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Letter from Hilda Dajč to Nada Novak

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

Hilda Dajč was a young Yugoslav Jewish woman studying architecture at the University of Belgrade when the German-led invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941 forced her to stop her studies. Her father Emil became a member of the Belgrade Jewish Council, which German occupation authorities appointed to administer Jewish life in the city and carry out German orders.1 Because of Emil’s position on the council, the Dajč family was initially exempt from a number of anti-Jewish laws and regulations introduced by the German military administration of occupied Serbia.2 When Hilda could no longer attend school, she decided to volunteer at the Belgrade Jewish hospital run by the Jewish Council.

In the summer of 1941, a popular uprising against the occupation presented a significant problem for the German administration. In an attempt to put down the rebellion, German authorities implemented a brutal reprisal policy—one hundred Serbian civilians were executed for every dead German soldier. Thousands of people were murdered in this way, including nearly all local Jewish men as well as many communists, Roma, and ethnic Serbs opposed to the German occupation and the collaborationist administration created in late summer 1941.3

After the mass murder of the region's Jewish men, German authorities decided to deport the region's Jewish women and children to the site of the Belgrade fairgrounds located across the river from the city center. This camp became known as Sajmište, or "fairgrounds" in Serbian. Over the course of a few days in December 1941, roughly 7,000 Jewish women and children were deported there. They lived at Sajmište (called Judenlager Semlin by German authorities) during the harsh winter in terrible conditions. In March 1942, a gas van was sent from Berlin to murder the people remaining at the camp.

Hilda Dajč was temporarily protected by her father's position and was not required to relocate to the camp when Belgrade Jews were deported in December. But she still 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.

Four of Hilda's letters have survived. The featured letter is undated but was written sometime in mid-December 1941. Over the spring months of 1942, the gas van took groups of Jews through central Belgrade to a point outside the city where the dead were buried in mass graves. Hilda Dajč, her parents, and her younger brother Hans all died in the camp.

Hilda's letters are virtually the only preserved documents written by the Jewish prisoners at Sajmište. Even records produced by German administration officials in Belgrade are relatively rare.4 The featured letter was written before the arrival of the gas van, when the Jewish prisoners still held some hope that they would be free again soon. Although her anxieties for her family are expressed clearly, Hilda’s letter also reveals that she was trying to use humor to cope with her situation.

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 eastern European origin, were less than half of the Jewish population in the city. 

Nazi Germany and its allies divided Yugoslavia into a patchwork of different occupied territories, collaborationist states, and annexed regions. The region roughly corresponding to present-day Serbia was ruled directly by a German military administration. To learn more about the German occupation of Serbia, see Alexander Prusin, Serbia under the Swastika: A World War II Occupation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

 

To learn more about the Serbian collaborationist regime and its policies, see Sabrina Ramet and Ola Listhaug, eds., Serbia and the Serbs in World War Two (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). 

Scholarship about Sajmište is also relatively rare. To learn more about the camp, see Christopher R. Browning, “The Semlin Gas Van and the Final Solution in Serbia,” Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985): 68-85.

 

Scholarly articles and books about Sajmište are few. 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.

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."

"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
Hilda Dajč
Language(s)
Bosnian
Croatian
Serbian
Location
Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade, Yugoslavia (historical)
Document Type Letter
How to Cite Museum Materials

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