Visit in Skela

we followed the man upon the pathway that led away from the embankment of the river. We met this man in a harbour for river boats, he said he lived in germany and invited us to his holiday cottage, some kilometers down the river. A while after drifting on, we saw him waving at us on the right embankment. He had told us before of some artificial dams under water, so we approached him very carefully. The six of us went behind him through a garden full of gardening and fishing devices around the house, to sit on a table in front of the house, next to a plantation of pear and plum trees. We were invited to coffee and schnaps and after some chat and explaining what we were up to, he invited us to show us the close-by village Skela. The name of the village can be translated as „ferry“. There was some sort of museum for historical devices, clothes and tools for everyday life. Next we stood in front of a monument that memorized the burning of the whole village of Skela and the killing of 65 locals by the german Wehrmacht in 1941. He told us, this would be still a present memory and he wasnt sure if especially older inhabitants, if aware of us being there as Germans, not have some mixed feelings or show hostile behaviour. But there was no hostility. On august 14th 1941, after an attack on a german police car where the Lieutenant Otto Ehrmann and three other german police officers were killed, the german occupants burned down the whole village of Skela, 350 houses and shot 65 locals. What happened in Skela was also mentioned in the Nuremberg trials against nazi war crimes in 1946.

Only short time after the the bombing of Belgrade in april 1941, where around 2000 people died, and the occupation of serbia, Military Commander of the administration Franz Böhme, an austrian with experiences in first world war, was sent to Belgrade to enforce Hitler‘s plans and served next to the collaborating new government as governor of the remaining serbian part of formerly yugoslavian kingdom. He reacted to partisan attacks on German forces by ordering attacks in revenge in which 100 Serbs would be killed for each German killed and 50 Serbs killed for each wounded German (So-Called „Keitel-Befehl“, general order of the Chief command of Wehrmacht, named after Wilhelm Keitel). This order was intended to solve the „jewish question“ and the danger of partisan attacks at once. Victims were very often selected from jewish or romani prisoners from the concentration camps. The area in between Sabac and Sremska Mitrovica, where the Sava bends towards Sremska Mitrovica to the north and then again towards Sabac to the south was affected heavily, because the partisan movement had a stronghold in the mountains south of the area. It is estimated, that between 25000 and 30000 civilians were shot as hostages in the autumn of 1941.

In the beginning of october 1939 the river boat Uranus left Vienna on the Danube river with the aimed destination to reach Palestine via Romania and the Black Sea. It consisted mostly of jewish migrants from Vienna, Berlin and Danzig. By that time it was nearly impossible to flee from Vienna to a safe country (The desperate situation in Vienna of that time is described in a fragmentary novel by Leo Perutz „Mainacht in Wien“). They were stopped at the Romanian border and forced to leave the ship in the yugoslavian-romanian border town Kladovo. About 1,100 refugees were stranded there. In september 1940 they were brought to Sabac, were the refugees had to wait for a nearly impossible solution of their situation. By that time, Yugoslavia was surrounded by countries, that collaborated with Germany and the access to Palestine was blocked. After occupation, in june 1941 the jews from the Uranus were imprisoned in a concentration camp close to the Sava river.

When on august 18th 1941 a group of members of german Wehrmacht were attacked by partisans. 30 partisans were shot, 4 germans died, and ten were wounded. In revenge, germans killed twelve jewish inhabitants of Sabac and the jewish refugees had to carry the corpses publicly through town. After this almost the whole jewish inhabitants of Sabac were imprisoned. The same law, that allowed the imprisonment of people of jewish origin was used for the imprisonment of Romani people.

Böhme also established the concentration camps in the area. Dulag 183 (or Senjak) was the name of the German transit camp located in the town of Šabac. This camp was opened in September 1941, and it closed in September 1944. This camp was also used for partisan prisoners, members of their families, and the extermination of Jews and Roma people. It was estimated that more than 5,000 persons were executed. On the 12th and 13th of october 1941 the remaining 400 male jewish refugees from the ship Uranus were deported to Zasavica and killed in revenge for partisan attacks, „One night the jewish refugees were picked, by the Wehrmacht, not by the SS and brought away… The jews from Vienna were shot at the banks of the Sava…“. All the women remained in Sabac and were not told that the men had been shot: „At one point they said, the men would do road repairs and on another, that had been shot… They enjoyed the cries of the women and children and told us we would be next, if we wouldnt stop crying.“ Almost all the women of the transport were later killed in the Belgrade camp Sajmište. The only survivors of the refugees, who were on the ship „Uranus“ were 250 mostly young migrants, which could be saved wtih legal visas for Palestine by the Jewish Agency. From the others only few survived. Anna Hecht and Dorothea Fink were the only of whom I know. Their husbands were killed, but with the cynical logic of the Nazis, their wifes could survive, because they weren‘t of jewish origin.

