Name: Bubanj Memorial Park, "The Three Fists" (Спомен-парк Бубањ)
Location: Niš, Serbia
Year completed: 1963 (1 year to build)
Designer: Ivan Sabolić (profile page)
Coordinates: N43°18'18.2", E21°52'21.9" (click for map)
Dimensions: Various sized monoliths, ~18m to 23m tall
Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar
Condition: Fair, well maintained
Click on slideshow photo for description.
This spomenik complex at Niš commemorates the +10,000 Serbian, Jew and Roma that were executed at this site (a small forested hill just southwest of Niš) from February 1942 to September 1944 by the Nazi occupiers.
World War II
Not long after the German invasion and occupation of Serbia in April of 1941, a prisoner camp called Red Cross (Crveni Krst/Црвени крсt) (Photo 1) was established in the city of Niš to detain dissidents, rebels and groups considered 'undesirable' (such as Jews and Roma). On February 12th, 1942, 105 prisoners escaped from the camp during a daring plan orchestrated by captured Partisan soldier Branko Bjegović, during which 11 German guards were killed. Known as the "February Escape", it was one of the first successful concentration camp break-outs during WWII. Five days later on February 17th, random executions of prisoners at the camp began in retaliation for this escape. The killings took place on a hillside in an area called 'Bubanj', just on the southwest outskirts of town (Photo 2). During the course of the war, many thousands of the camp's prisoners were executed at Bubanj. The German occupiers generally carried out the executions at night in order to better conceal the killings, with the victims being made to dig trenches in which they were then shot and buried within. The sheer number of those executed here makes it one of the most deadly killing fields in all of the Balkans during World War II. The open field in which the monument resides is criss-crossed with now unseen covered trenches where those executed were hastily buried and remain interred to this day.
Photo 1: Red Cross concentration camp, Niš, Serbia, 1942
Photo 2: Prisoners being executed at Bubanj, 1942
Also, it is important to note that while roughly 10 to 11 thousand is the generally accepted number of Serbian, Jew and Roma killed here, those are simply rough estimates -- it is not known for certain the true number killed here, with some estimates ranging several thousand higher. The problem is that not only were many of the executed buried in massive bulldozed trenches as they were killed (with many trenches still potentially unfound and unidentified), but also, in the final days of the WWII, the German soldiers dug up many trenches and spent weeks burning decomposed remains in an effort to conceal their crimes. Niš was finally liberated by Partisans and the Bulgarian Army on October 14th, 1944, when the last remnants of the 7th German SS Division were driven out of the city.
The first monument built to memorialize the executions which occurred here at the Bubanj hill was a small modest stone pyramid built at the location in 1950 (Photo 3), just five years after the end of WWII. Already by 1953, efforts were underway to expand the Bubanj complex with a more substantial monument complex. A Monument Committee was formed that year, who then proceeded to organize a design competition. Exactly 20 proposals were submitted for the competition, but all were turned down as by the Committee's selection jury as unacceptable. A second attempt to convene a design competition was organized by the Committee in the summer of 1959. However, at the conclusion of this 1959 competition, of the 10 proposals put forward, the Committee's selection jury did not award a first prize but instead awarded two second prizes for the proposals submission by the Zagreb sculptor Ivan Sabolić (Иван Саболић) and the submission by Belgrade architect Mihajlo Mitrović (Михајло Митровић).
