On April 6, 1941, Axis forces invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Royal Yugoslav Army was quickly defeated, and Belgrade was captured by April 12. The country was then occupied and dismembered, with the Wehrmacht establishing the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia under a government of military occupation. The territory included most of Serbia proper, with the addition of the northern part of Kosovo and the Banat. It was the only area of partitioned Yugoslavia in which the Germans established a military government. This was done to exploit the region’s rail and riverine transport routes and resources such as non-ferrous metals.
Niš is the third-largest city in Serbia, located near the borders of Romania and Bulgaria. The city had about 35,000 inhabitants in 1931, several hundred of them were Jews. Due to the arrival of refugees from Germany, Austria and Poland, the number of Jews grew to approximately 970 by 1941.
In mid-1941, the Crveni Krst concentration camp (lit. Red Cross concentration camp) was established by the Gestapo on the premises of an old military depot in Niš. Originally intended as a transit camp, by September of that year it was transformed into a concentration camp.
There were four categories of prisoners. One group were hostages who were murdered in retaliation for the killing of German soldiers. The death of one soldier cost the lives of 100 hostages; a wounded soldier led to the execution of 50. The second category were Jews and Romani. The third were persons arrested on suspicion of belonging or cooperating with the communist National Liberation Movement and their military units under Josip Broz Tito. The fourth category consisted of those arrested for association with the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland.
Romani men, women and children were imprisoned at Crveni Krst shortly after its creation. In October 1941, 200–300 local and foreign Jews living in Niš were brought to the camp. More arrived later from towns in the Serbian interior. The Germans began executing adult male inmates in early November. In January, a group of Serbian partisans attacked the camp, freeing a small number of Jewish prisoners.
On February 12, 1942, about 174 members of communist partisan groups broke out of the camp; 105 of them survived the escape. In retaliation, SS and police units carried out mass shootings of prisoners on the nearby Bubanj hill. In February alone, some 850 prisoners were shot, among them all male Jewish prisoners and many Roma. A second mass execution involved the shooting of large numbers of Serb and Jewish inmates whose corpses were dumped into mass graves the Germans forced Romani prisoners to dig.
Many of the Crveni Krst inmates were later transferred to other camps, including Mauthausen, Ravensbrück and Auschwitz. The Jewish women and children were deported to the Sajmište concentration camp near Belgrade in early 1942, where they were murdered in gas vans.
The camp remained in operation over the following two years before being liberated by the partisans in 1944. It is estimated that about 30,000 prisoners were held at the camp between 1941 and 1944. Approximately 237 of the Roma held at Crveni Krst died there. Up to 2,000 prisoners were shot on the Bubanj hill, though records indicate the number could have been as high as 12,000. Many of the victims were Jews.
In 1963, three sculptures by artist Ivan Sabolić were erected on the execution site on the Bubanj hill. The concrete columns depict clenched fists as a symbol of the partisan resistance.
On February 12, 1967, the 25th anniversary of the prisoner break-out, the former camp was opened as a museum. In 1979, the area was declared a Cultural Monument of Exceptional Importance and came under the protection of the Socialist Republic of Serbia.
A film detailing the events at the camp titled Lager Niš was released in Yugoslavia in 1987.
Muzej Logor Crveni Krst
Bulevar 12. februar
Open Tuesday to Sunday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Closed on Mondays