Monday, March 13, 2006

Staro Sajmiste Reveals Some Secrets

It was a dark and stormy morning . . .

Well, not really. It was raining Sunday morning, but not so hard I couldn't walk from my hotel, across the bridge to do some work at the TV station.
I had some unexpected extra time, so I allowed the magnets at Staro Sajmiste to pull me to the remains of what was as international exhibition in the late 1930s but would become a concentration camp and death camp for thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.
For those just tuning in, I've been determined to go inside some of the old buildings and find out who is living inside. I was lucky to be able to get in touch with a young man named Nemanja whom my intern in California had found on the Internet. Nemanja had posted something about a break dancing tournament he had attended in one of the old buildings at Staro Sajmiste.
He was more than willing to take the trolley there and share his English/Serbian abilities. I was also able to reach two new friends of mine, Bojan and Vladistava, who work at a book publishing company that is actually using one of the old buildings.
So despite the now-pouring rain, the four of us trudged through the mud to the round building with the tower on top. It was, in about 1938, the first television transmitter in Serbia. I had walked around it and taken pictures, buy my inability to speak Serbian prevented me from knocking on the door to meet the people who apprently lived inside.
We all walked into the common hallway inside the tower building. It turns out that it and other buildings there became housing for artists following World War II and the artists -- or their children -- have lived there ever since.
Nobody was home in that building, except for some cats and, based on Health Department warning signs posted on the walls, more than its fair share of rats. I wanted to go upstairs to the base of the tower, but there was a locked gate with a note attached to it with the phone number of the guy who had the key.
I called the number and handed my mobile phone to one of the others. The man agreed to come there the next day, Monday, at 6 p.m. to let us in. When that happens, I'll fill you in, I promise.
Then we went to another building and talked to a half dozen residents. It was like finally getting to go to Disneyland. Even though I didn't conduct formal interviews, I learned enough to convince me that I want to write or shoot more about this amazing place.
The picture with the white car is one I took earlier, but it's the second one we went into.
It was once the Italian Pavilion at the exhibition. In one of the rooms where the widow of one of the original artist residents sleeps, the Nazi-sympathizing Croats killed at least 100 Jews. And we learned that hundreds of people died in the tower building also.
I had to go to work, so I wrote down names and evoked promises from the people living there that I could come back later and learn more.

In one of the pictures you'll see Bojan talking to the bearded artist while Nemanja looks around with curiousity.

I shot two other pictures from the inside.
The overcast skies created a natural light that I'm sure would inspire any artist or photographer.

I did just a bit of Internet research when I got back to the hotel and learned that many of the Jews and others who were held captive at Staro Sajmiste had followed orders and gotten into specially designed trucks.
What they didn't know was that the trucks were driving them to where their bodies would be disposed of. The cargo area of the trucks were sealed. The exhaust from the truck's motor went straight into where the prisoners were and killed them along the way.

I read stories of how a lot of the victims froze to death when the winter snows turned everything there into ice. This morning it was snowing, so I took the taxi to work. When I saw the tower covered with snow, I paid the driver a bit more the get me close enough for a picture.

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