16 May 2012

The Crveni Krst Nazi Camp

Crveni Krst is a misleading name.  In Serbian, it means "Red Cross."  So "Cverni Krst concentration camp" might sound strange.  As our guide explained, this wasn't some collaboration between the Nazis and the humanitarian organization - this bloody transport camp took its ironic name from a nearby railroad station.
A young historian-in-training named Ivan walked us around Crveni Krst on a wet, cold day in Niš, meeting us roughly where the barbed wire started and leaving us at the door of the main block.  He explained how the Nazis had painted the windows so that nobody could see outside.  He pointed out a crib that had been used for a baby born in captivity, showed us the solitary cells where men had to lie down on spiked wires, told us about prisoners who would write messages on the walls in blood - anyone caught with a pen was shot immediately.  Cverni Krst wasn't that bad by Nazi camp standards, but it was still horrific.  It's also a place that the citizens of Niš are strangely attached to.
Nazi camps almost never survived.  They were freighted with too much tragedy and shame to last – often they were destroyed, sometimes they were left to rot, rarely were they preserved.  People didn’t want to remember or accept what had happened in these places.
In Yugoslavia, though, this wasn’t the case.  Crveni Krst was opened to the public all the way back in 1967, and has been a museum (in various ways) ever since.  Why?  Because the vast majority of the prisoners who were processed or killed here weren’t Jews or Roma, they were communists – and the communist government under Tito wanted people to remember.  The camp was (and in a lot of ways, still is) a symbol of the struggle.  Hanging on the wall of a nearby café, shrieking above beer-heavied heads and plates of sausage, an icon of “the party” gives his life, fist raised, body wrapped in barbed wire.  The people who died in town are seen more as heros than victims.
As Ivan walked us around, he spoke in a reverent whisper, his voice sometimes seeming to stray close to tears.  He explained to us how the different buildings worked, which cells housed which groups of prisoners.
Highlighted in the tour was a story about an escape, when about a hundred men made it out of the camp - leaving almost fifty comrades dead on the walls or mowed down by the guards.  Even though most of the escapees were eventually caught, the event seems to capture the hearts of Serbs.  In the imagery of the camp and to the citizens of Niš, it is the men dying as they ran that are important - there is a kind of valor given to them, a legacy of courage and action.  Instead of submitting to their fate, they died helping others go free.  They're given almost as much space as the thousands of other prisoners the Nazis killed in the city and surrounding area.
One of the most astounding things about the holocaust is just how large and far reaching the infrastructure was.  In a few short years, the Nazis set up scores of camps over most of Europe, in regional hubs and along transport routes.  Examples like the one in Niš weren’t extermination camps, per se, but taxonomy isn’t really important – the holocaust didn’t just happen in one or two places, it was an all-encompassing network.  Officially, these peripheral stations were waypoints and gathering places that served to funnel prisoners toward the larger bases in Poland and Germany, or towards work camps in other parts of the world.  Most of the 30,000 prisoners processed through Crveni Krst were sent to Sajmište – the Belgrade camp - before ending up in Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald, but a sizable number were also shipped to labor depots in Norway.  Almost a third, though, never made it anywhere.
According to Ivan, “not many” of the prisoners at Crveni Krst were killed on site.  Several hundred people were shot or beaten to death at the camp, but in terms of scale the numbers are almost insignificant.
Almost 10,000 people were killed nearby, shot on a deserted hilltop called Bubanj.  They were chosen at random – in the grim mechanization of the holocaust, people became numbers to be added, subtracted or grouped into shipping orders.
One cell of the camp is plastered with children's pictures showing various scenes of violence - figures hanging lifeless on barbed wire, families lying on the ground, men being beaten.  The work was very good in a lot of cases - when we complimented their skill, Ivan said that the children were mostly ten years old, as if that automatically made them better artists.
It was fascinating to see the works and to think of the local children drawing them - it's interesting because the town seems to really own the camp, in a way that other holocaust towns don't.
The sad, often ignored fact of genocide is that the groups that are targeted aren't usually around afterwards to remember.  In places like Germany or Poland, the people who remained had the stain of guilt - where Nazi camps survive, they exist as badges of shame.  In Niš, though, the persecuted became the population.  Soon after their occupiers left, Yugoslavia became communist and the victims of Crveni Krst became a part of the local identity.  To them, it's a painful memory but not one they feel responsible for.
Crveni Krst is an eery place to walk around, and the stories are horrific, but we felt ready for the experience in a way.  This is our fourth Nazi compound of the trip (after Auschwitz, Dachau and a smaller one in Leipzig that we never wrote about), and the stories and spaces have become more familiar.  A better way to say it, maybe, is that we've become better able to steel ourselves for what we'll find.
But still, the experience is somewhat unique.  It serves as a reminder of how far-reaching the holocaust was.  Just because other peripheral camps have been destroyed or aren't open to the public doesn't mean that they didn't once exist.  It's hard to remember that, almost everywhere you go in western, central or eastern Europe there were concentration camps.  Traveling here is to always follow in the footsteps of Nazis, which is a chilling thought.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Merlin and Rebecca,

    Thank you for the great post. I also have one small post related to "Crveni Krst" originated couple of months before but your story is maybe one of the best I can find about it.

    I hope you don't mind me linking your post at the end of mine.

    Best regards,