Travel is about seeing things that broaden your experience. Both good and bad. I’ve never had any desire to see a Nazi Concentration Camp as either a victim or a tourist, but back in 2011 I was in Nis, Serbia when I found out that there was a concentration camp nearby, I decided it was important to visit. I’m glad that I went. It was powerful and important.
The camp was called the Red Cross Concentration Camp (Crveni Krst in Serbian) which sent a very mixed message. It was a strange contrast sort of like the interactions I had with most of the Serbians I met. I never really got the sense that they hated me, but in their rhetoric I sometimes heard a blind hatred of my country that included me and that, was most certainly not something that could be ignored.
To get to the camp, I had to walk out of Nis and into the surrounding countryside. 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.
The 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.”
So, 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 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 but partisan fighters. Thinking back, my American education seems to have populated the camps with nothing but Jews like Anne Franke. By no means do I mean to say 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.
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.