In September 1941 a concentration camp in the village Jarak was planned and built but later not used of strategic reasons. On september 26th, shortly after the imprisonment of most of the jewish population of Sabac the germans decided to deport the male jewish prisoners (about 5000 men) to the new concentration camp in Jarak. This deportation was later called „Blutmarsch“ (blood march). The prisoners had to run without a break all the way to the village Klenak. The prisoners who were too old or weak for this were killed by the roadside. They were given no food. When they arrived in Jarak, they were instantly sent back, because the military command had decided not to use the camp in Jarak. About 150 men were killed on the way to Jarak and back. A group of about 2250 prisoners was sent from Sremska Mitrovica to Jarak. A small group of 150 prisoners tried to run, 90 of them were shot.

End of september Sabac was attacked by a group of about 1000 partisans. Following this commander Böhme gave order for the „cleansing of Sava bend“ („Befehl zur Säuberung des Save-Bogens“) on the 27th of september. After this the whole male population of Sabac was imprisoned and subsequently in the whole area in between Sabac and Sremska Mitrovica 21440 people were imprisoned and brought to the camp in Sabac and 1127 civilians were shot. This cleansing was finished on 9th of october. As a result the camps in Sabac were overcrowded and in a very bad state. In october 1941 a new concentration camp near the village Zasavica (near Sremska Mitrovica) was planned to replace the camps in Sabac. It was planned as a huge camp for 50000 to 500000 prisoners. In october, after an attack on a train near Topola (2.10.1941), were 21 german soldiers were killed by partisans, commander Böhme ordered that 2100 jewish prisoners from the camps in Belgrade and Sabac had to be killed in revenge. These were deported to the unfinished camp in Zasavica near Sremska Mitrovica, where a big part of the male jewish refugees from the ship Uranus were killed, also a huge number of Romani victims. Later the plans for the camp in Zasavica were given up,.

The Sajmište concentration camp was formed on the left bank of the Sava, near the railway bridge at the entrance into Belgrade where the pre-war trade fairground (Sajmište) was located. This territory was quite deserted, apart from settlements of Romani people, was several kilometers from Zemun and formed a part of NDH (Independent State of Croatia) territory, so the croatian government allowed it to be under german administration. It was formed in December 1941 and shut down in September 1944. In between march and june of 1942 the remaining jewish population of Serbia was killed in Sajmište with a lorry. Behind the bridge over the Sava, the waste gas of the lorry was introduced with a tube to the locked inside. The jews imprisoned there were by that time mostly women and children. They were locked in the lorry with the false promise, to be brought to another camp and then killed with the waste gas of the lorry, that drove them to a big field near the mountain Avala, south of Belgrade, where they were thrown into mass graves. There 6000 to 8000 jewish prisoners were killed. The commander of this concentration camp, the austrian Herbert Andorfer, was later not persecuted for being responsible for the death of so many people. Like most German military commanders they argued that they had orders from above, an almost absurd excuse in the „leader state“. There were many soldiers, who participated in war crimes, who made career in the austrian „Bundesheer“ or in the western german „Bundeswehr“ (federal armed forces) in the 1950s.

There was another concentration camp in Belgrade, the Banjica concentration camp. Also the big croatian concentration camps were located next to the river Sava: The concentration camp Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska, that were installed by the fascist croatian collaborating government, and where around 80.000 people were killed. Around the historical debates about what happened in Jasenovac, there was a very heavy conflict in between the federal countries of Yugoslavia already in the eighties, when Yugoslavia still existed. Nationalist politicians tried to use the numbers of victims for their own political purposes. Serbian politicians and orthodox leaders stated that it must have been something like millions that had been killed in Jasenovac, while croatian politicians (amongst them the president Tudjman) stated, that it can only have been something like 30.000 victims.
This was such a sad spectacle, it makes you wish that such a thing as nationalist politicians and church leaders would be so ashamed that they would sink into the ground.

