The greying, box-like building that houses the Savsko Obdanište kindergarten has had many uses over the years.
At one point it was a restaurant; when you step through the front doors you find yourself surrounded by musty, brown 1970s-style dining furniture.
Further inside, a door leads into what is now a cavernous sports hall, the clanging sound of weights reverberating from the gym upstairs. A stairway decorated with hand-painted Disney characters directs visitors up to the proposed kindergarten.
Nothing about the building’s current uses hints at its most troubling past incarnation: as a makeshift hospital in a Nazi concentration camp.
Although Staro Sajmište has been touted as the location for a proposed Holocaust memorial since the early 1990s, progress to approve it has been slow. In the meantime, parts of the site have been sold to private owners.
When residents of Belgrade heard that the site was going to host a kindergarten, set to open this autumn, they were outraged. “The kindergarten is inappropriate when you consider what took place there,’’ says Robert Sabadoš, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia, the country’s EJC affiliate.
“But what’s an even bigger scandal is that pubs have been located down there for years, decades even. There even used to be a nightclub.
“That site was a place of misery and suffering and that can’t be allowed to be forgotten.”
Situated just a couple of kilometres from downtown Belgrade near the banks of the Sava River, the Staro Sajmište camp opened in 1937 as a trade fair complex consisting of 11 buildings. In 1941, when the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia, they converted it into a concentration camp.
Figures vary for the number of Jews, Serbs and Roma who passed through its gates before the liberation of the city in October of 1944, with some estimating 30,000, and others more than 90,000. A memorial plaque on the site of Staro Sajmište is dedicated to over 40,000 people, who “were cruelly tortured and murdered”.
In the years since, some of the buildings were turned into tavernas, artists’ ateliers, a live music venue and even offices for Serbia’s ruling political party, while the rest have decayed. Staro Sajmište still makes headlines in the local media every few years when a new business sets up shop, but the controversies have been fleeting.
The kindergarten, however, is different. The building was bought by Miodrag Krsmanović, a local businessman in 1998, when Serbia was undergoing a chaotic wartime transition from socialism to capitalism.
Krsmanović rejects the accusations of desecrating a place of historical significance, arguing he saved the building from ruin.
“I’ve been battling for 20 years, investing in this building, caring for it, nurturing it. I bought it in a terrible state – totally ruined,” he says. “It didn’t even have a roof, it was completely rotten. They should compare the state of this building in ‘98 and today. They should all be saying ‘thank you kindly, sir, excellent work, sir’.”
Krsmanović says he was unaware of the history of Staro Sajmište when he bought the building – and in this he would not be alone. The Holocaust in Serbia is a neglected topic; it took until 1974 for a memorial plaque to be installed on the site. In socialist Yugoslavia, the genocidal campaign against Serbia’s Jews was widely interpreted as part of the Nazi’s general reign of terror. Many Serbians still see the Holocaust as something that happened in far-away places, such as Auschwitz, not a short walk from downtown Belgrade.