Bela Crkva (Бела Црква)
Name: 'Monument to the Start of the Uprising' or 'Symbol in Stone' (Simbolika u kamenu/Симболика у камену)
Location: Bela Crkva, Serbia (Mačva region)
Year completed: 1971
Designer: Bogdan Bogdanović (profile page)
Coordinates: N44°23'38.0", E19°28'44.2" (click for map)
Dimensions: Nine columns, ~3m tall
Materials used: Granite blocks
Condition: Fair, neglected
This monument at the spomenik complex in Bela Crkva, Serbia in the Mačva region (not to be confused with the town of Bela Crkva in Serbia's Banat region) commemorates what is considered to be the location of the start of the uprising in Serbia against the invasion and occupation of German military forces.
World War II
As the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was dismantled with the Axis invasion in April of 1941, the Germans set up the region of Serbia into an area called the "Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia". This territory of Serbia was under a German military occupation, but the country's general administration was handed over by the Germans to a Serbian Axis-collaborator named Milan Nedić. As the total number of German soldiers available to enforce order in Serbia under the occupation was limited, Nedić advocated for Serbs to enlist to collaborate with the occupying German Army to police and patrol occupied communities on behalf of German command. Many hundreds of Serbs across the country took up this call.
On July 7th, 1941 in the village center of Bela Crkva (a community in west-central Serbia), the residents were busy engaging in their annual summer celebration of the Nativity of John the Baptist (Ivanjdan) in front of the village's tavern. During the middle of this celebration, 15 soldiers with the Rađevac Company of the Valjevo Partisan Detachment, led by Miša Pantić and Žikica Jovanović (Photo 1), marched into the festivities and gathered the crowd around them, at which point Jovanović and Pantić rallied the crowd in front of the village's tavern and appealed to the crowd to stand up and revolt against German occupation. After enlisting a few young men of the crowd into their cause with the speech, the Partisans quickly escaped back into the forest. Being that political speeches of this sort were illegal under German occupation, two German-collaborating Serbian gendarmes (military-esque police officers), Bogdan Lončar and Milenko Braković (Photo 2), arrived a short time later to investigate the disturbance. These two gendarmes attempted to break up the gathering and obtain information about the armed Partisan rebels. Upon hearing that the gendarmes had arrived in the village, Jovanović and other Partisans returned to the village, with some sources asserting that their aim was to only 'disarm' the gendarmes.
Photo 1: Žikica Jovanović "Španac"
Photo 2: Photos of Bogdan Lončar (left) and Milenko Braković (right)
While what happened next remains debated in sources, most relate that as Jovanović and a few of his Partisan fighters approached the village again, one of the gendarmes shouted at them to drop their weapons as he fired a shot from his rifle over their head as a warning. After the warning shot, Jovanović drew one of his pistols and shot both gendarmes. Some stories relate that Jovanović then approached the dead bodies, pointed at them and said to the crowd, "The same fate will befall anyone who dares to raise arms against his own people!" This moment is often considered to be the first shot fired in the Serbian uprising and is widely seen as the beginning of Serb armed resistance against German occupation and control. On July 7th, 1945, after the end of the war, Josip Tito, commander of the Partisan resistance, traveled to Bela Crkva to emphasize the importance of the uprising that had happened there, saying that it was no "ordinary type of uprising, but the day for the revolutionary, an uprising for liberation."
Finally, it is important to note that this shooting of the gendarmes by Partisans in Bela Crkva on July 7th was not entirely unprovoked. Firstly, since June 22nd, 1941, hundreds of Serbs had been arrested and detained by Serb gendarmes across the region, a matter which led to great anger and distrust felt towards them by many anti-occupation Serbs across the region. Secondly, just two days before this incident on July 5th, there was an execution of 13 Jews and communists in Belgrade by Serbian members of Nedić's Belgrade City Administration, one of the first significant executions of its type and an event which most certainly would have been known about by this particular Partisan unit in Bela Crkva. It was also on July 5th, just after this execution, that the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ) made an open call to people in occupied Yugoslav lands to rise up against all invading and oppressive forces.
