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The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

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Letter from David Alkalaj to Miloje Popadić

Letter from David Alkalaj to Miloje Popadić
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
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tags: food & hunger letters & correspondence

type: Letter

By dint of their service in the Yugoslav army battling the German invasion in April 1941, several hundred Serbian Jews managed to survive the Holocaust as prisoners of war in German POW camps. Unlike in the case of Soviet soldiers captured in the war, the Germans mostly respected the Geneva conventions when it came to the treatment of Yugoslav war prisoners, including Jews. Yugoslav Jewish officers—mostly from Serbia, since the ones from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had been repatriated—were kept in a number of POW camps in Germany proper, as part of the large contingent of officers of the Yugoslav army in captivity. Ironically then, most of these Serbian Jewish officers survived the war and the Holocaust in the heart of Nazi Germany.

Some of them, like David Alkalaj, a lawyer and a Zionist activist from Belgrade before the war, lived to be the leaders of the postwar Yugoslav Jewish community. In the spring of 1942, however, Alkalaj was a representative of the Jewish inmates at the POW camp for officers (or, in German abbreviation, "Oflag") at Eversheide, in Osnabrück in Germany. On May 26, 1942, he wrote to his superior, Division General Miloje Popadić, who was the head of the Yugoslav prisoners of war in the camp, and informed him of the harrowing emotional turmoil that Jewish prisoners were undergoing. For half a year, ever since the Jews in Belgrade had been deported to Judenlager Semlin in early December 1941, Jewish POWs had no news from their loved ones.1 It was not clear where they were or what the future held in store for them. Today, of course, we know that by the time Alkalaj addressed his superior on that day, the Jews of Serbia had already been annihilated, the women and children from Judenlager Semlin murdered in a gas van over the course of a few months that spring. Reading Alkalaj's letter challenges us to disentangle ourseves from historical hindsight, and gives us a glimpse of the despair of Serbian Jewish officers in German captivity—a precarious situation in its own right—about the fate of their families.

The brief typewritten text at the end of the document, dated a month later, indicates that there had been previous similar inquiries; it also hints that this letter was to be just filed with the previous ones, without elciting a response.

Judenlager Semilin (literally, in German, "Jewish camp Zemun," was a camp set up for Serbian Jewish women and children at the outskirts of Belgrade in the late fall of 1941. For this and other developments and the timeline of the Holocaust in Serbia, see the essays in Christopher Browning, Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985).

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Noncommissioned lieutenant David A. Alkalaj
Inmate number 2189/34


To the head of the prisoner camp Oflag VIc,
Division General Miloje Popadić


As a head of barrack 34, I take the liberty of addressing you with the following plea, in the name of my comrades, Yugoslav officer inmates of Mosaic faith resident in this camp:

In accordance with the order of the German police in Belgrade, on December 12, 1941, all Jews in Belgrade, regardless of age, sex, and health condition, were interned in the camp at Sajmište, by the Zemun bridge. This horrific measure affected many of us, inmates in this camp, who left our women and children, brothers and sisters, and elderly parents in Belgrade, since with this development any connection we had with them has been severed. Since December 12 last year, only twice have any news reached us from Sajmište, and the majority of us have had no information whatsoever for almost six months about our loved ones in Sajmište, even though we are sending mail regularly to that camp.

Desperate because of uncertainty about the fate of our loved ones in the said camp, after a difficult winter without firewood and anyone's protection, I have, on two occasions, as an elder of the barrack and in the name of my comrades, addressed the Serbian Red Cross, and on one occasion the Department for Prisoners of War, asking them to 1) allow for the reestablishment of postal connection between us and our loved ones at Sajmište, and 2) that aid that we get as officers be delivered to our families, that is, be given as food by the Red Cross, because they are certainly starving at the camp. Unfortunately, neither of these two institutions had any sympathy for us officers who, like other Serbian comrades, remained faithful to the King and the Fatherland, and they did not reply to my appeals, leaving us in despair and uncertainty.

For these reasons, General, I kindly ask you to intervene on our behalf with the Serbian Red Cross in Belgrade: to make sure that our letters and postcards are delivered to our families at the camp, as well as allow them to reply to them; that the Red Cross deliver to our families, against our officer aid, which [our loved ones] have not received since December of last year, aid in goods—food, to the extent possible.

Certainly the Red Cross should inform us whether our loved ones in the camp are alive and well.

In case, however, that the camp at Sajmište has been relocated, we ask that the above be considered in that case as well, so that we can reestablish contact with our hapless families forgotten by everyone—the elementary right of prisoners of war, according to the [Geneva] Convention.

Reminding you of your verbal promise that you would help us in this matter, I am imploring you, General, to have sympathy for us, suffering unspeakably for our families, and I am also conveying to you, in the name of my comrades, our deepest gratitude.


Eversheide, May 26, 1942

David A. Alkalaj
Noncommissioned lieutenant
Prisoner no. 2189/34
Inmate administration of Of. Lag. VIII
Number . . . . . . 
June 25, 1942


Attach to the copy of the letters sent with respect to the above inquiry to the International Red Cross and the Red Cross in Belgrade. Division General

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
RG Number 49.007M
Date Created
May 26, 1942
Author / Creator
Alkalaj, David
Osnabrück, Germany
Reference Location
Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade, Yugoslavia (historical)
Document Type Letter
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