The Holocaust in Serbia

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Concentration camps in Yugoslavia in World War II.
Jews in Belgrade in 1941.
A Jewish prisoner in Belgrade

The Holocaust in German-occupied Serbia was the Nazi German genocide against Serbs, Jews and Romani during World War II in the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia.[Note 1] Serbia today includes areas outside the Military Commander of Serbia's Territory in 1941 to 1945: especially the northern Serbian province Vojvodina then made up of the Hungarian Delvidek with its major city of Novi Sad, Serbian Banat, and Serbian Srem (Syrmia). The main perpetrator of the crimes was the Nazi German Wehrmacht stationed in German-occupied Serbia, which carried out the operations with the assistance of Dimitrije Ljotić's Yugoslav fascist movement Zbor and the quisling regime of Milan Nedić.[3]


Yugoslav Foreign Secretary Anton Korošec, who was Roman Catholic priest and leader of Slovenian conservatives, stated in September 1938, that "Jewish issue did not exist in Yugoslavia…. Jewish refugees from the Nazi Germany are not welcome here." In December 1938 Rabbi Isaac Alkalai, the only Jewish member of government was dismissed from the government.

On 25 March 1941, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact, allying the Kingdom of Yugoslavia with the Axis powers. The Pact was extremely unpopular, particularly in Serbia and Montenegro, and demonstrations broke out. On 27 March, Serb military officers overthrew Prince Paul. The new government withdrew its support for the Axis, but did not repudiate the Tripartite Pact. Nevertheless, Axis forces, led by Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941.

In central Serbia the Germans occupiers established the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia (Gebiet des Militärbefehlshabers in Serbien), the only area of partitioned Yugoslavia under direct German military government, with the day-to-day administration of the territory controlled by the German Chief of the Military Administration. The German Military Commander in Serbia appointed a Serbian civil puppet government to carry out administrative tasks in accordance with German direction and supervision. The police and army of the puppet government were placed under German commanders.

In July 1941, a major uprising began in Serbia against the German occupiers, which included the establishment of the Republic of Užice, the first liberated territory in World War II Europe. To assist in quelling the rebellion the German occupiers in August 1941 put in place the puppet government of Milan Nedić, which was also given responsibility for many Holocaust-related activities, including the registration and arrest of Jews and joint control over the Banjica concentration camp in Belgrade.[4]

The Holocaust[edit]

On 13 April 1941, before the Royal Yugoslav Army formally capitulated, Wilhelm Fuchs – Chief of the Einsatzgruppen based in Belgrade – ordered the registration of the city's Jews.[5] His order stated that all those who did not register, will be shot.[6] Shortly after, Field Commander Colonel von Keisenberg, issued a decree which limited their freedom of movement.[7] On 29 April 1941, the Chief of the German Military Administration in Serbia, Harald Turner issued the order to register all Jews and Gypsies throughout German-occupied Serbia. The order prescribed the wearing of yellow armbands, introduced forced labor and curfew, limited access to food and other provisions and banned the use of public transport.[8]

On 30 May, the German Military Commander in Serbia, Helmuth Förster, issued the main race laws - The Regulation Concerning Jews and Gypsies (Verordnung Betreffend Die Juden Und Zigeuner), which defined who is considered Jewish and Gypsy. The law excluded Jews and Roma from public and economic life, their property was seized, they were obliged to register in special lists (Judenregister and Zigeunerlisten) and for forced labor. In addition, the order prescribed the obligatory wearing of yellow tape for Jews and Roma, prohibited them from work in public institutions and professions as lawyers, doctors, dentists, veterinarians and pharmacists, as well as visits to cinemas, theaters, entertainment venues, public baths, sports fields and markets.[9]