The area where the uprising occurred (in front of the tavern) was initially set aside as a spomenik complex after the war in 1951, when Serbian sculptor Stevan Bodnarov was commissioned to create a series of three bust sculptures depicting war heroes who were present during the 1941 Bela Crkva uprising. The location of the busts was exactly where the confrontation between the Partisans and the two Serbian gendarmes is supposed to have taken place. Also, during the time of the creation of the busts, the tavern in front of which the 1941 uprising incident occurred was preserved and converted into a public museum celebrating the uprising. Then, in the late 1960s, the Serbian Communist Party and the SUBNOR veterans group set up a planning committee to spearhead the creation of a more substantial memorial complex at this site. After reviewing proposals, the project's committee selected the design concept put forward by famed Serbian designer Bogdan Bogdanović.
Photo 3: The inauguration of the Bela Crkva monument in 1971
However, during the construction process, there were disagreements between the planning committee and Bogdanović about the shape and the themes the monument would contain. Typically, Bogdanović created what he described as a 'feminine' forms, however, for this project, it was very much impressed upon him by the planning committee that the sculptures should take on a decidedly more 'masculine' shape in order to embody the 'heroism' of the event being recognized. Bogdanović eventually capitulated to these requests. The finished monument complex was unveiled to the public in a grand ceremony on July 7th, 1971 to mark and commemorate the 30th anniversary of the uprising. The central element of the complex is a collection of nine granite columns all between 2.5m - 3m tall (Photo 3), each consisting of 5 roughly-hewn granite blocks with a smooth decorative "šajkača" block on top. This collection of memorial sculptures is located directly next to the old tavern.
All through the Yugoslav era, this site has acted as the central celebratory location in Serbia for July 7th's Uprising Day, which honors the start of the 1941 Serbian Uprising here at Bela Crkva. Even despite the conflicts and turbulence of the 1990s, this site continues to be used regularly for commemorative events and is in reasonably good shape. However, as the official 'Uprising Day' holiday was delisted by Serbia's Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić in 2001, attendance to these events has been slowly decreasing over time. Meanwhile, the museum complex at the site seems to be permanently closed-up and appears in a very damaged and deteriorating state. Yet despite this neglect, the structure and condition of the monument's stone pillars appear to be in reasonably good shape, with only minimal visible damage.
Photo 4: Judge Gojko Lazarev
On December 11th, 2008, efforts were made by judge Gojko Lazarev (Photo 4) the District Court of Šabac, Serbia to rehabilitate the images and legacy of the two Serb gendarme officers, Bogdan Lončar and Milenko Braković, killed in Bela Crkva on July 7th. The case asserts that the deaths of these two gendarmes were not part of the anti-Axis uprising, but were instead part of a civil war 'fratricidal struggle', with the gendarmes cast as hapless victims of circumstance of the German occupiers. Judge Lazarev states that those who view this historical moment differently, viewing the Partisans as heroes, are victims themselves of 'communist propaganda'. This case, along with others in Serbia geared towards rehabilitation efforts of those historically viewed as collaborators (such as the Chetnik group and the ruler of occupied Serbia, Milan Nedić), are reconciliation attempts to shift public thought away from such figures and groups being viewed as 'collaborators' of the German occupiers and to instead have them be viewed as victims of 'violence and oppression' themselves.
Three Bust Sculptures:
In front of the museum at the spomenik complex here at Bela Crkva, Serbia, there are three sculptural busts cast in bronze positioned on granite plinths. The three people depicted in these busts are Žikica Jovanović "Španac" (Жикица Јовановић "Шпанац"), Miša Pantić (Миша Пантић) and Čedomir Čeda Milosavljevic (Чедомир Чеда Милосављевић). These busts were constructed in July of 1951 by Serbian sculptor Stevan Bodnarov (Стеван Боднаров) and were the initial commemorative memorials built to honor this site before the Bogdanović monument was later built in 1971. In the following sub-sections, I will explore who these people were and what their historical relevance was to this site.
