Living at only 100 km away from Nis for a good portion of my life, it’s no wonder I’ve visited the city regularly and squeezed a special place for it in my heart. However, it was only the last year that I’ve learned about a disturbing landmark that’s barely promoted publicly but testifies of the repugnant events of the Second World War that didn’t escape Nis, just like the majority of other places in Europe. As the common saying goes, we must forgive, but we must not forget, which is why I decided to shed light on barely forgotten memorial building in Nis, the Red Cross Concentration Camp, one of the best-preserved concentration camps in Europe, a timeless reminder of the terrifying past, and an important lesson about freedom to us all.
The horrific events of the 20th century that shook up Europe didn’t bypass Serbia (then Yugoslavia). The war was extremely harsh on these territories, that were already vulnerable from the just recently regained freedom, and people went to many lengths to try and regain the fragile peace. Several ambushes, the deep-rooted sense of pride and freedom, mixed with an overall horrific situation, and internal political conflicts resulted in Serbia experiencing substantial losses and persistently fighting during the occupation period from 1941 until the final liberation in 1944.
Forgive we must, but forget we must not.
The occupation of Nazi Germany came with the standardized horrors of that time - and several concentration camps were established throughout the area, to imprison mostly Jews and Romanis, but also the political opponents. One of the such, that is resisting the bite of time and serving as a powerful reminder of the history to this day, is the Red Cross Concentration Camp in Nis.
The Red Cross Concentration Camp served as a transit camp, where people stayed until they were appointed to the larger forced-labor and death camps in Nazi-occupied Europe, like Auschwitz, Dachau, etc. Even though it was “only” a transit camp, more than 35.000 people have passed through it, and it was a final destination to more than 10.000 unfortunate souls.
Nowadays, the building is restored to resemble the original condition, and a short walk around the facilities gives an unaltered experience of the inhumane conditions that prisoners had to stay in, stripped of all human rights and basic existential needs. The facilities are surrounded by a barbed wire fence and observation towers. The sharp eyes won’t miss several bullet holes alongside the outside walls, that testify of the two unsuccessful breakouts.
The main room was an all-purpose room, where instead of beds there was hay on the ground nearby the walls. Imagine just an unpleasant empty room of several square meters, that was once crowded with more than 100 people, who barely had enough space to stand, let alone sit or sleep. The walls are covered with original scratchings stating the names and dates of people who passed through it, hoping their families will one day find out their information, and serving as the last stripe of hope to a desperate person that will soon come to a horrific realization about their near-ending existence. The concentration camp plays the sounds of the barking dogs, German soldiers yelling, and crowded chatter to enhance the feeling of originality along the tour.
The upper floor was reserved for the “worst” prisoners, those who disobeyed or were important political figures. It consisted of several cells entirely wrapped in the barbed wire making it hurtful even to think how these people slept or spent any time in the cells.
With all the terror that follows such a place, there is one ray of light concerning the Red Cross Concentration Camp, as it was the only concentration camp to be successfully breached by a larger group of people. 147 people started the breakout, with more than two-thirds who made it out. Even though a huge success for that time, and a big motivation to the prisoners in a similar situation across Europe, the escape resulted in the mass shootings and even harsher treatment. Isn’t it just amazing how these brave people couldn’t resist the urge to fight for their life, even if that meant fighting with their life - the only thing they had left?
The tour ends with the free time to walk around the yard and facilities - symbolically giving the time to contemplate all the gathered emotions and the urge to join the fight against the injustice that’s being fought-off for a long time now. The recommended next stop would be the Bubanj memorial, located on a hill near Nis, the unofficial slaughterhouse of the vengeful Nazi soldiers.
I feel that a modern human can’t really grasp the amount of dismay that was a normal state of being to so many people not so long ago. Just to recuperate: it all happened only 75 years ago, while most of us have grandparents older than that. This kind of tour may not be the most pleasant in the sense that it lacks the typical touristic joy and pleasure, but it is certainly one of the most valuable. While the terrifying stories of the Red Cross Concentration Camp in Nis are not exclusive to this place, they teach us an important lesson about freedom and the responsibility we have left on our shoulders by our ancestors.
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