The destruction of Serbian Jews by the Nazi Germans was carried out in 2 distinct phases. The first, which lasted between July and November 1941 involved the murder of Jewish men, who were shot as part of retaliatory executions carried out by German forces in response to the rising anti-Nazi, partisan insurgency in Serbia. In October 1941. the German general, Franz Böhme, ordered the execution of 100 civilians for every German soldier killed and 50 for every wounded.[10] Böhme's order stated that hostages are to be drawn from "all Communists, people suspected of being Communists, all Jews, and a given number of nationalist and democratically minded inhabitants". Altogether some 30.000 people were executed by the Nazi's during the first 2 months of this policy, including nearly all Serbian Jewish males, as well as tens of thousands of Serbs.[10] After executing tens of thousands of Jewish men, the Wehrmacht in Belgrade refused to kill women and children because that would be "dishonourable".[11]

The second genocidal attempt between December 1941 and May 1942 involved the incarceration of the women and children at the Semlin concentration camp and former fairgrounds in Belgrade and their gassing in a mobile gas van called a Sauerwagen. The German concentration camp, the old fairgrounds or Stare Sajmište, near Zemun was established across the Sava river from Belgrade, on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia, to process and eliminate the captured Jews, Serbs, Roma, and others. Some 7,000 to 10,000 Jews are estimated to have been exterminated by the Nazis in the Semlin concentration camp alone, along with more than 10,600 Serbs and uncounted Romani (see Sajmište concentration camp)

The SS-commander Harald Turner, Chief of the German military administration in Serbia described how the Nazis carried out the genocide of Serbian Jews:

Already some months ago, I shot dead all the Jews I could get my hands on in this area, concentrated all the Jewish women and children in a camp and with the help of the SD (i.e. Sicherheitsdienst – Nazi Security Services) got my hands on a "delousing van," that in about 14 days to 4 weeks will have brought about the definitive clearing out of the camp...

— Dr. Harold Turner's letter to Karl Wolff, dated April 11, 1942.[12]

While the Germans were exclusively responsible for attempted extermination the Jews of Serbia proper, they were assisted by local quislings in the Nedić government and others, who helped round up the Jews, Romani and Serbs who opposed the German occupation. Dimitrije Ljotić founded a pan-Serbian, pro-Nazi and Fascist party Zbor. It was very active organization that published a large number extreme anti-Semitic literature.

Emanuel Schäfer, commander of the Security Police and Gestapo in Serbia, convicted in Germany in 1953 for the death van killings of 6.000 Serbian Jews at Sajmiste, famously cabled Berlin after last Jews were killed in May 1942:

Serbien ist judenfrei.[13]

Similarly Harald Turner of the SS, later executed in Belgrade for his war crimes, stated in 1942 that:

Serbia is the only country in which the Jewish question and the Gypsy question has been solved.[14]

By the time Serbia and eastern parts of Yugoslavia were liberated in 1944, most of the Serbian Jewry had been murdered. Of the 82,500 Jews of Yugoslavia alive in 1941, only 14,000 (17%) survived the Holocaust.[15] Of the Serbian Jewish population of 16,000, the Nazis murdered approximately 14,500.[16][17][18]

Historian Christopher Browning who attended the conference on the subject of Holocaust and Serbian involvement stated:

Serbia was the only country outside Poland and the Soviet Union where all Jewish victims were killed on the spot without deportation, and was the first country after Estonia to be declared 'Judenfrei,'" a term used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to denote an area free of all Jews.

The Holocaust in Vojvodina[edit]

Unlike Serbia proper, which was under German occupation, control of the Serbian province of Vojvodina was divided between Hungary (Bačka/Batschka), local ethnic German Danube Swabian or Shwovish authorities (in Banat), and the Croatia authorities in Srem/Syrmia, all of whom helped carry out the Jewish genocide in those areas.

