Opinion |

Why Is Serbia So Reluctant to Remember the Holocaust?

80 percent of Serbia’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis. But in Belgrade, the Holocaust is still largely ignored. Not a single sign, memorial or monument lists the Jews who died. I want my grandfather to be named

Julie Brill
Julie Brill
Berlin 'stolpersteine', stumbling stones, memorials to the last voluntary residences of Jews killed by the Nazis. For five years, Julie Brill has tried to get Belgrade's permission to place a solpersteine outside her murdered grandfather's home
'Stolpersteine', stumbling stones, memorials to the last voluntary residences of Jews killed by the Nazis. Belgrade has not authorized a solpersteine outside Jule Brill's murdered grandfather's homeCredit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Julie Brill
Julie Brill

"Do you know how to get to Anne Frank's house?" my father asked the cab driver.

"Everyone knows, including the Germans," he told us.

I was in Amsterdam for a few days with my daughter and my father, a child Holocaust survivor from Belgrade. We were heading to Serbia to visit family, and to see together what was left of the life he remembered from before the war. We’d stopped over in the Netherlands for a few days and joined the line of visitors from around the globe to visit the Anne Frank House.

Anne was murdered over 75 years ago, but the public fascination with her endures, an ongoing commemoration of her life and death, in Bergen Belsen at the age of 15. Last week, a new theory about who betrayed her family's hiding place debuted. The attic where she hid from the Nazis for two years is one of the top tourist attractions in Amsterdam.

After visiting the Anne Frank House, we took a tour of the Jewish Quarter. On street after street, we saw golden squares the size of my palm in the sidewalks. Known as stolpersteine, each stone has the name of one person, their birth date, and, if known, their fate and death date.

German tanks rumble along a Belgrade street on April 17, 1941 in a review staged after the Nazi occupation of the then-Yugoslavian capitalCredit: AP Photo

The German artist Gunter Demnig has created and placed more than 70,000 of these small, low markers outside the last voluntary residence of Holocaust victims and survivors throughout Europe. Together they make up the world’s largest decentralized memorial.

In German the word stolper has a double meaning. It translates as "stumble," but it also means something is "jolted," in this case a memory. The stones jolt the memory of a family, reunited outside the last place they lived together, never in a cemetery.

Stones are always inscribed in the local language. Puzzling over the stones in Amsterdam, I learned a new Dutch word, vermoord. It means murdered.

After two days in Amsterdam, we flew on to Belgrade, the heart of our trip. Our cousins surprised us at the airport. There was the Serbian triple kissing: right cheek, left cheek, right and warm embraces. Later we enjoyed an elaborate meal in their apartment. Our arrival felt like a homecoming not just for my father, who lived in Belgrade until he made aliyah with his mother and sister at age ten, but also for my daughter and me.

The next day we toured the capital city. At Kalemegden, an ancient central fortress and now a popular park, there were locals picnicking and tourists snapping photos of each other. But there was no indication that this is where my grandfather and all the Jewish men of Belgrade were forced to register with the Nazis under threat of death.

The Topovske Supe extermination camp in the city where my grandfather, Alexander Brill, was held until he was murdered is now just a few long, low, crumbling buildings and an overgrown yard. Belgrade’s small Jewish community had raised the funds for a commemorative sign, our guide told us. But someone stole it for its scrap metal value.

A view through broken window to a part of the Nazi concentration camp of Topovske Supe, outside Belgrade, Serbia where 5,000 Jews, Serbs and Roma were murdered in 1941Credit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

My grandfather, great-uncle, and great-grandfather were all killed by the Nazis in the war, and thus don’t have marked graves. But we visited the Sephardic Jewish Cemetery to tend to the stones of our relatives who died before the occupation.

Hidden behind the cemetery’s walls are a pair of towering wings made from the rubble of Jewish homes. This two-story monument honors the victims of the Holocaust in what was Yugoslavia. More than 80 percent of all Jews in Serbia were killed; the Nazis gloated in 1942 that Serbia had already been declared Judenrein. We were the only ones there to see the memorial the day we visited.

In Dorcol, a Jewish quarter now without Jews, we visited the synagogue. It is the only regularly functioning synagogue in Serbia, barely visible from the street. Inside, the young rabbi stopped to talk to us; when he briefly raised his baseball cap to scratch his head, I caught sight of his yarmulke, just as hidden away as the temple itself behind its tall fence.

Hidden behind the walls of Belgrade's Sephardic Cemetery, a pair of towering wings made from the rubble of Jewish homes, a modest memorial to the thousands of Jews in Serbia killed in the HolocaustCredit: Julie Brill

When the war began in April 1941, my father was two years old. He lived with parents and uncles at number 8 Solunska Street in Dorcol. We stood on the sidewalk where he once peeked out a window to see Nazi soldiers marching by. But his home has been torn down and replaced with a more modern building.

For almost five years, I’ve been working to get stolpersteine placed outside Solunska 8. While the first markers were finally placed in Serbia last summer, there are still none in Belgrade, the heart of Serbia’s Jewish community. The Holocaust is still largely ignored in Belgrade, and there are no signs with the names of Jewish victims in the city.

My family’s stones are already engraved and ready to be placed; they would be among the first. But we are still waiting for the Belgrade authorities to allow us to place them.

In the Torah, Isaiah imagined "an everlasting memorial," which he described in terms of "a hand and a name": When we fail to recall the individual names of the victims, we are extinguishing their memory.

The stolpersteine for Anne Frank and tens of thousands of Jews across Europe jolt the memories of passersby every day. Our stolpersteine would be a quiet but powerful reminder to everyone walking down Solunska, past my grandfather’s last home.

Julie Brill is writing a memoir about her Serbian family, in the context of the largely untold history of the Holocaust in Serbia, which she also passes on through her involvement with 3GNY, a program that provides schools with speakers on the Holocaust from the third generation of survivors. Twitter: @JulieBrill8

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