', and were formally at least the target of similar discriminatory treatment. However, in practice, the Nazi administration in Belgrade did not enforce anti-Roma and antisemitic measures with equal fervour. Although many Roma men were executed in reprisal shootings in the autumn of 1941, the Roma population as a whole, unlike the Jewish community, was not subjected to compulsory registration or systematic mass internment. In fact, anti-Roma legislation applied mainly to Roma travellers, i.e. to individuals without permanent residence, of whom, according to Nazi estimates there were only 1,500 in Serbia. As a result, Serbia's Roma community, unlike the Jews, did not face the threat of total annihilation.
The interned Roma were placed in Pavilion No. 2, where conditions are believed to have been worse than in the other pavilions given that most of the detainees arrived at the camp without any personal belongings. Approximately 60 Roma died during the winter, mainly of disease and exposure. The rest were released between January and March 1942, after managing to obtain, via friend and relatives, written evidence that they have a permanent address in the city. The last group of Roma was released at the end of April 1942.
The fate of the Semlin Jews was very different. In the early spring of 1942, occupational authorities in Belgrade realised that the planned deportation of the Jews to the east is not forthcoming. Releasing them was, of course, out of the question, so just like in the autumn of 1941, the local German commanders found themselves under pressure to find a local 'solution' to the 'Jewish problem'. This time around, however, the government in Berlin provided the necessary 'infrastructure'. In March 1942 a gas van, driven by two junior SS officers, Götz and Meyer, arrived in Belgrade. The van, which in Nazi documents was referred to by the euphemism 'delousing truck' was in fact a normal truck (manufactured by the German company Saurer) whose exhaust pipe was adapted in a way that allowed the fumes to be diverted into the sealed compartment at the back. Once the exhaust pipe was placed in the required position, a 10-15 minute ride was enough to kill as many as 100 people locked in the back. The gas van had been used in the Nazi euthanasia programme in 1940, and in late 1941 and early 1942 it was being tested for use in the 'Final Solution of the Jewish question'.
The first victims of the gas van in Belgrade were the staff and patients at the two Jewish hospitals in the city. Over two days, 18-19 March 1942, over 800 people (mainly hospital patients) were loaded into the gas van, in groups of between 80 and 100. They died of carbon-monoxide poisoning as the van drove through Belgrade to the killing grounds in Jajinci, a village at the base of mount Avala, south of the city. Upon arrival, the truck was unloaded by seven Serbian prisoners who buried the dead in mass graves.
Once the Jewish hospitals were emptied and shut down, the destruction of the Jewish interns at Semlin began. A survivor Hedvige Schonfein, who was later released as a Swiss national, described the events as follows:
'The Germans announced that the camp is to be vacated to make room for the communists but they would not say where they are taking us… Initially they invited people to volunteer many volunteered and left with the first few transports. When there were no volunteers, it was the Germans who decided who will leave next. They had a list and it seems they always made sure that whole families, men, women and children were sent away in the same consignment. In some cases this included distant relatives - cousins, nieces and nephews, granddads and grandmas.
The prisoners departed in a large dark grey sealed truck. As many as a hundred people could fit inside it, 10 rows of 10 people. There were no seats inside. The van always parked outside the gate - it never entered the camp.
Those who were selected for transport were ordered, or rather advised politely to carry all valuables on them, while packing and labelling the rest of their belongings. The belongings were then loaded by the SS into another truck which always followed the gray van. Once this was done, interns were ordered to get into the truck, and the two vehicles set off, none of us knew where to.
These transports became a daily occurrence. There were no transports on Sundays or holidays, but on occasions the truck made two journeys in a single day. The driver of the grey van often entered the camp, gathered the children around him, caressed them, took them in his arms, and gave them sweets. Children liked him and always ran towards him to collect the sweets. No one in the camp imagined that they are being taken to their death. Most believed that they are being driven to a labour camp of some sort. Once I tried to climb up the central tower to see where the truck was going, but I got caught and the guards threatened to shoot me. We agreed with those leaving the camp that, upon arrival at their destination, they would write down, on the van carrying the belongings where they have been taken to, but we never found any messages'
The Jews who entered the 'grey van' at Semlin never got to see their belongings again or the truck that carried them. By the time the gas van reached it destination at Jajinci, the Jewish 'passengers', who were referred to in some German documents as 'cargo', were dead.
'Once loaded, the truck drove to the Sava bridge just several hundred metres from the camp's entrance, where Andorfer [the camp commander] waited in the car so as not to have to witness the loading On the far side of the bridge, the gas van stopped and one of the drivers climbed out and worked underneath it, connecting the exhaust to the sealed compartment. The baggage truck turned off the road while the gas van and the commandant's car drove through the middle of Belgrade to reach a shooting range at Avala ten kilometres south of the city.'
Between 19 March and 10 May, Götz and Meyer, accompanied by the camp commander Herbert Andorfer, made between 65 and 70 trips between Semlin and Jajinci, killing approximately 6,300 Jewish inmates. Of the almost 7000 Jews interned at Semlin, fewer than 50 women survived. They were released mainly on account of being married to Serbs.
Rumours about what was happening to Jewish interns were rife among German soldiers and the collaborationist administration in Belgrade. According to Christopher Browning, they even reached Jewish communities in Croatia and Hungary which had not yet been interned. It appears that the German authorities were not all that concerned about keeping their mission a secret, 'except in regard to the unsuspecting victims still in the camp', who were made to believe that they are being transported to a 'transit camp' somewhere in Yugoslavia. At one point Andorfer even distributed a fictitious set of 'camp regulations' in order to preserve the illusion among the interns.
The destruction of Jewish women, children and the elderly at the Semlin Judenlager has attracted significant interest from historians of the Holocaust, some of whom have described it as an important landmark in the escalation, in 1942, of the Nazi policy towards Jews. Christopher Browning suggests, for instance, that the killing at Semlin in the spring of 1942 was 'the consummation, in Serbia of a wider plan to destroy European Jews'. What's more, 'the development of the gas van and its use to murder the Semlin Jews presaged the efficiency and routinized detachment of the death camps'.
'Guards continued to guard, whether it was a bridge, a concentration camp, or a mass burial site. Drivers drove, whether it was a chauffeured limousine or a gas van. Chemists worked in their crime lab, whether to solve murders or to facilitate them. Mechanics worked in their garages on all vehicles, whatever their function, and motor pool supervisors procured and dispatched them. Camp commandants kept order in the camp, whether it required threatening Serbs to deliver the minimal food supplies to keep their prisoners alive one month or inventing fictitious regulations of a bogus transit camp to send the same prisoners unsuspecting to their deaths the next one.'
Thus, the process of killing at Semlin was compartmentalised so as to allow everyone involved to continue 'doing their job' while at the same time playing a part in the destruction of the Jews. Murder became no more than a 'small incident in a long career' of all those involved. In subsequent years, this was to become the distinguishing feature of the Nazi death camps.
Significantly however, in addition to the notable place that Semlin Judenlager occupies in the wider history of the destruction of European Jewry, it is also central to the history of the Holocaust in Serbia. Almost half of the total number of Jews from the territory of Nazi occupied Serbia perished there in less than two months in the spring of 1942, making Serbia the first Nazi occupied territory to be declared 'cleansed of Jews'.