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Letter from Hilda Dajč to Nada Novak

Dajč, Hilda letter 1941
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade

Soon after invading Yugoslavia and occupying Serbia, in the spring of 1941, the Germans appointed a Jewish Council in Belgrade, tasked with administering Jewish life in the city and carrying out German orders. Emil Dajč, a well-to-do Ashkenazi Jew, became one of the prominent members of the Council.1 As a result, his family was somewhat protected, and sometimes even exempted from a number of anti-Jewish laws and regulations that the Nazis had instituted in Serbia since the beginning of the occupation. Dajč's daughter, Hilda, was a talented student of architecture at the University of Belgrade. After her studies became impossible due to the war and the occupation, she volunteered for work in the Belgrade Jewish hospital, run by the Jewish Council.

In the summer of 1941 the popular uprising against the German occupation of Serbia presented a significant problem for the occupying administration.2 In an attempt to quell the rebellion the Nazis implemented a brutal reprisal policy, according to which one hundred Serbian civilians were summarily executed for every dead German soldier. Thousands of people were murdered in this way during the summer of 1941. This included virtually all Jewish men, around 8,000 people, in addition to communists, Roma, and ethnic Serbs opposed to the Germans and the collaborationist administration. After practically all the Jewish men in Serbia were murdered by the fall of 1941, the Germans decided to deport the remaining women and children to the site of the Belgrade fairgrounds located across the Sava river from the city center. The large warehouses of the fairgrounds, somewhat removed from the city yet easily reachable, were seen as ideal for what became known as Judenlager Semlin.3 In Serbian, the camp was known as "Sajmište," or fairgrounds.

In early December 1941, Jewish women, children, and the elderly were ordered to evacuate their houses and apartments and gather at the special police building in central Belgrade. Over several days, up to 7,000 Jews were deported to Judenlager Semlin. They lived there through the harsh winter, in terrible conditions. In March 1942, a gas van was sent from Berlin to murder the people remaining at the camp. Historian Christopher Browning has described this as a crucial period of change in Nazi policy, resulting from a combination of local factors and the escalation of general policy formulated in Berlin, which coalesced into the decision to murder all Jews in Judenlager Semlin. Locally, the radical German reprisal policies had already decimated the Jewish population, and Jewish women and children now became a disposable "burden"; in an atmosphere rife with murderous antisemitism, mass murder became an imaginable "solution" to this "problem." On the level of state policy, the Nazi agencies had just decided at the Wannsee conference to coordinate their work on the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question."

Hilda Dajč was temporarily protected by her father's position and thus not required to immediately relocate to the camp when Belgrade Jews were deported in early December 1941. Nevertheless, she volunteered to go, driven by the urge to help her fellow Jews. During her time in the camp, she managed to smuggle out letters she wrote to non-Jewish friends on the outside; several times she even managed to meet them outside the camp. The occasions for those meetings and smuggling letters usually presented themselves when corpses from the camp were transported across the river to Belgrade, to be buried. Four of Hilda's letters have survived; the third of the four, translated here, is undated, but was written sometime in mid-December 1941.

Hilda Dajč, her parents and her younger brother, Hans, all perished in the camp. Over the spring months in 1942, the gas van took groups of Jews through central Belgrade to Jajinci, just outside the city, where the asphyxiated people were buried in mass graves. The letter translated here was written before the arrival of the gas van, when the gloom of the terrible situation in which the remaining Jews of Serbia found themselves was offset by optimism and belief that they would be free again soon.

Hilda's letters are an invaluable source, since they are virtually the only preserved documents written by the Jewish inmates at Sajmište. Even official Nazi documents related to this camp, as well as the documents produced by the collaborationist Belgrade city administration, are sparse and inscrutable.4

The majority of the approximately 12,000 Jews in Belgrade before World War II were Sephardim, descendants of Spanish Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Ashkenazim, or Jews of East European origin, made less than a half of the Jewish population in the city. 

See Christopher R. Browning, Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985).

"Judenlager" literally means "Jew camp," and Semlin was the German name for Zemun, the area across the river from Belgrade, where the camp was located.

Scholarly articles and books about Sajmište are are sparse as well. Apart from the previously cited Browning’s Fateful Months, there is a literary imagining of the murder of the Jews in the camp. See David Albahari, Götz and Meyer, trans. Ellen Elias-Bursac (London: Harvill Press, 2004).

For Hilda’s letter to Mirjana, see Jürgen Matthäus, ed., Jewish Responses to Persecution, Vol. 3, 1941-1942 (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2013), 229-30.

Banat is a historical territory that today is divided among Romania, Serbia, and Hungary. Belgrade lies just outside the Serbian area of Banat. "People from Banat" refers to the Banat Jews in the camp, such as the family of Đura Rajs, who were deported to Belgrade en masse in August 1941. The men from this transport were murdered in reprisal shootings by the end of the fall, and the women and children—including Đura Rajs—were deported to Sajmište.

