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Leskovac (Лесковац)

Brief Details:

Name: 'Monument to the Revolution' (Спомен-парк Револуције)

Location: Leskovac, Serbia

Year completed: 1971

Designer: Bogdan Bogdanović (profile page)

Coordinates: N42°58'59.0", E21°56'34.2" (click for map)

Dimensions: 12m tall monolith

Materials used: Stone blocks and steel

Condition: Fair, neglected

(LES-koh-vats)

 

History:

This monument at the spomenik complex in Leskovac, Serbia commemorates over 1,000 victims from this area who perished during the National Liberation War (WWII).

 

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", which was then occupied by Axis forces and under the supreme control of its appointed military commander, Serbian Nazi-collaborator Milan Nedić. The occupation under the German Army in Serbia was very brutal for those who attempted to resist, with specific oppression levied towards any communist-Serbs, Jews and Roma civilians, many of whom were arrested or sent to concentration camps.

By July and August of 1941, a popular uprising in Serbia against this brutal German occupation had begun in Bela Crkva, which then spread to Leskovac and across region. It was instigated by anti-Axis resistance forces such as Josip Tito's communist 'Partisan' army, as well as the Serbian nationalist 'Chetnik' fighters. Over the following months, hundreds of citizens from Leskovac organized into armed rebel units in the wooded outskirts of the city, creating units such as the Babički, Kukavica, and Jablanica Partisan Squads. On February 7th 1943, all of these Partisan units came together to unit as the large and formidable 1st South Moravian Partisan Detachment at the nearby village of Kaluđerce. Due to the German army having vastly superior weaponry, much of the rebel fighting towards the beginning of the resistance was of a more guerilla-style warfare, employing such tactics as sabotage, sneak attacks and hit-and-run operations (Photo 1). In response to these attacks and incursions by the rebels, the German occupiers carried out many reprisal attacks and punishments against the local population of Leskovac. One particularly grisly retaliatory act in Leskovac was in December of 1941, just after the killing of three locally-stationed German officers by rebel fighters. In an attempt to strike fear into city's residents and prevent future rebel attacks, Germans rounded up and arrested over 300 civilians from the Arapova Dolina neighborhood of Leskovac. Then, on December 11th, 1941, they were all executed on the southern outskirts of the city on Hisar Hill (Photo 2). The vast majority of those killed that day were Roma civilians.

Photo 1: German Army train derailed by Partisan sabotage in Leskovac, 1941

Photo 2: The exhumed remains of Roma civilians who were executed on Hisar Hill in Leskovac in 1941

However, such killings as those at Hisar did not deter the Partisan resistance from continuing to fight. Yet, the Chetniks would not tolerate any continued executions of their fellow countrymen as a result of their own actions, which, in part, ultimately led to the Chetniks exiting the anti-Axis resistance and entering into a collaboration with Axis forces. Despite this falling out between the two resistance groups, the Partisan-led resistance in Leskovac continued to grow, even in spite of the executions. For a time in 1942, Partisans had largely driven out most occupying forces from the Leskovac region, however, their battles against the Germans and their collaborators were constant, and the city changed hands several times. Even in the face of military losses and fallen civilians, Partisan forces continued their fight.

By 1944, the Partisans were beginning to push German forces out of the Leskovac area completely. During this German withdraw, American Allied forces were attempting to use air-strikes to take out fleeing German divisions in a maneuver called "Operation Ratweek". Believing many German soldiers and armored vehicles were hiding in Leskovac, on September 6th, 1944, about 50 American B-29 bombers dropped ordnance on the Leskovac center, essentially leveling the majority of the city (Photo 3). While some German forces were destroyed, some sources report somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 Leskovac civilians were unintentionally killed, with over 1,840 of the city's buildings leveled. Famous Scottish writer and soldier Fitzroy Maclean, who was embedded as a British liaison with Tito and the Partisans, witnessed this Allied bombing of Leskovac from the ground. Maclean wrote of the experience in his 1949 book 'Eastern Approaches':

Photo 3: Aerial view of the bombing of Leskovac, 1944

"Already the [B-17 Flying] Fortresses were over their target -- were past it -- when, as we watched, the whole of Leskovac seemed to rise bodily into the air in a tornado of dust and smoke and debris, and a great rending noise fell on our ears. When we looked at the sky again, the Fortresses, still relentlessly following their course, were mere silvery dots in the distance... even the Partisans seemed subdued."

