Saturday October 31, 2020: Joy from Endless Sorrow
My girlfriend Maisie and I were in Belgrade, Serbia and wanted to take a day trip. I suggested Nis, the country’s third largest city. Nis (pronounced neesh) is a 2.5 hour drive south of Belgrade. It is accessible by bus, but most of the main sights are located outside of the city center, so we decided to rent a car instead.
We reached the Belgrade Airport at 8AM to pick up our rental car. However, the rental car booth was not staffed like it was supposed to. After 45 minutes of waiting, we were able to get our car.
The drive took the full 2.5 hours and had beautiful scenery that reminded me of my college days in Missouri. Serbia had a speed limit of 130 kilometers/hour, the fastest I have seen in Europe (outside Germany of course). On the way, we had to refuel, which was surprisingly expensive. A tank of gas cost 4 times the rental price of the car!
Eventually we made it to Nis. The welcome sign mentioned that Nis was the birthplace of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. It was a grey depressing day, which seemed appropriate for the sights we were about to see.
Our first stop was the Crveni Krst (Red Cross) Concentration Camp. This camp was set up by the Nazis in 1941. It was used as a holding place for Serbian resistance members, Jews, Romani (Gypsy) and other enemies of the Nazis. The Red Cross camp was famous because a group of 42 prisoners managed to escape. The camp was liberated by the Red Army in 1944 at which point there had been more than 35,000 prisoners in the camp. Of those, 10,000 were murdered – mostly by shooting on hill called Bubanj on the other side of Nis. There were neither gas chambers nor crematoriums at this camp, as the camp’s primary purpose was the transfer of prisoners.
One weird fact about the camp was that the prisoners were allowed visitors on Thursdays. The visitors could bring them gifts or food.
The camp conditions were horrendous. It was October and the building was freezing cold inside. I cannot imagine how the prisoners had to deal with even colder weather with inadequate clothing. Additionally, they were underfed, tortured and forced to do hard manual labor. On the top floor, there were solitary confinement cells that were lined with barbed wire. Having to spend time in there must be the single most miserable experience any human could possibly experience.
I said this after visiting Dachau near Munich, but the word Nazi gets thrown around a lot to represent people who are very strict. But the real Nazis were far crueler than any comparison could possibly be. By comparing things to Nazis, people actually understate just how evil the Nazis truly were.
Maisie commented that the houses in the nearby neighborhood looked decrepit. I said that real estate values around concentration camps are probably pretty low. We hoped that the rest of the city would be nicer.
The next stop was Bubanj Hill where the 10,000 were murdered. The Yugoslav government built a powerful memorial there. It consists of three enormous fists rising out of the ground representing the men, women, and children who were murdered. This memorial really struck me; I imagined the 10,000 dead raising their fists as one from the grave.
The Communists truly build the best memorials in the world.
The depressing sights weren’t done, as our next stop was the Skull Tower- a most appropriate stop considering it was Halloween.
This macabre structure was built by the Ottomans after the 1809 Battle of Cegar where the Serbians unsuccessfully tried to repel the Turks. The battle ended when the Serbian general Stevan Sinđelić had his troops dynamite themselves rather than to be captured and impaled by the Ottomans.
In order to scare the Serbians from resisting again, the Ottoman governor ordered that a tower be made of the skulls of the Serbian soldiers. The tower contained 952 skulls (4 sides of 14 rows containing 17 skulls).
In 1878, the Ottomans retreated from Nis and the tower became under Serbian control. They built a church-like structure around the tower. Today, the skull tower is revered as a symbol of Serbian resistance and martyrdom. 58 skulls remain in the tower. Sinđelić’s skull is no longer embedded in the tower, but instead is kept in a glass case a few feet away.
Finally, we have finished seeing all the depressing sights and it is time to visit the town center.
The city has a walking street full of bars. At 1pm on a Saturday, it was packed with people enjoying coffee. I am convinced that Serbians only go to restaurants to drink coffee. Music was bumping- it seemed like people were having a great time! I am sure that this street gets super rowdy on weekend evenings.
We went into a traditional Serbian restaurant that did not serve coffee and were the only ones in the restaurant. I asked what was going on and he said that on weekends, Serbians eat a late lunch- usually around 2-4 pm. They will also have dinner starting at 8. Lo and behold when we left around 2:30, the restaurant was half-full.
In addition to the bar street, there is another walking street full of shops. Underneath this is an underground mall that was semi-abandoned. As we walked, Maisie and I marveled at the lack of tourists. It is quite possible that we were the only foreigners in this very busy town.
We crossed on the pedestrian street over the river Nisava and reached the Ottoman-era Nis Fortress. This is a massive stone-walled military fortress. Unlike other fortresses in Serbia, this one has been more or less left in its original state.
We entered the fortress through a large gate with Arabic inscriptions. I was expecting to see a large number of castles and barracks, but instead the interior was a gigantic forest. There were a few buildings sprinkled in such as a mosque and some tombs, but 95% of the inside of the fort is a park.
It was now 4pm and the sun was setting (so depressing). It was time to drive back to Belgrade. On the way back, we stopped briefly in the town of Jagodina to visit the Serbian Wax Museum. The small museum contained two rooms of wax figurines of famous Serbians including Josip Tito, Nikola Tesla, various religious figures, Slobodan Milosevic, and, yes, Novak Djokovic.
It was weird and the wax figures were only somewhat convincing, but we really enjoyed it!
Nis is not a typical destination. It doesn’t have that many sights and what is does have is, for the most part, incredibly depressing.
That said, the city itself was full of life. I am happy that this city has been able to develop into what it is despite centuries and centuries of sadness, terror, and oppression.