Considering the long, tumultuous history of Serbia it comes to no surprise that sightseeing will include many somber sights. In fact, most popular sights in Nis are war and death related. To try to keep things a little upbeat, we visited two depressing sights and two more upbeat sights today.
Crveni Krst, or the “Red Cross” concentration camp is one on the few preserved camps in Europe. This was not a death camp, but rather a holding camp for Jews, Roman and anyone else the Nazi didn’t like. While most people stayed at the camp awaiting transport to another camp, of the 30’000 people to go through Crveni Krst about 12’000 died.
Having never visited a Nazi concentration camp, we felt that it was important to make the small detour to go and see it. After a few kilometer walk from the main market, we arrived at Crveni Krst.
The camp was very quiet when we arrived, and local tourists who came to the gate kept turning around not wanting to pay the admission ticket. It was nice to have the whole place to ourselves, and really take in the mood.
The lady working at the ticket counter gave us a little background history, and sent us on our way into the main building.
The first floor was mostly text in Cyrillic, with many pictures of people who past through the doors of the camp. Men were kept downstairs, with the floor covered in hay.
The second floor was more of the same as the first floor, but with many more rooms. Rooms told different stories of the camp and the Holocaust in general, along with more write-ups in Cyrillic. One interesting focal point of the second floor was the map of all of the camps throughout Europe: the ones with larger black icons were the death camps.
The second floor was also where women and children were being kept. A few rooms told their stories.
The last picture above shows a “diplomée d’honeur”: the certificate explains that Jelena Glavaski lost her life saving the lives of persecuted Jewish people. In addition of getting a posthumous certificate, she also got a medal and a tree planted in her honour in the “alley of the just” on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.
The third and final floor was for the holding cells and isolation rooms. These were roomier than cells we had seen at the concentration camp in Cambodia, but had one unpleasant detail: prisoners were made to lie down in their cells, over a bed of barbed wire.
Once outside we took a peak at the guard towers, still standing and the original barbwire fence. Past the barbwire there is a wall, showing evidence of bullet holes. There stands a memorial to the successful escape that occurred in 1942, which cost the lives of over 80 people. 65 people managed to escape alive, and only after that escape attempt was a concrete wall built (it used to only be barbwire). The bullet holes are from a second attempt later that year, which was unsuccessful.
Our second venture into the dark history is Nis was a visit to the Skull Tower. Yet another sight that reminded us of Cambodia, this one actually had a bit of a cheerful twist to it.
Back in 1809, during the war between the Serbians and the Ottomans, a Serbian commander afraid of having to surrender sacrificed all of his gunpowder, killing himself, his men and the advancing Turks. The Turks, who suffered a greater lost than the Serbs in the ordeal, decided to send a message to anyone opposing them by mounting the skulls of the dead Serbs on a tower. Years later, after Serbian liberation, a chapel was built over the tower to protect the skulls. In time the tower began to represent the strength of the Serbian people and stood as a monument to their history. Out of the original 952 heads, only 58 remain.
My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.
– Alphonse de Lamartine, Journey to the East, 1833