Roughly a month later on October 11th, 1944, Leskovac was freed for the final time from the control of the German 7th SS Mountain Division by the Partisan Army's 15th Serbian Brigade during 'Operation Niš', which was accomplished with assistance form the Soviet Red Army and Allied Bulgarian forces.

 

Spomenik Construction

In 1964, national and regional government/veteran groups in Serbia organized plans for a commemorative spomenik complex to be built in a the forested area of Hisar Hill to honor the many civilians who had been executed there. The commission for this project was awarded to famed Serbian designer Bogdan Bogdanović. After seven years of planning and construction, the memorial was finally unveiled to the public on July 4th, 1971, a date meant to commemorate 30 years since the popular armed uprising against occupation during WWII. Inaugural words at this ceremony were presented by former-Prime Minster of Yugoslavia Petar Stambolić, along with an impassioned speeches given by famed Serbian actors Mira Stupica (Мира Ступица), Marija Crnobori (Марија Црнобори) (Photo 4) and Jovan Milićević (Јован Милићевић). The choice of this date was significant as it commemorated exactly 40 years since the Serbian uprising against Axis occupation. The primary element of the spomenik complex, officially called 'Memorial Park', is a central hourglass-shaped monument, often referred to as the 'Goddess of Victory' but originally named 'Forest Goddesss' (Šumska boginja) by Bogdanović. The sculpture, roughly 12m tall, is made of stone blocks which are topped with a sizable bronze 'head-dress' ornament. Originally, this 'head-dress' had four earring-like flourishes dangling down from it, but they were either stolen or destroyed at some point during the 1980s. In front of the 'Goddess' sculpture is a small sunken amphitheatre, while around that are arranged 34 large engraved stone blocks (reminiscent of the ancient stećak stones), ranging from 1m to 2.5m tall, with 14 of them engraved with the names folk heroes from the local area.

Photo 4: Marija Crnobori

Meanwhile, at the north entrance to the spomenik park, there is a large wooden carved entry-gate which gives way to a 450m long stone paved path leading up the hill to the memorial. Along the pathway are small markers commemorating fallen Partisan fighters. In addition Bogdanović created one additional nearby memorial area on Hisar Hill, roughly 1km northwest of the 'Goddess' sculpture, which isdedicated to the group of mostly Roma civilians that were executed by German soldiers on December 11th, 1941.

 

Present-Day

In the since the fall of Yugoslav Republic in the early 1990s, this monument complex fell into a state of considerable neglect and decay. Yet despite these declining conditions, the majority of the sculptural elements here remained largely intact in fairly good condition. In 2016, the site began to receive much more attention by the local municipality and underwent a great deal of restoration and rehabilitation. This spomenik park still receives many visitors, while also hosting an number of annual commemorative events. Interestingly, I found numerous Serbian publications which refer to a 2015 BBC report which apparently designated this monument at Leskovac as one of the 10 most amazing post-war architectural achievements in Eastern Europe, however, I was unable myself to locate this report.

 

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

There are a number of engraved and inscribed elements at the monument here at Leskovac. Firstly, several meters to the north of the central sculpture there are several dozen stone pylon markers. These stone pylons are organized into two sets... a tall set of eight stone pylons on the edge of the amphitheatre (Slide 1), then a second set of 17 pairs of shorter pylons behind this first set (Slide 2), of which several have fallen over (Slide 3). Both sets are laden with numerous engraved patterns, shapes and inscriptions. In the set of eight taller stone pylons, the last stone on the east-end of the set bears an engraving made in the standard Bogdanović script (Slide 4), which reads, when translated from Serbian to English, as:

"We're not dead, but asleep, the stone and our eyes are watching."

Slideshow

Furthermore, both sides of each of these eight taller pylons are engraved with a repeated spiral motif that very much looks like the furled fiddlehead fronds of a young fern, a motif which often symbolizes youth, growth and the cycle of life. In addition, at random places on a number of these eight stones there are smaller engravings of stars, deer, birds and rabbits (Slide 5 - 7), however, their meaning and significance is not immediately clear.