Far away from those functionaries, who defined the meaning of the victims for their purpose, there were writers like Danilo Kis, a novelist born in Novi Sad, (he had a jewish father who was killed by the Nazis), that dedicated their writings to the individual and tried to give them back the dignity of human beings that the totalitarian ideologies tried to erase. In his novels he seemed to reveal the lost memories with an archeological patience. In his novel „pescanik“, everything is reconstructed from few old photographs and a letter, the only item left behind as evidence.

A novel that gained some popularity in post-war eastern Germany is „Pesma“ by the yugoslavian poet Oskar Davico, that tells of life in 1942 Belgrade („Pesma“/ „Die Libelle“, 1958), the main characters are in conflict about the right way of communist resistance against occupation, it is a typical novel of post-war yugoslavia, that mixes true historical elements, like the attack on the german radio station in Belgrade and a conflict about sexual puritanism (that is somehow connected with the historical Tito). Davico was a communist writer of jewish origin, who was influenced by the french surrealist movement.

The contemporary writer David Albahari has written a short novel about a teacher and the lost memory of the Belgrade concentration camp Sajmiste, it is named „Gec i Majer“ („Götz und Meyer“) after the two german drivers of the lorry, in which most of the jewish prisoners of Sajmište were killed with gas. It is also about the fading of memories, the process of remembering and the ever more difficult task to describe the shoa to young people without going insane.

„Pesma“ by Oskar Davico is a link to the difficult topic of partisan resistance, that has suffered from the critical view on communist history of ex-yugoslavia. However, in the time from 1941 to 1945 there was no other hope for survival for most jewish inhabitants of Yugoslavia, than to join the partisans. This option was a difficult one, because resistance was split in chetnik (monarchist nationalist) and communist resistance. Considering, that the communist idea was by that time quite discredited by its stalinist reality, it must have been a difficult decision to join the partisans. However more than 15000 jewish partisans fought against occupation and survived. Because the romani people were treated equally bad as people of jewish origin, there was also a broad participation of serbian Roma in the partisan movement. Hasani Ibrahim was a Roma from Sremska Mitrovica, who worked as a mechanic in a workshop for german military vehicles and stole petrol, from that he produced petrol bombs for the partisans. When he had to flee to the mountains in 1944, he blew up the whole military base.

There is so much left out here, that I am starting to have doubts about it. What is left of the individual victims? Everything seems dominated by the cruel logic of numbers (of victims), that was defined and invented by the Nazis. The victims exist almost only as numbers, it is like an desperate attempt to shape the outlines of individuals with the method of drawing by numbers. There is a good book about this: „Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust“ by James E. Young, it disseminates the interpretation of the holocaust in fictional and documentary literature.

This writing focusses on areas and locations of nazi war crimes mostly in the Sava-Drina region, to the west from belgrade. The reason for that is that I visited those regions during my journey in 2008. At one time we were considering making a trip to Avala for New years eve, it is a sad idea to go to some place were mass graves were under your feet and not to know about it.

Zur Geschichte der Ordnungspolizei (Zusammengestellt durch Roland Pfeiffer September 2003) „Skela“
Manoschek, Walter: „serbien ist judenfrei“: Militärische Besatzungspolitik und Judenvernichtung in Serbien 1941/42.- Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 1995
Kladovo: Eine Flucht nach Palästina. Jews murdered in Zasavica.
Semlin Judenlager – in serbian public memory
Fings, Karola: „…einziges Land, in dem Judenfrage und Zigeunerfrage gelöst.“: Verfolgung der Roma im faschistisch besetzten Jugoslawien 1941-1945.- Köln, ca. 1992
„We survived the holocaust“ / Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia.- Vol.1-5


  1. Judith said,

    My aunt was Anna Hecht

  2. Michelle formerly Hecht said,

    My Aunt was Anna Hecht: my sister is Judith. My faher’s brother was Siegfried Hecht.

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