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Crveni Krst Concentration Camp in Nis, Serbia

Travel is about seeing things that broaden your experience and while I’ve never had any desire to see a Nazi Concentration Camp as either a victim or a tourist, when I found out that there was one in Nis, I decided it was important to visit.

The camp was called the Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbian Concentration Camp Red Cross(Crveni Krst in Serbian) which sent a very mixed message, much the way some redneck Serbs have when they welcome me and then tell me how much they hate Americans. I never really got the sense that the Serbs I met hated me, but in their rhetoric I sometimes heard a blind hatred that included me and that, was most certainly disturbing.

To get to the camp, I had to walk the opposite direction from the tower of skulls. It was cold in either direction and the scenery was like a depressing Soviet era film all about life in the Gulag. Knowing I was heading to a concentration camp probably didn’t do anything to raise my level of happiness, still, I was curious what it would be like. As I got closer, I felt a cold wind not just blowing outside the walls of the camp but also blowing inside of me as I thought about the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Concentration Camp SerbiaThe camp was built by the Nazis during the occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II. Coming closer and seeing the swastica, barbed wire, and guard tower- I felt chills as I thought of the way human beings are able to kill each other. I’ve talked with killers before and they say it becomes easier each time and soon, it’s like just about anything else. Interestingly, butchers or hunters say the same thing. Incredibly disturbing.

I walked in and was ignored by everyone there (about five people). I went to the ticket office, but no one was there so I walked around. It felt sort of surreal to be buying a ticket to a concentration camp anyway. I found some maintenance guys and a pretty Serbian girl eating some borek and I sort of shrugged my shoulders as in “Hey, am I suppossed to pay someone or something?” The girl came over and in halting English told me “Just go in, pay ticket later.”

Red Cross Concentration CampSo, I went in. Inside I found three American Missionaries from Missouri. A husband and wife who are missionaries in Macedonia and the wife’s father, a retired Army pastor. The lady who sold tickets was giving a tour and the American missionary woman was translating.

It turns out that this particular concentration camp was the site of a heart warming story that was actually sort of uplifting. In 1942 an armed revolt led to the largest escape from any concentration camp. The escapees were mostly not Jewish however, which as an American who had the stories of how the Jews were massacred in concentration camps (thinking back, my education seems to have populated the camps with nothing but Jews like Anne Franke) somehow made the story a bit less Hollywood uplifting. By no means do I mean to say though that this was not a triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. These were partisan fighters. They were communist guerrillas from Josip Broz Tito’s movement who were captured by German forces during the Battle of Kozara. The escape was immortalized in a film by Miomir Stamenkovic called Lager Nis (another name for the camp) in 1987. It turns out that 100 out of 150 escaped, the other fifty were killed in the barbed wire by machine guns. On the upper floor a touching display of artwork by local schoolchildren had more than a few dead bodies in the wire along with mass graves and other horrors.

Nis Serbia concentration camp

Serbian dead at concentration camp
Skulls of the victims and some of the faces that were once attached to them.

Of the 30,000 people who went through this camp, it’s estimated that 12,000 of them were executed at nearby Bubanj. Many of the others (especially those who were Jew or Gypsy) were sent to the other death camps and so probably perished as well. This camp was mostly filled with Serbian communists.

On the top of three levels, were the solitary confinement cells. There were lists of who had occupied each particular cell and when. In some of the cells graffiti carved or scrawled by the prisoners is covered by plexiglass in order to preserve them for the future.

On the floor of some of the cells barbed wire lay stretched out of frames. When I asked why it was there the ticket lady told us that prisoners were made to sleep on the barbed wire as a punishment. Apparently solitary by itself was not enough.

After wandering around in the cold, dark, damp building and trying to imagine what it had been like, I went outside and paid the ticket lady. The price was only 120 Serb Dinars (less than a dollar) and the proceeds go towards preserving the museum. As I left, I felt just one thing…an urge to get away.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

3 thoughts on “Crveni Krst Concentration Camp in Nis, Serbia

  1. Hello, i am 63 years old. I have heard many recounting of events in europe during the second world war. I found your comment that sounded as though due to the fact the escapees were communists-perhaps they deserved to die? From my history knowledge, partisans were made up of any person who fought the nazi regime. they are to be commended. partisans were fighting in all occupied countries at that time. I suggest you read the book “Scrouge of the Swastika” and any books by Simon Weisenthal. The memorial is for the dead during the war. Events after the war should have no bearing on our perceptions today. All victims of the nazi regime-no matter what nationality, should be remembered.

  2. Hi Helena….No, that’s not what I meant at all. I’m sorry for the confusion. What I meant was that growing up as an American we heard so much about the genocide of the Jews that sometimes it is easy to forget there were other people in the concentration camps, other people who suffered. When I heard that this was the site of a massive escape, I pictured Anne Franke and her family getting away- when I found out that it was mostly communist resistance fighters it changed it for me.

    Certainly I’m not trying to demean the achievement or to suggest that anyone deserved to be tortured, held prisoner, or killed. The fact that they escaped is still a triumph of the human spirit over some of the severest of adversity. I offer my humble apologies if it sounded like I was suggesting that they were less important than the Jewish prisoners. I’ve modified my original text a little bit and hope this clears things up.

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