Meanwhile, the more numerous set of smaller stone pylons also bear the fiddlehead motif design engraved upon them, as well as several sets of engraved inscriptions (Slides 2, 3 & 8). These commemorative inscriptions are of the names (and sometimes the lifespans) of 17 National Heroes from Leskovac. Among these honorific engraved names are the notable Yugoslav National Heroes are Rade Metalac (Раде Металац) and Marko Crni (Марко Црни).

While there are some instances weathered remnants of graffiti at this site on a few of the stone pylon elements (Slide 9), it is sparse, old and very faded, with it clear that the municipality has made efforts in the past to remove and clean much of the vandalism found here.

 

Symbolism:

The famed Serbian designer Bogdan Bogdanović, who created this memorial, had a well-known reputation for never publicly or officially stating what his symbolic intentions were behind any of the sculptures he created. Yet, he often left clues to his symbolic intentions in the titles of his works. In the case of the central sculptural element at the spomenik here in Leskovac, his official title for the work was 'Forest Goddess'. The sculpture being intended to depict a feminine form is immediately clear due to its hourglass-like curves of the structure, with some sources suggesting that Bogdanović may have modeled the form after a neolithic amphora vessel (Photo 5). Many during the Yugoslav-era came to attribute the name 'Goddess of Victory' to the sculpture, which is clearly a reference to Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. If Bogdanović did intended for this sculpture to be a depiction of Nike, then perhaps the metal fixture adorning the top of the sculpture is a stylized version of Nike's wings, as the goddess is seen with wings in nearly all depictions of her. Meanwhile, the four dangling earring-like ornaments that originally hung from the metal fixture are said by some sources to have been symbolic for the tears the goddess was weeping for the fighters who fell fighting to free Leskovac from Axis occupation.

Photo 5: Amphora vessels

Photo 6: A stećak in Bosnia from around 1300AD

In addition, there exist various sets of engraved stone pylons arranged in front of the central 'Goddess' sculpture, many of which bear the names of Yugoslav National Heroes. They stand in such a way that they almost seem to exist as personifications of these fallen fighters dutifully standing in military formation at the foot of this 'Goddess' figure... as if, perhaps, they are paying tribute or gratitude for the victory which this 'Goddess' granted them as a reward for their struggle. Furthermore, these stone pylons also are highly reminiscent of the medieval tombstones found across the ex-Yugoslav region called 'stećak' (Photo 6), yet, are reinterpreted by Bogdanović for a modern setting. In fact, the stećak seen in Photo 6 contains a carved pattern similar to the stones seen at Leskovac and is a pattern found on stećak across the region. Bogdanović often integrates reinterpretations of a region's ancient symbols of death and the afterlife into various elements of his monuments, which often results in them exuding an impression that they are attempting to ground themselves in a universalist architectural language which speaks of both a shared history and a shared future.

Finally, an additional interpretive rendition analyzing the symbolic nature of Bogdanović's Leskovac monument can be found in a 1974 issue of the Yugoslav art journal called 'Umetnost' (number 37). A section of this analysis article, written by Dušan Đokić, which pertains to the monument is related below (translated here into English):

Photo 7: A double bull head capitol from Persepolis, 5th cent. BC. (Photo by Alan Cordova)

Photo 8: Fern fiddleheads (Photo by Holcy/Getty Images)

"...nevertheless, the Leskovac [monument] has an intriguing nuance of meaning as well as some of the pagan, old-Slovene vocations. Protected by a gentle forest-park shade, it is represented by a group of gently carved stones, compacted like children around the mother-protector, then toward the center of the space, the structure of a hyperbolic-paraboloid, which, in turn, is characterized by a clear proportionality and adorned by a slender saddle-shaped form with a hammered-metal surface -- a symbolic construction -- in a shape akin to the two-headed zoomorphic capitols of Persepolis (Photo 7), simply-attached, without any artificiality, that are further punctuated by two pairs of parallel volumetric finishes of decorative dangling pendant strings, which, if the whole construction is anthropomorphized, can be associated with female earrings. As for the groups of uneven stone blocks, standing like a miniature village amid a lush grassy plateau, they sculpturally integrate like fabric with their carved sandstone reliefs of linear symbolism in the form of branches and plant stalks, spirally twisted (Photo 8), as well as a multitude of other forms, done by the hand of a local masters-stonemasons in embossed shapes of forest birds and herbivorous beast in detailed and touching sensitivity."

