BIRN Belgrade, July 27th 2018
A Belgrade court has refused to rehabilitate Serbia’s Nazi-backed leader – but his memory remains deeply divisive in a country where some still insist he did nothing wrong.
“This is my mum and dad at their wedding. You see how they were beautiful, happy and in love,” says Estera Bajer as she holds a bunch of black-and-white family pictures.
Bajer, 76, had taken the pictures out of a small blue envelope on which is written in capital letters: “PHOTOS OF MUM, DAD, GRANDMOTHER AND GRANDFATHER.”
These old photographs are Bajer’s only visual memory of her parents, who she never met; both her father, Aleksandar, who was of German origin, and her mother Ester, a Jew, perished in World War II.
After war broke out in Yugoslavia in 1941, Aleksandar joined Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan fighters, but Ester, who was pregnant at the time, decided to obey German occupation forces’ orders and reported herself as a Jew.
Shortly after, she was sent to the Staro Sajmiste camp in Belgrade, where on January 31, 1942, she gave birth prematurely to a tiny girl weighing less than a kilogram.
“By chance… my uncle Dragan, who was studying medicine, saw her there and couldn’t grasp what she was doing there, but the times were such that they couldn’t talk,” Bajer tells BIRN, adding that she assumes her uncle was a volunteer at the camp.
“I heard stories that my other uncle helped him put me in a box or bag, and got me out of the camp,” she adds.
Estera survived the war in an orphanage in Belgrade, where she went by the Serbian name Olgica.
When the war ended, her grandparents, the Bajers, took her in and raised her. Only later did she learn her parents’ fate.
“Grandpa was always saying to me: ‘You are a little Jew, a little Jew,’” she recalls.
‘Such things should not be forgotten’
Decades after the German occupation of Serbia changed the course of Estera Bajer’s life, the man who headed the puppet regime that aided the Nazi-run Staro Sajmiste camp is still considered by many in Serbia as a man who did nothing wrong.
His supporters launched a rehabilitation case that a Belgrade court rejected on Thursday.
Milan Nedic was the wartime leader of Serbia whose regime collaborated with the Nazi occupiers and enforced their racial laws.
The court process was launched in December 2015 to posthumously annul his conviction as a war criminal by the post-war Yugoslav Communist authorities.
Closing statements in the case were delivered on July 11. The judgment, delivered this week, can be appealed.
“We know who did what [during WWII]. Just think of it … Such things should never be forgotten, ever,” Bajer says.
She insists that she feels no anger towards those who killed her family.
“But I felt sadness, sorrow, because all my life I had to work my fingers to the bone alone,” she adds.
The Nedic rehabilitation case has sparked disputes in Serbia, reopening old divisions between opponents and supporters of the wartime premier.
His family and proponents claim Nedic was not a traitor, guilty of causing suffering during the Nazi occupation.
They insist he took on the role of prime minister to help people and prevent German reprisals, in retaliation for an uprising in Serbia.
One of their arguments is that Nedic’s government took in up to 600,000 Serbian refugees from the wider Balkan region – an act that earned Nedic the nickname of “srpska majka” (“Serbian mother”).
Others say there is no excuse for a man who collaborated with the Nazi occupation and presided over a repressive regime.
They argue that clearing Nedic’s name would mean legitimising Fascism and collaboration with Nazis.
Some opponents also claim that the only aim of the rehabilitation request is the restitution of Nedic’s property to his family; this includes lands in Zemun, Grocka and around Slavija Square in central Belgrade.
Under Serbia’s restitution law, only after a person has had his name cleared can his descendants apply to have seized property restored, or receive compensation.
As soon as World War II ended, Nedic’s property was confiscated and he was branded war criminal by the Communist regime for his role in the occupation.
‘Do not resist the Nazis’
Nedic’s Government of National Salvation, as his administration was known, held office from August 1941 to October 1944.
Before that, Nedic had fought in the Balkan Wars and in World War I, becoming the youngest colonel on the Serbian General Staff.
After Nazi Germany took control of Serbia, Nedic was appointed leader of the country.
He made a speech on the radio claiming that he wanted to save lives by accepting the occupation and called on the Serbian people not to resist, as the Nazis had threatened to kill 100 Serbs for each German soldier’s death.
Under his premiership, Belgrade was the first city in Europe to be declared Judenfrei – free of Jews, and by the end of the war, about 90 per cent of the Jewish population in Serbia had been murdered.
At the end of the war, Nedic fled to Austria, but the new Yugoslav Communist authorities sought him on charges of collaborating with the Germans and committing treachery. The US Army arrested him and surrendered him to Yugoslavia.
The case against Nedic was cut short when he died in February 1946. According to official documents, he committed suicide by jumping out of a window.
His family insists that he was murdered.
“How is it possible that an old man weighing 120 kilogrammes was able to escape young guards, run towards the window and then jump out of it?” Aleksandar Nedic, Nedic’s great-grandson, who filed the rehabilitation request, told BIRN.