Photo 5: Sculpture of Čedomir Čeda Milosavljević
Čedomir Čeda Milosavljević (1898-1941):
The right-most sculpture in the group of three busts in front of the old museum (Photo 5) depicts Čedomir Čeda Milosavljević (Чедомир Чеда Милосављевић). Born on April 6th, 1898 in Stojnik, Serbia, he went into training as a young man to become a school teacher. However, in 1914 he enlisted as a volunteer in WWI to fight for the Kingdom of Serbia, where he saw much fighting while in combat in Albania. After the war, he spent several years in France, becoming influenced by its radical socialist youth movements. He returned to Serbia in 1919 and immediately joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ). After the region's occupation by Axis forces in April of 1941, he began to collect weapons for the expected revolt. On July 7th, 1941, Milosavljević took part in the Bela Crkva uprising, Serbia's first revolt against occupational forces. He then became a political leader for the Rađevačkog Partisan Battalion. In November of 1941, he was killed by German soldiers while recovering in a military hospital in Užice.
Photo 6: Sculpture of Žikica Jovanović "Španac"
Žikica Jovanović "Španac" (1914-1942):
The middle-most sculpture in the group of three busts in front of the old museum (Photo 6) depicts Žikica Jovanović "Španac" (Жикица Јовановић "Шпанац"). Born in 1914 in Valjevo, Serbia, he originally attended university in Belgrade to study philosophy, however, as a Fascist Coup erupted in Spain in 1936, he chose to go and help fight in the Spanish Civil War. There, he distinguished himself as a bold guerilla fighter, earning the nickname "Španac" or "The Spaniard". In 1940, he was captured by the Gestapo during France's Nazi invasion and imprisoned as a foreign enemy agent. However, he escaped and fled back to Serbia. In the spring of 1941, he joined Tito's Partisan resistance. Then, while in Bela Crkva on July 7th of 1941, he is reported to have shot two gendarmes of the Axis controlled Serbian State Police, an action which effectively initiated the entire anti-fascist resistance war in Yugoslavia. Jovanović was killed purportedly by Chetnik Axis-collaborators on March 13th, 1942 in the present-day Serbian village of Radanovci. He is still often hailed by many as one of Serbia's greatest heroes.
Photo 7: Sculpture of Dr Miša Pantić (Миша Пантић)
Miša Pantić (1904-1942):
The left-most sculpture in the group of three busts in front of the old museum (Photo 7) depicts Miša Pantić (Миша Пантић). Born on April 17th, 1904 in what is now Valjevo, Serbia, Pantić took a great interest in the Communist Party as a child, engaging in many Communist youth leagues and groups. After studying medicine in Belgrade and France, he settled in Valjevo in 1933 to establish himself as a doctor, at which point he also joined the Yugoslavia's Communist Party (KPJ). He became extremely engaged in political and social activism, where he took part in actions which led to his arrest on multiple occasions. When the Axis invasion began in 1941, he fought against it with the Yugoslav Royal Army, but when that failed, he joined Tito's Partisan resistance. Pantić was present with the Partisan troop in Bela Crkva responsible for the killing of Axis-controlled Serbian State police officers, a move which initiated Serbia's rebel uprising against Axis forces. On Feburary 7th, 1942, Pantić was captured by Chetnik Axis-collaborators in the village of Kosatica, Serbia and executed.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
There is only one notable engraving that exists at the monument complex here at Bela Crkva. On a large granite slab in front of the monument, there is an engraving written in the standard stylized Bogdanović script (Slide 1). It reads, roughly translated from Serbian to English, as:
Here is where Serbia said 'Freedom'.
This quote is from Belgrade poet Ivan Lalić, who is often considered one of Serbia's greatest poets. Meanwhile, two opposing sides of each of the cap stones on the nine granite columns are all engraved with unusual designs (a unique pair of engravings for each column)- all nine designs can be seen in Slides 2 - 10. It is not clear what their meaning or significance may be.
Museum of July 7th:
In front of the three sculptural bust portraits at the Bela Crkva spomeniks site, there is a long white building which is the original tavern in front of which the Rađevac Company Partisans gave their speech to the people of the village and subsequently shot the gendarmes on July 7th, 1941. In 1951, this tavern was converted into a memorial complex called 'Museum of July 7th' (Slides 1 & 2). Originally, within the museum were a collection of educational exhibits and artifacts telling the story of the uprising which occurred here. During the days of Yugoslavia it was a very popular and well visited attraction. However, after the fall of Yugoslavia, the facility began to fall into disrepair and neglect and now sits closed. In Slides 3 - 7 (taken by Andrew Lawler in 2012), you can see the dire state the museum has fallen into. I have heard recent reports that due to the deteriorating condition of the site, all exhibits and artifacts have been removed. A Yugoslav-era image of the museum can be seen in Slide 8.