Meanwhile, an additional element at this spomenik complex which contains some interesting symbolism is the park's north gate entrance (Photo 9). The gate, with its inviting wooden frame and clay tile roof, is meant to to have a familiar yet exotic architecture which communicate as feeling of warmness but also of anticipation. When speaking about the meaning behind the form of this gate, its creator, Serbian designer Bogdan Bogdanović, stated:

"Upon entering the memorial complex, the visitor will prepare to experience something unusual that will present to them, in a specific way, the struggles of this region... with a gate created in the spirit of folk architecture which illustrates that you are about to enter a place with the ambience of home."

Photo 9: North entrance gate

 

Photo 10: Cows grazing at the park

Status and Condition:

In general, the WWII memorial complex here at the Leskovac spomenik park is in reasonable condition. Firstly, the vast majority of its sculptural elements are relatively intact. The grounds of the park are reasonably well kept, but they can often be found overgrown and unmaintained, which results in some local farmers grazing their cows on the site (a fact which the municipality is often criticized for allowing) (Photo 10). While there is some amount of weathering, staining and degradation of the stone of the 'Goddess' monument and some of its accompanying smaller stone pylons, most of their original form is retained. The most appreciable damage I found on my most recent visit in April of 2017 was that two of the smaller stone pylons were knocked over onto their sides. In addition, the stones around the sunken amphitheatre complex are slightly degraded, with many of the stones chipped and falling out, while between the stone pavers is being overgrown with weeds.

In addition, the carved wooden gateway that exists at the park's north entrance, while in reasonable shape, has had its original ornate and decorative metal gates stolen at some point in the 1980s. So far, I have not been able to find any photos of these original gates. Interestingly, all of the damage and degradation to these memorial elements occurred despite the complex being officially designated as a 'Place of Significance' by the regional government. Meanwhile, also during my most recent visit to the site, I found no directional or promotional signage leading visitors here. However, the official website for the city of Leskovac does mention this monument as a touristic point of interest. Furthermore, while the site itself is in relatively decent shape, there are no interpretive signs or educational placards anywhere around the complex explaining the significance of the site or its history as it relates to the city.

Photo 11: A 2016 ceremony at the Leskovac spomen-park

The park still sees a great deal of visitors, as, by itself, it is a popular and attractive green-space not far from the center of the city. Upon my visit here, I found a great many people walking, relaxing and engaging in sport. However, to what extent the local community comes here to honor and pay tribute to this memorial is not clear, yet, community clean-up events are still regularly held at the memorial park. I found no honorific wreathes, candles or flowers anywhere at the site. Yet, annual commemorative events and ceremonies are still held here on a regular basis by local government and veteran groups (Photo 11), most notably on May 9th, which is WWII Victory Day. In addition, in 2018, the city of Leskovac held a celebration at the park to mark the World Day Against Child Labor on June 12th. This was the first time such event was held here and there were ambitions to continue using the site into the future for this event. In 2015, the Leskovac municipality put forward plans of a 2 million dinar (16,700 euro) restoration of the spomenik park. Since then, some landscaping and overgrown vegetation has been improved, while much of the graffiti and vandalism has been cleaned. Additional efforts are also underway to restore and reconstruct the park's lighting systems, in order to prevent future vandalism, while also re-creating the decorative gates stolen from the memorial during the 1990s. Yet, as of the summer of 2017, some reports have come out alleging that very little appreciable work has been completed towards the goal of restoring the memorial.

 

Additional Sites in the Leskovac Area:

This section explores additional Yugoslav-era historical, cultural and memorial sites in and around the greater Leskovac area that might be of interest to those studying the history, aesthetics or memorial architecture of Yugoslavia. The site examined here are the Arapova Dolina Memorial at Hisar Hill Park in Leskovac, the Jewish Grave memorial right near the Forest Goddess monument, the memorial sculpture in the nearby village of Vinarce, as well as the Šajkača Pavilion in Leskovac.

