The Jewish Ghosts of Nis, Serbia

The barbed-wire fence at the Red Cross Concentration Camp. (Michael Fraiman photo)

The road to the Red Cross Concentration Camp is caked in frozen mud etched with tire tracks and cracking puddles. A dog jogs ahead to dig holes in the camp’s yard. The barbed-wire fence lies in a decrepit heap next to the ticket office branded with a faded swastika and, in thick capital letters, “WACHE SS”.

Also, there’s also a high school next door.

“Many tourists ask, ‘Oh, is this also part of the camp?’ No, it’s just a school,” explains our guide, Aleksandra Zdravkovic. She works at the tourism office of Nis, a quiet city of 190,000 in southern Serbia, and occasionally offers free walking tours. Since only my wife and I showed up to brave the sub-zero temperatures on this early January morning, we scored a private tour, which includes the camp.

I ask Zdravkovic why communists built so many schools next to former camps — Jasenovac, in Croatia, is the same way. “I do not know for sure,” she replied, “but I think it was to show children: ‘Look what they did to us!’”

The ticket office, a former SS office, stamped with the fading letters of the Wache SS. (Michael Fraiman photo)

She laughs and shrugs, but Zdravkovic’s upbeat demeanour belies the remarkably depressing parts of Serbian history that comprise her city’s most popular tourist attractions. There’s Skull Tower, the ruins of a warning sign built by Ottoman invaders using the decapitated and skinned skulls of their dead Serbian enemies; Nis fortress, a longstanding battleground surrounded by monuments to multiple liberations that often ended in war and more subsequent occupations; and the Red Cross Concentration Camp, a rare example of a neatly preserved Nazi death camp.

Nazis destroyed their paper records here before the war ended, but experts believe around 30,000 partisans, Serbs, Romani and Jews passed through the camp. The building, originally a military barracks next to a rail station, was converted into a transit camp in 1941, connecting the Balkans with central Europe.

Because it was not initially designed to murder prisoners, Nazis — when feeling generous — permitted the Red Cross to help prisoners here. They sent food and clothes, and acted as a go-between for their families.

But all that changed on Feb. 2, 1942, when 147 prisoners attempted a mass escape. Only 105 made it out alive.

“The other 42 died on this barbed wire,” Zdravkovic said, gesturing to the crumpled fence.

An exhibit on the museum’s second floor showcases belongings left behind by the Jewish prisoners. (Michael Fraiman photo)

In a fury, Nazis killed all the remaining Jews and several hundred other prisoners, and made others build a tall concrete wall that still stands today, surrounding the original barracks. All told, they murdered roughly 10,000 people here.

Zdravkovic took us inside the main building, where layers of hay — makeshift beds — lay in piles around the walls’ edges. On the walls themselves, you could read, in Cyrillic scrawl, messages written by prisoners documenting their time there: when prisoners were taken, when they arrived, who died and when.

On the third floor there are unadorned solitary cells, some still carpeted with a few strands of barbed wire to prevent prisoners from sleeping properly. The second floor houses museum exhibits to the Red Cross and the city’s former Jewish population, which stood around 400 before the Holocaust.

Today, just a few dozen Jews remain in Nis. They have no functioning synagogue, but the city does preserve a former one.

The local synagogue, now owned and preserved by the city museum. (Michael Fraiman photo)

Built in 1926, the Nis synagogue is a modest modernist-style beauty, with expanding square columns and jagged archways that draw the eye forward. It’s run by the city museum and hosts a gallery inside, but when we tried to open the door during working hours, it was inexplicably locked — maybe the folks in charge went home early, bored with the lack of off-season tourists.

Perhaps the strangest part of the synagogue’s existence is not its unique architecture, nor its unpredictable hours, but the fact that it stands, perfectly preserved, less than two kilometres from an equally maintained Nazi death camp. These two monuments, shells of a broken past, tell the story of the Jews of Nis. It’s not a story with a happy ending, but it’s one you can still feel, see and experience as intimately as anywhere in Europe.