Museum of July 7th - Slideshow
During planning and construction, it was very much impressed upon Bogdanović by the Communist Party of Serbia, the group who commissioned this spomenik complex, that the sculptural forms within the complex should decidedly communicate the concepts of 'strength' and 'masculinity', ideas in sharp contrast to the traditionally 'feminine' forms Bogdanović was know to create in many of his other monument complexes across Yugoslavia. As a result, the nine stone columns Bogdanović designed are said to be representative male Serbian folk dancers dressed in traditional Serbian costumes, a symbol which reflected the region's strong emphasis on Serbian identity and cultural heritage. This representation can be seen in the designs and engravings across the many columns, and in the fact that the smaller grey cap-stones at the top of each column are quite clearly intended to depict the traditional 'šajkača' Serbian hats (Photo 8). A 1989 Yugoslav-era guidebook about the WWII history here at Bela Crkva describes the symbolism of the monument in the following terms:
Photo 8: Boy with Šajkača hat [source]
"Drawing on folk tradition, the artist presents the invincibility and vitality of the Serbian people through simple expressive means (nine fixtures made of fine granite with polished Šajkača hats and ornamental symbols. A fountain with unrivaled spring water and an epitaph from Ivan Lalić reading 'Here is where Serbia said FREEDOM' completes the ambiance.
Status and Condition:
Firstly, the museum complex located this spomenik complex adjacent to the monument is in very degraded (almost abandoned) state. It was locked and shut-up upon my most recent visit, yet it was clear looking through the structure's broken windows that the buildings themselves were dilapidated and that the exhibits inside were all but distressed or ruined. Some sources indicate that the museum buildings have not received heating or electricity since 2003, which was when the Serbian government officially cut off funding from the complex. However, the nine monument sculptures themselves are still in fairly good shape, with few serious signs of degradation or deterioration. As the monument and museum are in the center of town of Bela Crkva, the landscaping and grounds are reasonably well kept, with grass regularly mowed and excessive vegetation removed. However, there does not appear to be any clear promotion or advertising of the site by the village or the local community. There are no directional signs that point here and no indications it is being touted as a local touristic attraction or point of interest. No interpretive signs or informational placards can be found anywhere in the area relating the history or significance of the site. Yet, I did find a section on the English language website for the local Krupanj Tourist Organization that promotes this site, so, some efforts are working to actively bring attention to this location as a local attraction.
Photo 9: A 2015 memorial celebtration at Bela Crkva
While it did not appear as though the memorial complex was heavily trafficked upon my most recent visit, there were a considerable amount of wreaths and flowers laid in front of the bust sculpture of Žikica Jovanović "Španac" -- this out-pouring of honor for Jovanović is explained by the fact that while feelings across the Balkans towards the legacy of Yugoslav era are still wildly divergent, Jovanović is still widely accepted as a courageous war hero, not just in Serbia, but across the ex-Yugoslav states as well. While annual commemorative ceremonies and events are still held annually at this complex on Serbian Uprising Day (July 7th), since the holiday was delisted as an official national holiday in 2001 by Serbia's Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, numbers attending the ceremonies the have been dwindling yearly. However, in 2016 there was a significant remembrance event (Photo 9) held here for the 75th anniversary of the Serbian Uprising lead by Aleksandar Vulin, the Serbian Minister for Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs. This event was also attended by Serbia's Minster of Defense, SUNBOR's Prime Deputy and Ivan Isailović, the Mayor of Niš, Serbia, among other dignitaries.
Driving south into Bela Crkva along the main road into the village, you will notice the monument complex right within the main square of the village. The now abandoned museum complex is called simply "World War II Museum" (Музеј Другог Светског рата) and is right across the street from the Church of the Great Martyr Saint. Parking can be made right in front of the post office next to the museum, from which point the spomenik can be easily walked to. Exact coordinates for parking are N44°23'38.3". E19°28'45.6". Keep in mind when you leave Bela Crkva, the optimal way out of town is back along the main paved highway coming into town from the north. Your GPS may try to direct you onto a different route, over some muddy dirt road over the hills, however, the most prudent way out is back the way you came along the main access road.
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Selected Sources and More Information:
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