 

Arapova Dolina Memorial:

Roughly 1km to the northwest of the 'Goddess of Victory' complex on Hisar Hill, there is a small memorial site, built by Bogdan Bogdanović, honoring the roughly 300 civilians, mostly Roma, who were executed at this location on December 11th, 1941 by German soldiers. The executions were a result of a retaliation killing by the German occupiers in response to killings of three German officers by anti-Axis resistance forces. City officials collaborating with the Germans swept through the Arapova Dolina neighborhood of Leskovac, arresting roughly 300 of any men that could be found over the age of 16. The following day, the prisoners were handed over to the Germans, then taken to the northern slopes of Hisar Hill and executed by firing squad.

Arapova Dolina - Slideshow

The reason that number of 300 men were chosen for execution was a result of a new directive which had been handed down by Nazi General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel to prevent guerilla attacks by resistance fighters. This directive said that for every 1 German soldier that was killed or injured in along the Eastern European front by resistance fighters, that, as a consequence, German soldiers would be authorized to executed anywhere from 50 to 100 civilians in retaliation. So, being that three German soldiers were killed in this December 1941 incident by resistance fighters in Leskovac, the German troops aimed to round up 300 civilians in response. After the war, no parties were ever held to account or prosecuted for ordering or committing these executions.

In 1964, Bogdan Bogdanović was commissioned to create a large WWII memorial complex on the eastern slopes of Hisar Hill for the city of Leskovac. During his visits to Leskovac to do research and planning for the memorial's construction, Bogdanović was told the story of what happened to the Roma of Arapova Dolina. He was so deeply moved upon hearing this story that he volunteered, free of charge, to create a small memorial to honor these victims. The complex was unveiled on December 11th, 1973, roughly 2 years after Bogdanović completed his central 'Goddess of Victory' sculpture complex at Forest Park. The central element of the memorial consists of stone sculpture constructed of 15 limestone blocks stacked roughly 2m tall (Slides 1 - 3). Many of these blocks have an elongated shapes engraved on their face which are reminiscent of a tear drops, possibly a symbol to lament the loss of life which occurred here. Meanwhile, there are two engraved stones on either side of the sculpture. Facing the front of the sculpture, the first stone can be seen to the left (Slide 4), while the second engraved stone is on the right (Slide 5). The inscriptions on these stones read, translated from Serbian to English, as:

Slide 4

"Bird, fly over and sparkle in the flames. You're dreaming a dream in our stone."

Slide 5

"Here, German fascists executed 500 patriots, including 320 Roma, on December 11th, 1941"

While the memorial sculpture overall is in reasonable condition, bearing only subtle signs of weathering and staining, many parts of the greater area of the small complex are overgrown and neglected. Yet, the site still plays host to multiple annual commemorative events and its highly engaged by members of the local community. The exact coordinates for the Arapova Dolina memorial are N42°59'16.8", E21°56'05.9". Credit goes to Andrew Lawler for much of the newly published information and English translations for this memorial.

Jewish Grave Memorial:

In the late 2000s, the city of Leskovac and local Jewish groups organized the creation of a small memorial complex within the Leskovac Spomen-Park using the intact and broken remains of old Jewish gravestones (Slides 1 - 6). The spot chosen for this memorial was a site just located downhill from Bogdanović's Forest Goddess monument, just off the main pathway. The project was fully completed in 2009. The Jewish gravestones which this memorial is comprised of were originally part of a modest Jewish cemetery that existed in this area prior to the 1940s. However, it was subsequently destroyed and desecrated during the region's WWII German occupation . Roughly twenty pieces of remnant grave (both destroyed and intact) were used in the creation of this memorial.

Jewish Cemetery - Slideshow

The layout of the monument is a semi-circular wall alcove in which the grave remnants are set in on top, against and at the foot of the wall. While similar flag-stone paver stones are used for the construction of the Jewish Grave Memorial's courtyard and wall, its straightforward and traditional layout is both aesthetically and stylistically different from that of the abstract WWII monument adjacent to it created by Bogdanović. Also, while it very much appears upon visiting this site that these graves may have been destroyed while here in their current positions within this memorial, it is important to understand this is not the case -- they were destroyed during WWII and the stones being displayed as they were found is an important element of the presentation of this memorial.

