As soon as Yugoslavia collapsed under the April assault of Nazi Germany and its regional allies, the territory comprising the heartland of contemporary Serbia, including Belgrade (which was the capital of Yugoslavia and is the capital of Serbia today), was occupied by the German military. The new order came suddenly and shocked most Serbs, since the defeat was swift and total; Yugoslavia ceased to exist. The short-lived Yugoslav kingdom, established in the aftermath of World War I, fell apart, it seemed, like a house of cards.
As in other parts of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, the German military occupation administration immediately introduced anti-Jewish measures. Some 15,000 Jews thus found themselves living under direct German administration. Jews were immediately targeted for the hardest forced labor, clearing the debris from the bombing. Soon, Jews were required to register with the police, wear yellow armbands with the Star of David and the word "Jew" spelled out in German and Serbian. Jews were also subject to arbitrary searches and arrests, were not allowed to use public transportation and were subject to curfew, and were only allowed to shop for food during limited hours. These measures did not differ significantly from those the Germans instituted in other areas in Europe under their control.1
One local occurrence that did make a difference, however, was the development of a serious anti-German insurrection in Serbia in the summer and fall of 1941. At first a spontaneous popular escalation of anger, ranging from acts of urban sabotage to assassinations of German soldiers and officials, the tide of violent resistance was harnessed by the underground Communist Party of Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz, known as Tito. The communists officially called the people to resist in early July 1941, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. By the fall, the partisans, as the communist guerillas called themselves, controlled a not insubstantial territory in western and central Serbia.2 In addition to the communists, remnants of the Yugoslav royal army known as četniks, bands of Serbian nationalist guerillas under the leadership of an army colonel, Dragoljub Mihailović, were waging their own resistance against the Germans, sometimes coordinating their actions with the partisans, but increasingly fighting against them, seeing communism as the main enemy of Serbia and the Serbs, and not shying away from collaborating with the Germans.
Another development that fanned the chaos in Serbia in the summer of 1941 was the savage persecution and wanton murder of ethnic Serbs in the neighboring Independent State of Croatia. In their drive to purge the territory they ruled of Serbs, Jews, and Roma, the ustaše started a murderous campaign against the local Serbs (and some Jews) in the spring of 1941, driving thousands of people to flee to Serbia; the influx of dispossessed and traumatized refugees added to the untenable situation in the occupied country and possibly fanned the resistance.
The German occupation administration tried to stem the tide of resistance by implementing a harsh reprisal policy. For each killed German, a hundred Serbs were shot; for each wounded German, fifty. Very soon, however, local German commanders realized that executing thousands of innocent civilians was likely to further alienate the local population; they then started filling their reprisal quotas with mostly Jews and Roma. By the late fall, most Jewish men had been shot in this way. Jewish women and children, among them Hilda Dajč, were then deported to Judenlager Semlin in early December, a camp on the outskirts of Belgrade specifically designed to intern the remaining Jewish population.
The Germans also appointed, in the late summer of 1941, a collaborationist Serbian government under the leadership of a former army general, Milan Nedić. Much of Nedić's authority was fictitious, as the German occupiers did not really trust the Serbs, and thus matters of security were never really the purview of the Serbian "government." The collaborationist government nevertheless consisted of proven fascist sympathizers and committed racists and antisemites. Like the Nazis themselves, they believed the world to be threatened by a Jewish conspiracy to spread communism and weaken nations so that Jews could rule the world. Nedić and his government eagerly implemented German anti-Jewish and anti-Roma measures, rounded up and delivered Jews and Roma for executions, and administered the Judenlager Semlin. They were also fiercely anti-communist and largely shared the Nazis political and ideological vision.
In the spring of 1942, up to 7,000 remaining Jewish women and children at Judenlager Semlin were killed over several months. Right around the time of the Nazi policy shift to murder Jews by gas, Berlin sent a gas van to Belgrade, which the local SS used to murder the Judenlager Semlin inmates. By the summer of 1942, Belgrade was "free" of Jews.3