On Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Plea of Sorts for Forgiveness
by Julie Brill
Last summer, I traveled from Boston to Serbia with my father and daughter, to bear witness to the installation of Belgrade’s first 10 Holocaust memorial stones, called stolpersteine. We honored my grandfather, Alexander Brill, with a memorial. Tens of thousands of stolpersteine — German for stumbling stones — are located in front of the last voluntary residences of Holocaust survivors and victims across Europe, forming the world’s largest decentralized memorial.
Serbia’s arguably most famous Holocaust victim, Hilda Dajc, received Belgrade’s first stone. Her letters describing the horrific conditions at Sajmiste Concentration Camp are a lasting testament to what Jews lived through, and died in, during the winter of 1941-42. Those still alive in the spring, including Hilda, were gassed in a mobile van as it drove through the streets of the capital city. The only Jewish survivor was a baby born in the camp and smuggled out to safety.
We gathered outside the Dajc home in extreme heat to watch the stones installed with fanfare. Members of the local Jewish community who worked for years to secure permission for the installation, the German ambassador to Serbia, and the Israeli deputy ambassador spoke. Absent was any Serbian government representative. Also missing was any mention of Hilda’s father Emil, although he received a stolpersteine.
Emil’s story is complicated. He was part of the Belgrade Jewish Council, created by German occupation authorities to oversee Jewish life and carry out Nazi orders. His position brought some privilege, but only for a while. As a Council member, Emil lived with his family more comfortably than most Jews did early in the occupation. During Spring and Summer 1941, Emil wasn’t alongside my grandfather doing slave labor in Belgrade’s streets, digging ditches to repair sewer lines destroyed by the German bombing. And he didn’t have to report to Sajmiste in December, when almost all other remaining Jews in Belgrade did.
It seems Emil tried to help the Jewish community in the small ways he could. He wasn’t a collaborator. Those who collaborated did so to help Germany win the war. In the end, Emil died the way most of Belgrade’s Jew did, as a prisoner at Sajmiste.
Hilda’s letters describe abhorrent conditions. Emil also has surviving letters whose details give a window into the Holocaust. I read one the day after the stolpersteine installation.
That letter is on a sign at the Topovske Supe labor camp. My grandfather was imprisoned there from sometime around my father’s third birthday in August 1941 until the following November. It is the last place my grandmother ever saw him.
Topoveske Supe is not a museum. Nothing invites visitors to enter, and most locals don’t know its tragic history. One long, crumbling building houses an auto mechanic’s shop. In another decaying building, people appear to be squatting. Stray dogs roam the yard. Our Serbian cousins and my 83-year-old father shooed them away so we could reach a small sign.
The day before, we were surrounded by the Jewish community and others as I spoke about my grandfather near his last known residence. It was a eulogy of sorts, 81 years too late. Then my grandfather’s stolperstein was placed into the sidewalk in front of where he was living with my grandmother, my father, and two great uncles when the Nazi occupation of Belgrade began in April 1941.
But at this forsaken labor camp, we stood alone in our little group: my father, my daughter, two Serbian cousins, and me. My cousin translated Emil’s letter, in which he pleads for straw for the Jewish prisoners.
“There is a camp for Jews near Topovske Supe, where there are always 1400 people on average,” my cousin read. “There are no beds or mattresses. Everyone must sleep on straw on the floor. There are sick and old people aged 60-80 years and about 1000 young people who work outside the camp every day. Straw is necessary for them to rest and to maintain hygienic conditions. Insects have already appeared that can become a source of infection not only for the camp, but for the city, which is in direct contact with the camp, due to visits of citizens, and workers who go every day in various directions to work. I am asking you, Mr. President, to give us straw.”
I knew my grandfather, like all Belgrade’s Jewish men caught by the Nazis, was captive here for months. Prisoners went into the city in crews to slave for the occupiers. They were dependent on female relatives for food. My grandmother brought my grandfather necessities, until the day she arrived to find the gates open and the camp empty.
Now with Emil’s letter, I could see more clearly how desperate the prisoners’ lives were here. Fourteen hundred people slept on the floor while Emil begged the Nazis for straw.
My grandfather has two children, two grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Emil has no surviving descendants. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remember them both.
Julie Brill is writing a memoir about her Serbian family, in the context of the largely untold history of the Shoah in Belgrade. Her work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, Balkan Insight, Kveller, and elsewhere. Julie volunteers with 3GNY, sharing her family’s Holocaust in middle and high school classrooms. Twitter: @JulieBrill8