Monument at Vinarce:

Roughly 5km north of the city of Leskovac there is a small village known as Vinarce, situated just west of the airport. Located near the center of the village is a modest memorial complex within which is a distinctive J-shaped concrete monument (Slides 1 - 3). This 11m tall memorial sculpture was unveiled in May of 1977 and designed by the Serbian sculptor Ð. Vasić. The complex is dedicated to the many local fallen fighters and civilian victims who perished during WWI and WWII. The structure remains in relatively good shape and recent community efforts have resulted in the monument undergoing a full restoration. In addition, honorific flowers found at the site seem to indicate that commemorative events are still held here. The exact coordinates for this monument complex are N43°01'26.1", E21°55'13.1".

Monument at Vinarce - Slideshow

The Šajkača Pavilion:

In 1967, a large fairgrounds complex was unveiled in the center of Leskovac after ~8 years of construction. The most notable element of this complex was a massive pavilion characterized by an elegantly curved arching roof from which a curtain of glass seemed to effortlessly drape down to the ground. Built by a Belgrade design firm 'RAD' under the supervision of engineer Nikola Stakić, this pavilion was an ambitious feat in architectural design, standing as one of the few examples in the world of a pavilion with a parabolic stretched-cable roof system. It was specifically modeled off of the famous Dorton Area in Raleigh, North Carolina, built just a few years earlier. The pavilion was given the name "Šajkača", in reference to its appearance to the Partisan military cap that was worn during WWII.

The Šajkača Pavilion - Slideshow

An additional notable element included at the fairgrounds was a massive glass pinnacle installed directly in front of the pavilion, which stretched over 30m into the air. Historical images of the pavilion can be seen in Slides 1 - 4. During the Yugoslav era, this massive pavilion, which covered over 3,500 sq m, was a primary symbol and cultural monument for Leskovac (visible on nearly every postcard the town printed) and within that era was host to numerous European trade shows, exhibitions and civic events. However, after the fall of Yugoslavia, the complex began to fall into disrepair as it was used less and less and began to be referred to by a new name: "Okrugli paviljon" or "Round pavilion". At some point in the early 2000, the towering pinnacle sculpture in front of the pavilion was removed. By the 2010s the site was in an extreme state of neglect, with many of the windows smashed and the exterior covered in graffiti (Slide 5). It was facing risk of demolition in 2014, but, as of 2018, a company called 'Metla Komerc' have purchased the site and hope to turn it into a multi-use shopping area after they make significant renovations to the structure. Concept art for what Metla Komerc hope to eventually create with the Šajkača/Round Pavilion structure can be seen in Slide 6. As of early 2019, the pavilion lays in ruins as it awaits its potential renovation. The exact coordinates for the pavilion and the old fairgrounds complex are N42°59'35.8", E21°56'57.2".

 

And Additional Sites of Interest:

  • National Museum of Leskovac: Located in the city center just across the street from Gradski Park to the south is located the National Museum of Leskovac, housed in a 1950s-era complex. This institution is home to a massive collection of hundreds of exhibits which explore the cultural, archeological and ethnographic history of the region. The museum also contains exhibits which relate to the regions WWII and Yugoslav history. The museum's official website can be found at THIS link, while its exact coordinates are N42°59'39.5", E21°56'47.4".

Directions:

Reaching the memorial park complex at Leskovac, Serbia is a relatively easy endeavor. Firstly, from the city center of Leskovac, head south on Svetoilijska Road. Follow this for about half a kilometer. Next, take a right on the fork for Hisarska Road (Хисарска) (see HERE for Google StreetView). Follow this south until you see a row of parking spaces on the left hand side of the road. After parking here, you will see a trail heading south leading downhill into the park. Follow this trail and it will take you right to the spomenik complex The exact coordinates for parking are N42°59'05.4", E21°56'33.9".

 

Click to open in Google Maps in new window

Slideshow

Comments:

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