Photo 3: A small-scale model of Sabolić's Bubanj monument concept, 1962
Photo 4: A large-scale model of Sabolić's Bubanj monument concept, 1962
The Committee then instructed these two winners to further refine their two proposals, telling them to take into consideration that "the monument, in terms of its expressiveness, should represent the past, the present and the future". When both Sabolić and Mitrović's monuments were brought back for a second consideration a few months later, it was the proposal by Sabolić that eventually won the final prize. This winning entry was an enlarged architrave upon two columns bearing relief sculptures. However, due to budgetary constraints, the Committee felt Sabolić's winning monument was looking to be too expensive of a proposal. As a result, the Committee asked Sabolić to put forward some new monument proposals for the Bubanj project. The the winter of 1961, Sabolić offered the committee three new sculptural design concepts. Of these three designs offered by Sabolić, one of them was of three large fists sculptures bursting from the ground (Photo 3). The 'fist' sculpture concept was ultimately the concept chosen by the Committee's selection jury. During the remaineder of that winter of 1962, Sabolić worked on refining his design with architects Josip Frankol and Ante Lozica, along with landscape architect Andjel Rotkvić (Photo 4). Initial construction began on the monument project the following spring in April of 1962. After more than a year of construction on the site, the monument complex was officially opened to the public on October 14th, of 1963, a day which commemorated exactly 19 years since the liberation of the city of Niš from Axis occupational forces. The primary element of the memorial complex is three large concrete stylized-fist monoliths reaching towards the sky, set in the middle of meadow at the center of a large wooded park. The monoliths (nicknamed 'The Three Fists') are flanked by a large open-air amphitheatre at one end, and on the other end, a 23m long marble wall (which borrowed elements from Sabolić's original architrave concept) depicting a stylized version of the Bubanj massacres (Photo 5).
Photo 5: A panoramic view of the entire 23m long memorial relief wall at Bubanj, 2017 [photo by Niš Institue for Preserving Cultural Heritage]
Photo 6: Yugoslav poster for 1987 film 'Lager Niš'
During the Yugoslav-era, this was an important site for holding commemorative events honoring the victims who perished at this site and recognized as a cultural landmark across Yugoslavia. In addition, the site was visited by many thousands of people a year from all over Yugoslavia, especially by children of the Young Pioneers political youth group, who would gather in the amphitheatre in large groups to listen to lectures about the site's history and revolutionary ideals. The events of what occurred at the Red Cross camp and the subsequent executions were so significant to Yugoslav society that in 1987 a WWII film titled 'Lager Niš' ('Лагер Ниш') (titled 'The Escape' for foreign markets) (Photo 6), was created by Serbian director Miomir Stamenković (Миомир Стаменковић). The film depicted the events of the original escape attempt of 105 prisoners from the camp on February 12th, 1942. This was the only Yugoslav film to ever made to specifically focus on the stories of concentration camp prisoners during World War II. In addition, in 1969, the site of the Red Cross concentration camp was turned into a museum. The majority of the camp's infrastructure remains intact and present at the museum's grounds, making it among the most preserved WWII-era concentration camps of its type in Europe. It remains regularly open to visitors and can be actively explored. The Red Cross Concentration Camp site will be discussed in further detail on this page's 'Additional Sites' section below.
From Yugoslav-era to Present-Day
Since the fall of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Yugoslav Wars, the spomenik complex here at Bubanj has experienced some neglect and degradation. While certainly not as extensive as other degraded monuments across the former Yugoslav region, the 'fist' memorial sculpture series are often found vandalized, while many elements of the large amphitheatre are deteriorating. However, local efforts, both by the city government and thousands of local volunteers have been working in recent years to fix these issues and rehabilitate the complex. As of 2018 the complex has undergone a massive rehabilitation process and most of the complex's major issues have been addressed. However, graffiti can still be sometimes found on the memorial sculptures.
In recent decades, with imagery of Yugoslav monuments becoming more widespread internationally, the "Three Fists" monument here at Niš has become one which has been the focus of many artists and photographers from around the world. For instance, in 2012, Novi Sad artist Aleksandra Domanović created several works inspired by this monument, mostly notably a 6m tall replica in bright pink of one of the fist sculptures, for the 4th Marrakesh Biennial (Photo 7). Also in 2012 Domanović created a installation of fists fashioned off of those on the memorial wall here at Bubanj for an exhibition she called "From Me to Yu" at the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland.
