Serbian Holocaust

Aleksandar Ajzinberg

Belgrade architect Aleksandar Ajzinberg was eleven years old when Yugoslavia was invaded in April 1941.  His father, Belgrade architect Matvey Ajzinberg , was killed in Semlin Judenlager.   Aleksandar and his mother Greta survived in Homolje mountains under the protection of the Chetniks of Draza Mihailovic. 
After Liberation he learned that his grand-mother Rozalija Konrad and his aunt Erna Soić had also survived, hiding at the house of Belgrade book shop owner Mihailo Rajković. 
Mr. Ajzinberg published his life story in the book 
Pisma Matveju (Letters to Matvej), Prosveta 2006, Belgrade. His writings won the annual prize of Federation of Jewish communities in Serbia.  The book consists of letters, in which  Aleksandar responds to his son Matvej's questions.  Matvej lives in Israel and bears the name of his grand-father. 

Interviewer: Matteo Bojanovich | Camera: Nemanja Krdžić | Editing: Nada Ljubić, Nemanja Krdžić | Transcript: Nada Ljubić, Matteo Bojanovich

Voices of Survivors


English rendition of the interview, paraphrased and abridged:

Part I

- So, you were in 1941, you were…

...11 years old

- And you were in Belgrade?

I was born In Belgrade, I lived in Belgrade until 6 April [1941] when Belgrade was bombed.

- And then?

I ran away with my father, of course, to a village some 50 km far from Belgrade, to Sopot. It happened that we lived there at the moment when German troops came in Sopot, and their appearance in Sopot was connected with my first adventure, because (you'll see it in my story) I was, I don’t know how it explain in English, the first on the…leading German troops. Why, that's a long story. My father beat me, I was beaten afterwards because of that. And a few days later, we had to wear yellow stars.

- Who reported you, how did they know that you were a Jew?

They knew, because we were registered by the authorities in Sopot.

- You had to register?

Yes, and it was a small village and everybody knew that we are newcomers, that we live there. I think that we even did not expect what happened.

- Right, of course, because there was no reason to.

We spent a while, my father was an architect and he made some project for the school there in a village near Sopot, and the peasants told him that whatever happened to Jews in Belgrade and even in Sopot (there were some other Jewish families), they will keep him and nothing may happen to him, because he made that project and they loved him.
And maybe that would have happened, but one day the house in which we were living was surrounded by Pecanac’s Chetniks and Serbian police, we say Gendarmerie. And we were arrested by that Chetniks vojvoda. [Vojvoda originally meant "warlord", a supreme military leader in time of war, now often translated as prince or duke, a word from which derives Vojvodina, one of the regions of Serbia. Equivalent to the German Herzog, from which comes Herzegovina]

- Himself? Was he there?

He was not with them. And father was accused to have connections with the Partisans.

- And this was when?

It was somehow, I don’t know, exactly I don’t remember, August 1941, maybe.

-The summer?

Autumn. And he used to beat his prisoners, terrible. We were not beaten, happily.

- When you say "we" you mean your family?

My parents were divorced. But when war came, my mother learned where we were... and came to us. And all that had happened between them, their disagreements, faded... She used to go to Belgrade to take from the village food, because in Belgrade there was not enough food, and from Belgrade to bring our clothes and things that we needed. How, it’s also interesting story and you can read it and find it in the second or third letter. [Letters to Matvej, by Aleksandar Ajzenberg]

One day my father was taken away... and we still stayed in Sopot in a very special kind of prison. From time to time, we could go home to change our clothes and wash ourselves, but it was not possible to run away because if you travel anywhere, you must have a paper that we called “objava”, I don’t know how to... kind of ...

- A pass?

Yes, something like that.
But as Jews we couldn’t have... identity card. So, we had to return to our prison. And we were not even locked in prison. We had to sit in the corridor. And my mother from time to time, when somebody was interrogated or something, had to type because nobody knew how to use a typewriter. And she knew to type with ten fingers; I had to put fuel in their ovens and clean rooms.

But we were not alone. Some other people were also in the corridors, and special prisoners were closed in a big room. It was a conference hall in which others were sitting and sleeping during the night or were taken on interrogation and we all had to be present on interrogation because it was kind of, I think voyvoda was not quite normal. He loved to see when people were beaten, and the first time when I saw, I fainted. It was a terrible situation. And I was 11 years only... Later I was used to watch... he never did it with his hands, two very strong Chetniks did it,

-With the whips or sticks?

Both... It's a long story, you have it here. So... we were free, we had false documents, passport.

- How did you get them?

The mayor of Sopot. The first one was a good man, but when we were arrested came another one who served the Germans so we could not expect any help from him. But one day, when we were sitting in the corridor, a man who worked in I don’t know what office,

- A clerk

A clerk, yes, came and he didn’t look at us, he looked through the window, and started explaining: "You must escape, because you will be sent to the concentration camp and killed. Do it now!" And my mother, also looking at another side, said that we have no papers, no documents. He said: "Give me a picture if you can, I'll make it." How to get a photo, a picture, for me and my mother? From time to time, we were allowed to go home, at a farmer's house where we lived, about 5 kilometers away; we were also allowed to go to a small inn, near the place where we were imprisoned...

The inn employed a woman who cooked meals for the voyvoda. And her husband was a Chetnik... He took his rifle, and lead us there and we slept at that woman's house. On the other side of street was Sopot’s photographer's shop. And when we were, a few days after that meeting with that clerk, my mother said to that Chetnik when he lead us to sleep there, mother said: "Please, will you let me get pictures, mine and my son’s. I wish before we are killed to send them to my family."

