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Serbia site bears on Germans' plight

A developer uncovers a World War II-era camp for ethnic Germans, about 2,000 of whom died there from various causes.

June 29, 2008|Slobodan Lekic | Associated Press

SREMSKA MITROVICA, SERBIA — When entrepreneur Mitar Tasovac purchased a long-abandoned factory intending to develop a housing complex on the site, he uncovered a chilling chapter of local history that had lain dormant for 60 years.

After World War II, the sprawling complex on the outskirts of this northern Serbian town served as a prison camp for local Germans, and about 2,000 people died there.

Before the Nazi invasion in 1941, about 520,000 members of the minority lived in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, mainly in today's Serbia and Croatia.

During the war, many joined the locally recruited 7th SS Volunteer Division Prinz Eugen, which murdered tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.

After the war came revenge.

In just two years, about 300,000 ethnic Germans were herded by Yugoslav troops into dozens of internment camps before being deported. A similar number of ethnic Italians were expelled from Croatia and Slovenia.

"About 52,000 German civilians, mostly children, perished in various camps in Yugoslavia between 1945-47," said Hans Supritz, president of the Assn. of Danube Swabians in Germany.

"We're not counting German soldiers, just innocent civilians who had in no way participated in the occupation," said Supritz, a retired engineer in Ulm.

Most of the victims succumbed to starvation or maltreatment or simply froze to death, he said.

In the camp in Sremska Mitrovica, a farming town 50 miles west of Belgrade, any German civilians involved with the SS or those who had informed on their Serbian and Jewish neighbors were promptly executed.

Others were used as forced labor before being deported to Germany or Austria.

All told, about 12.5 million Germans were expelled from or fled Eastern Europe when the Third Reich collapsed.

The issue remains an occasional irritant in relations between Germany and nations that suffered under Nazi occupation.

The horrors the ethnic Germans underwent were long a taboo topic in Yugoslavia, where official propaganda ignored the painful past by claiming they had fled with retreating Nazi forces in 1945.

Decades later, it was Tasovac's plan to build homes on the prison camp site that sparked media attention and encouraged a citizens group, the Serb-German Cooperation Society, to press municipal officials to finally honor the dead.

"Most of those buried at this site were children and there can be no harm in marking their grave," said Jovica Stevic, vice president of the society.

Stevic, 42, recalls stories about starving German kids sneaking out through the barbed wire and begging for food on the streets of Sremska Mitrovica.

The children would place white pebbles in front of homes where they had received food. With black pebbles, they would mark those houses where inhabitants beat them or returned them to the guards, Stevic said.

Stevic said municipal authorities recently granted permission for a monument to be built to commemorate the ethnic Germans who once lived in the suburb of Hesna, formerly known as Hessendorf, where the camp was located. The unveiling ceremony is planned for fall.

The latest events mark a broader turnaround in Serbs' views concerning the ethnic Germans who used to live in their midst.

Several monuments to the Germans' suffering have been recently unveiled or are being built in other towns and villages in northern Serbia where internment camps used to be located.

"The old falsified history is now being corrected under a democratic government," Stevic said.

Despite the occasional high-profile controversies over the fate of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia, very little has been heard about those deported from Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania.

One of the reasons passions here are not as high as in other countries is because there is almost no chance of the ethnic Germans recovering their property in Serbia.

An agreement on war reparations between Yugoslavia and Germany effectively ended that possibility. The two sides agreed that confiscated ethnic German property would be deducted from the much larger sum paid to Yugoslavia for damage inflicted by Nazi troops.

Following the mass deportations of 1945-47, about 100,000 ethnic Germans -- mainly those who had sided with the resistance -- remained in Yugoslavia. But most eventually emigrated, leaving fewer than 10,000 in today's Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

Tasovac said he would prefer to build a memorial garden on the corner of the site -- now covered with broken concrete and industrial trash -- where the grave site is located.

"It would be the Christian thing to do, to mark the grave in a dignified way," he said.

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