In January 1942 Hungarian military units under Shwovish leadership conducted a Razzia/police raid nominally against a communist insurgency. This occurred in several villages of the Vojvodina and the literature is replete with varying estimates of the number of victims. In Novi Sad alone one estimate offers a total of 600 Jews and 2,500 Serbs, ostensibly in retaliation for an act of sabotage.[20] One expert of the Holocaust in Hungarian-occupied Yugoslav territories, Ralph L. Braham estimates 3,309 victims (2,550 Serbs and 700 Jews). After the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, and then the Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists overthrew the Horthy government in October, Hungarian gendarmerie units rounded up some 16,000 Jews from the Bačka area of Vojvodina and nearby Baranja (then a part of Hungary), deported them into the custody of German police, who transported them to Auschwitz, where the majority died in the gas chambers.[20] and to the Austrian concentration and work camp of Strasshof where 70% or so survived.[21]

Approximately 4,000 to 10,000 Jews from the Serbian Banat were deported to the German military authorities in Serbia by the local ethnic German authorities under Sepp Janko to be killed in German concentration camps (Semlin and others – see Axis occupation of Vojvodina). Jews in Croatian Ustashe-occupied Syrmia, were sent to concentration camps in the Croatia, such as Jasenovac where approximately 17,000 of a total population of 20,000 in Croatia were likewise killed.

Role of the Wehrmacht[edit]

Although the Wehrmacht, after the war, stated that it took no part in the genocidal programmes, General Böhme and his men planned and executed the slaughter of over 20,000 Jews and Gypsies without any signal from Berlin.[3]

Number of victims[edit]

Of the Jewish population of 16,000 in Serbia Proper, the Nazi Germans murdered approximately 14,500.[16]

In the Hungarian, ethnic German (Danube Swabian and Shwovish) and Croatian Ustashe-occupied province of Vojvodina, an additional 17,000 Jews were murdered (see Axis occupation of Vojvodina)

Help given by Serbian civilians[edit]

Serbian civilians were involved in saving thousands of Serbian Jews during this period. Miriam Steiner-Aviezer, a researcher into Yugoslavian Jewry and a member of Yad Vashem's Righteous Gentiles committee states: "The Serbs saved many Jews. Contrary to their present image in the world, the Serbs are a friendly, loyal people who will not abandon their neighbors."[22] As of 2019, Yad Vashem recognizes 139 Serbians as Righteous Among the Nations, the highest of any Balkan country.[23]

Restitution of properties[edit]

Serbia is the first country in Europe which adopted a law for restitution of properties of Jewish heirless victims of Holocaust.[24] According to this law, besides this restitution, Serbia will make 950,000 EUR annual payment from its budget to the Union of Jewish Municipalities starting from 2017.[25] The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) praised adoption of this law while its chair of operations invited other countries to follow Serbias example. The Embassy of Israel in Serbia issued a release welcoming the adoption of this law and emphasizing that Serbia should be an example for other countries in Europe. The release of Embassy of Israel concluded: "The new law is a noble act of a great country that will breathe new life into the small Jewish community that it is today."[26]

Serbian historiography[edit]

During the 1990s, the role Nedić and Ljotić played in the extermination of Serbia's Jews was downplayed by a number of Serbian historians.[27] In 1993, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts listed Nedić among The 100 most prominent Serbs.[28]

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, local councillors in Smederevo campaigned to have the town's largest square named after Ljotić. The councillors defended Ljotić's wartime record and justified the initiative by stating that "[collaboration] ... is what the biological survival of the Serbian people demanded" during World War II.[29] Later, the Serbian magazine Pogledi published a series of articles attempting to exonerate Ljotić.[30] In 1996, future Yugoslav President Vojislav Koštunica praised Ljotić in a public statement.[31] Koštunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia (Demokratska stranka Srbije, DSS) actively campaigned to rehabilitate figures such as Ljotić and Nedić following the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević and his socialist government in October 2000.[31]

See also[edit]

Nazi German and Ustaše Concentration camps during World War II in Serbia and eastern Syrmia[edit]



  1. ^ Official name of the occupied territory.[1][2]