He also dismisses accusations that Nedic was responsible for sending Jews to their deaths, arguing that by the time his great-grandfather became prime minister in August 1941, “the majority of Jews had already been killed”.
Aleksandar Nedic says falsehoods about the WWII premier have become widespread, when he should be praised for saving Serbs from all over the Balkans.
Zoran Zivanovic, a lawyer representing Aleksandar Nedic and the other plaintiffs, said he believes his team proved Nedic’s innocence.
“This is not a revision of history, as many claim,” Zivanovic told BIRN. “The Germans gave all the orders, while Nedic and his government bear no responsibility for the killings in Belgrade and Serbia,” he added.
Zivanovic told BIRN his team would appeal the decision, but did not give more details, as he was not provided yet with the written decision of the court.
Still seen by some as ‘saviour of Serbs’:
Nedic’s supporters have tried to clear Nazi-backed leader’s name twice in the past, but both requests for rehabilitation hearings were rejected over technical issues.
Aleksandar Nedic and two organisations, the Serbian Liberal Party and the Association of Political Prisoners and Victims of the Communist Regime, were finally able to make their case after the Belgrade appeal court made a final ruling in July 2015 that ordered the rehabilitation case to begin.
The two-and-a-half years of court sessions heard from a number of witnesses, most of whom were historians testifying about Nedic and his government’s role in Nazi-occupied Belgrade.
At the first hearing, Zivanovic argued he would summon witnesses and documents that would prove that Nedic was not a war criminal but a man who saved the lives of Serbs throughout the region.
Zivanovic brought some witnesses who said that Nedic took in Serbs who were fleeing Bosnia during World War II.
Among them was Bosiljka Kujundzic, who said Nedic’s government helped to free her and her family after the Germans transported them and other Serbs from Sarajevo to Belgrade’s Topovske Supe concentration camp in 1941.
“Me and my five sisters spent six months there [at the camp] and were relocated from the camp and given to Belgrade families,” said Kujundzic, who was 13 at the time.
“We later heard that was done on the orders of the Nedic government’s refugee commissioner, Toma Maksimovic,” she added.
A number of historians specialising in World War II also testified.
Some claimed that Nedic purged Belgrade University of pre-war teachers and installed “politically suitable” professors, and also tried to draw the Serbian Orthodox Church into collaborating with Nazis.
Another historian, Milan Ristovic, testified that Nedic, was “absolutely loyal” to the Nazi regime, while his statements and actions were anti-Semitic and lent support to Germany’s war effort.
Although their views on Nedic’s role were sometimes conflicting, they all agreed that the puppet government leader was not directly involved in killing Serbia’s Jews.
The majority of the experts argued that Nedic’s administration participated in activities that led to Holocaust, but Bojan Dimitrijevic, from Belgrade’s Institute for Contemporary History, testified that Nedic’s hands were clean.
“I think he wanted to save Serbia and that he worked in the interest of the Serbian people,” Dimitrijevic told the court.
He also said that Nedic’s government did not know what was happening at the concentration camps.
Dimitrijevic’s positive stance towards the collaborationist leader led earlier to his expulsion from the opposition Democratic Party in December 2015.
A question of overall responsibility:
Milovan Pisarri, a Belgrade-based historian who specialises in World War II and the Holocaust, argues that the court made the correct decision by rejecting the rehabilitation of the Nazi-backed leader.
Pisarri refutes the “srpska majka” argument, claiming it wasn’t Nedic’s choice, but a deal between the Germans and the Independent State of Croatia, NDH, to transfer some Serbs from the NDH to Serbia, which Nedic had to obey.
“There are also documents showing refugees were badly treated. Often seen as communists, they were frequently executed,” Pisarri told BIRN.
Pisarri agreed that Nedic’s government was not directly involved in the Holocaust, but insisted that it does not diminish their overall responsibility.
“The Holocaust didn’t just mean killing people. Killings are the last act, preceded by an entire process of dehumanisation, which includes anti-Semitic propaganda and excluding people from society. That is where Nedic’s apparatus had a huge role,” he said.
He argued that many of Nedic’s speeches and articles were full of anti-Semitic language that served a specific purpose.
“By spreading anti-Semitism, Nedic normalised hatred towards Jews and legitimised what would happen later to them,” Pisarri said.
When it comes to concentration camps – Staro Sajmiste in particular – Pisarri said documents show that the Belgrade municipality provided it with food and other necessities – if inadequately.
“Everyone knew what was happening there, so they were probably thinking: ‘Why should we send them food when they are going to die anyway?’” said the historian, who also runs an association called the Centre for Public History.
The Nedic administration also monitored forced labour and provided security for another concentration camp in the Belgrade district of Banjica.
It is estimated that 24,000 people were held at the Banjica camp from 1941 to 1944.
So far, 4,200 prisoners who were shot have been reliably identified. Thousands were also deported from Banjica to other camps throughout Europe.