Hans was Hilda's younger brother.

"Werther" is a reference to The Sorrows of Young Werther, a romantic novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a classic German author. Heinrich Heine was an important German author and poet of Jewish descent. Pascal and Montaigne are French philosophers from the 17th and 16th centuries respectively. 

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Nada, my sweet, 

The way in which I received your letter was hardly romantic; us two nurses together with a pharmacist had organized making tea with milk (the women had brought these with them, because nothing can be sent here, neither do any parcels arrive at all) on twelve spirit stoves—and while we were making it, to the loudest din imaginable both inside and out, tears were running down my face because of the smoke and the paraffin and these were joined by the real, sincere and soothing tears that came from reading your letter.

Here it's so—I don't know how to describe it—it's quite simply a huge cowshed for 5,000 people or more, without walls, without barriers—everyone sharing the same quarters. I described the details of this magic castle to Mirjana and I really don't feel like repeating them.1 We get either breakfast or supper accompanied by the most abusive of words—on top of that, one's appetite passes and one's no longer hungry. Over the past five days we've had cabbage four times. Otherwise, everything's wonderful. Especially as far as our neighbours are concerned—the Gypsy camp. Today I went there to shave and grease the heads of fifteen people with lice. Even though my arms were burning up to the elbows from the cresol after this, my work is in vain, because as soon as I finish the second group, the first have got lice again. 

The running of the camp is in the hands of people from Banat and is based on favoritism or rather 'loverism,' but we Belgraders are too docile and they take advantage of this, because as soon as one of them chats with a girl, she becomes his girlfriend.2 Every hundred inmates have a group commander, usually some whippersnapper aged between 16 and 20, and up to now they've already picked 100 camp policewomen from the girls aged from 16 to 23. I kept myself well-hidden, because I'm only too aware of my particular attitude towards police of any kind. What their criteria are when they make their choice, only they know. 

It's now half-past ten, I'm lying down—I can feel the straw under me (a wonderful substance, especially when it's full of fleas)—and I'm writing to you. I'm very pleased that I've been here from the very start—one experiences so many interesting and unrepeatable things that it would have been a shame to have missed any of them. Even though there are only two faucets for the lot of us, I manage to keep clean as I get up before five and go to wash myself all over. Here we have to queue for everything. It's very good of them to try our patience like this. It would be great if everyone eventually got to the front of the queue. That's not so easy. Today they took all the children (boys)—and grown-ups who were with us because they were ill—off somewhere, we don't know where—but of course monotony would disturb our already jittery nerves. You can imagine how much noise 5,000 people make, shut into a large space—during the day you can't hear yourself speak and at night you have a free concert consisting of children crying, people snoring and coughing and all sorts of other sounds. My work lasts from six-thirty in the morning until eight-thirty in the evening—even longer today—but things will get sorted out as soon as the hospital arrives and that should be any day now. The hospital courier comes here every day, and today it was Hans, and I heard from him the bad news that my family will be arriving tomorrow.3 A weekend like this one is far from ideal, especially for my parents and Hans, who needs a healthy diet. They took all our money and valuables apart from 100 dinars each. The only thing they don't economize on is the lighting—it's on all night and prevents me from having a good night's sleep. My ambitions always have to be satisfied, because I always want everything to be in the superlative. And this is no exception. Ever since I've been here I've been very calm, I've worked hard and with great enthusiasm and have experienced a real transformation. When I was 'free' I couldn't get the camp out of my mind, and now, over the past five days I've got so used to it that I don't think about it at all—instead I think about much more beautiful things, like—you know already that I think a lot about you. In the evening I read. Even though we were only allowed to bring as much as they said we could bring, I've got Werther, Heine, Pascal, Montaigne as well as English and Hebrew textbooks.4 Rather a small library, but I think it will serve me very well. 

My Nada, I'm not writing all this simply because I want to, but because of a very strong conviction: that we will see each other soon. I've no intention of spending the summer here, and I hope that They (with a capital T) will take my intentions into consideration. I expect their decision soon. 

My Nada, I must get some sleep now, I'll be getting up early tomorrow and I must keep up my strength. Bye-bye, my dearest—I'm hesitant about thinking about you in this filthy cowshed so as not to spoil the pure devotion for you I carry inside me. 

Affectionate greetings to you, Mother, Jasna and everyone else, from a very happy volunteer.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
RG Number 49.007M
Date Created
December 1941
Author / Creator
Dajč, Hilda
Language(s)
Bosnian
Croatian
Serbian
Location
Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade, Yugoslavia (historical)
Document Type Letter
Description One of the four surviving letters that Hilda Dajč wrote to her friends, Nada Novak and Mirjana Petrović, from the Jewish camp at Sajmište in Zemun (Judenlager Semlin). In the letters, Hilda Dajč described the conditions in the camp and the prospects of the Jewish inmates.
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