  1. ^ Hehn (1971), pp. 344–373
  2. ^ Pavlowitch (2002), p. 141
  3. ^ a b Misha Glenny. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. Page 502: "The Nazis were assisted by several thousand ethnic Germans as well as by supporters of Dijmitrje Ljotic's Yugoslav fascist movement, Zbor, and General Milan Nedic's quisling administration. But the main Eengine of extermination was the regular army. The destruction of the Serbian Jews gives the lie to Wehrmacht claims that it took no part in the genocidal programmes of the Nazis. Indeed, General Bohme and his men in German-occupied Serbia planned and carried out the murder of over 20,000 Jews and Gypsies without any prompting from Berlin"
  4. ^ Raphael Israeli (4 March 2013). The Death Camps of Croatia: Visions and Revisions, 1941–1945. Transaction Publishers. p. 31. ISBN 978-1-4128-4930-2. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  5. ^ "Semlin Judenlager". Retrieved 5 April 2014.
  6. ^ "Poseta starom sajmistu". Retrieved 20 October 2014.
  7. ^ Manoschek, Walter (2000). National Socialist extermination policies: contemporary German perspectives and controversies,. Oxford: Berghan Books. p. 164.
  8. ^ Božović, Branislav (2004). Stradanje Jevreja u okupiranom Beogradu. Beograd: Srpska Školska Knjiga. pp. 282–283.
  9. ^ "Poseta starom sajmistu". Retrieved 20 October 2014.
  10. ^ a b "Semlin Judenlager".
  11. ^ Misha Glenny. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999. Page 502
  12. ^ Visualizing Otherness II, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota.
  13. ^ Barry M. Lituchy (2006). Jasenovac and the Holocaust in Yugoslavia: analyses and survivor testimonies. Jasenovac Research Institute. p. xxxiii.
  14. ^ Dwork, Debórah; Robert Jan Pelt; Robert Jan Van Pelt (2003), Holocaust: a history, New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 184, ISBN 0-393-32524-5
  15. ^ Virtual Jewish History Tour – Serbia and Montenegro
  16. ^ a b Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company New York 1990
  17. ^ Ristović, Milan (2010), "Jews in Serbia during World War Two", Serbia. Righteous among Nations (PDF), Jewish Community of Zemun
  18. ^ Lebel, G'eni (2007). Until "the Final Solution": The Jews in Belgrade 1521 - 1942. Avotaynu. p. 329. ISBN 9781886223332.
  19. ^ Christopher Browning; Rachel Hirshfeld (29 May 2012). "Serbia WWII Death Camp to 'Multicultural' Development?". Arutz Sheva – Israel National News. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  20. ^ a b "Axis Invasion of Yugoslavia". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  21. ^ Braham, R. L. (2000)The Politics of Genocide: the Holocaust of Hungary. Detroit: Wayne State University Press p. 145
  22. ^ Why is Israel waffling on Kosovo?, by LARRY DERFNER, and GIL SEDAN
  23. ^ The Righteous Among The Nations Names and Numbers of Righteous Among the Nations – per Country & Ethnic Origin, as of 1 January 2017, Yad Vashem
  24. ^ Nikola Samardžić (10 December 2016). "Vraćanje imovine Jevrejima - Srbija lider u Evropi". N1. Retrieved 30 January 2017. Srbija je prva država u Evropi koja je donela zakon o vraćanju imovine Jevreja ubijenih u Holokaustu koji nemaju naslednike. Profesor Filozofskog fakulteta Nikola Samardžić kaže da je suočavanje sa Holokaustom ozbiljno i da je Srbija lider u Evropi po ovom zakonu.
  25. ^ Jelena Čalija (6 June 2016). "U avgustu prve odluke o vraćanju imovine stradalih Jevreja". Politika. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  26. ^ "Law passed on Jewish property seized during Holocaust". B92. Belgrade. 15 February 2016. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  27. ^ Perica 2002, p. 151.
  28. ^ "Rehabilitacija Milana Nedića". BBC Serbian. 7 July 2008. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  29. ^ Byford 2011, p. 296.
  30. ^ MacDonald 2002, p. 140.
  31. ^ a b Ramet 2005, p. 268.


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