He said that he has no time and that it's not permitted, but my mother said: "I will pay for your picture as well." Okay. And it was evening, I don’t know, 6 or 7 o’clock, and the next morning, pictures were ready. So we got the photographs and passed them to that clerk. The forms for the identity cards could be bought in any tobacco shop. So we got two forms, and he went in and started to talk with the mayor, drinking coffee. And when the mayor, I don’t know why, had to go out, maybe to the toilet, he took the seal, put the blank certificate on the table, and stamped them.

Part II

I think a month before that, I really don’t know why and I cannot explain, I had 11 years only, as I was being interrogated... somebody called the vojvoda out. I was sitting in his office, and on his table there was a pile of blank papers, we called it “objava”, it’s a kind of pass for Chetniks: his name, when and where he was born, from where he comes, where he goes, why he goes there. And on a small part on the bottom of that piece of paper was the same for families, Chetniks’ families: his wife, his son, and at the bottom: “With faith in God, for King and Fatherland! Vojvoda Milija Majstorovic.” He had written his name. Why, I cannot explain, I was only 11 years old, but I took a dozen of that and…I cannot explain why, but I kept them. So we had identity cards and that pass...

I told you when we spoke by phone, that all groups were not just made up of good and of bad people; they were mixed. And even between those Chetniks who served the Germans, not all of them were bad. Majstorovic was a terrible man, in every sense, as a man and as a German servant. If you look at his eyes in the picture, you may understand who and what he was.

...I was sitting there listening to their stories, maybe in these days one grew up quicker than in normal times. And some of them joined the Chetniks, the Pecanac’s Chetniks... in order to fight against the Germans, as Chetniks’ tradition was to fight against the Germans. And when they came and were enlisted, they couldn’t escape. Some of them... went to the Partisans.

Vojvoda was a coward. The Partisans were not far from Sopot, in Kosmaj, about 10 kilometers away, Cosmaj is a mountain, if Partisans at night started shootings just to show that they are somewhere here, he was scared. And then he would gather all the prisoners giving oranges, and he loved it if we kissed his hands.

“Kiss my hand, kiss Father Vojvoda hands, kiss, kiss, kiss, here is orange, take it”, and he made presents, he had a box of oranges and we had to kiss his hands. “You see, Father Vojvoda is a good man and you will tell that I am good.” If partisans were close, and when they started to be closer he had some business in Belgrade, and left Sopot, and went quickly to Belgrade. One day, we learned that he was wounded in the thigh, and someone told us that he did it himself just to stay in hospital in Belgrade, not to be here where the Partisans were close.

Then some protests started among the people from that group. Some of them wanted a new, better and more brave vojvoda who would fight against the Partisans. Some of them wanted to go to Bosnia... And one day, some officers...said: "Well, who wants to stay here - left side, and who wants a new vojvoda – go on the right side. And people who want new Vojvoda will go to Belgrade and will ask [for a new vojvoda to be appointed by Nedic]”

I cannot explain why Nedić, because they were not under Nedić’s command, they were under Kosta Pecanac’s command... In one moment, my mother and me who were still in the corridor when that happened looked each other and we went to the right side... And nobody of them asked us, "What are you doing here?"
Now they knew how many are to go to Belgrade, how many are to stay. The next morning: "Get up, who wants to go to Belgrade, come down!" They shared the ammunition and what they had, I don’t know exactly what happened there, we went down, they shook hands, kissed each other , shouted some... and nobody asked, "Who ordered you to come with us?" Then we went 4 km from Sopot to Djurinci, where the railway station is. And we were waiting for a train...trains had no exact time because all the trains with the German troops had the priority. So, we were waiting very long...

Some of them went to piss... and then came a young man whom we knew from Sopot. He was a Chetnik, but not with Majstorovic. After the war, I learned who he was. In those days I did not know who he was. I thought he was a bit silly young man. He wore a fur cap and carried a pistol, he was handsome and young girls were looking at him. Before him, a few policemen came and asked where we go, they knew us, it’s a village and everybody knows.

Then came that young Chetnik... And somehow my mother trusted him, she believed what he told and explained that we are trying to escape, that we have some papers, but they are blank, we cannot use them. And he said, "Come with me." I think 20 meters from that place, was a small inn. He entered the place and said to the owner, “Give me pen and ink” ... He said, "If you don’t shut up and don’t bring ink and do what I am asking, you will have trouble; your house will be burned." He brought it.

Who filled the form, and who put signature, I don’t remember... I think that I put the signature because in Belgrade nobody knows what the signature of the Mayor of Sopot looks like. Now we had documents. Then came the train... cattle wagons. The Chetniks helped my mother to get in and we went with them...

Because we traveled with a slow train, which in certain places had to wait for a few hours, I think, we went in the toilet, as all the soldiers did. But, they finished their business in the toilet and returned, and we were sitting in the toilet, sitting I thought a year long. And when we looked nobody was in the station...Every officer thought that another one gave the order. Then we went the exit were policemen, they looked at our papers, everything okay and we were free.

- Did you wear the star or you took the star off?

No, thank you, no more stars, we had no more stars.

- When you took it off?

...I don’t remember, but we didn’t wear the stars. Now we were on the street, free, but that day, you have it written in my story (my story here can last a week, and it is too much for you and for me) on that day we tried to get in touch with some friends.

- Can I ask you about the Chetnik you said that after the war found out who he was?

He was Draza’s Chetnik... He escaped and someone told me that he lived in Australia and died there... he was Radojevic... Radojevic, I forgot his name, it’s written there. [in Letters to Matvej]

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