Photo 7: Domanović's sculpture at Marrakesh, 2012 (photo by Domanović)
"From the blood of communists and patriots, fists were born: Fists of rebellion and warning, Fists of revolution, Fists of freedom. We were shot, but never killed and never subdued. We crushed the darkness, and paved the way for the sun."
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
About 40 meters northeast from the 'Three Fists' monoliths here at the Bubanj complex at Niš, you will find on the edge of the grass meadow a 23 meter long carved marble wall (Slide 1) depicting the suffering and atrocities committed against the citizens of Niš during WWII. Carved onto the wall on its right end is a verse from Niš poet Ivan Vučković (Slide 2), which, roughly translated from Serbian to English, reads as:
There was a good deal of graffiti on these three monoliths at the memorial complex upon my most recent visit to the site. Of all the graffiti I found there, three primary instances of it stood out as interesting examples of nationalist graffiti. These instances (from April 2016) are documented in the slideshow to the right in Slide 3, 4 and 5. Transated from Serbian into English, they read as:
"Communists are the real criminals"
-Blood & Honor
"This monument is a communist lie"
-Blood & Honor
"Here are communists killing Serbs"
-Blood & Honor
From what I was able to understand from research, 'Blood & Honor' is some nature of nationalistic neo-Nazi music promotion group founded in the UK in 1987 and is banned in several European countries. In addition, I have seen older photos of this monument with other various incarnations of 'Blood & Honor' graffiti, so it seems their followers of this group are a persistent in vandalism of this memorial. However, in photographs I have seen of the site as recent as early 2018, this graffiti appears to have been removed.
Firstly, the three stylized-fist monoliths at the center of the memorial complex are of three different sizes, with the different sizes representing not only the fact that men, women and children were all brutally executed at this site, but also the fact that entire families together were killed here. Yet another interpretation of the symbolism of the three fists is that they represent they three primary ethnic groups that were killed at the site: Serbs, Jews and Roma. In addition, the clenched fist motif itself symbolizes the defiance and resistance of those civilians who were executed here. Sources relate that the inspiration for this memorial's raised fist motif, which was designed by artist Ivan Sabolić, originated from the story that during the executions at Bubanj, an unknown prisoner who was about to be executed raised their fists in defiance in the face of the German soldier readied to fire their weapon. Furthermore, the image of raised fists in defiance stands as a universal symbol of revolution that would have been easily recognized and understood by any visitors, regardless of background. Furthermore, the motif of raised fists as a symbol for uprising (either by themselves or holding weapons) was used considerably by the Partisans in their military posters during WWII (Photo 8).
Photo 8: WWII Partisan poster
The second element at the memorial complex is the 23m white marble wall at the park's entrance. Along the length of it, from left to right, the story of the these victims are told in five relief panels, which viscerally depict the 'killing machine' German occupiers had organized on Bubanj hill against Serbian, Jew and Roma prisoners. The first panel are guns, representing German oppression and brutality, while the second panel depicts standing bodies, representing the victims lined up to be executed. The third panel depicts fallen bodies, which represents the thousands murdered here. Meanwhile, the fourth panel shows the 'fists of rebellion' rising up against this oppression. The final panel is a poem by Ivan Vučković, recounting the bloody victory fought against the occupying German forces. Interestingly, this relief panel reads almost as if it were a set of ancient pictographs or Egyptian sandstone carvings, as the wall relates the story of the massacre which occurred here in extremely stark and straightforward imagery. As a result, even a person completely unfamiliar with the history of the site could be brought to this monument and immediately comprehend the events which transpired here.
1950 Memorial Marker:
The first significant monument project at Bubanj was the construction of a modest stone marker, opened on July 7th, 1950 (Slides 1 & 2). Roughly 3m tall, the stone marker is topped with a small star ornament (Slide 3). The southeast side of the monument has affixed to it an engraved marble plaque (Slide 4), which translates from Serbian to English as:
During the 4 year struggle, led by the Peoples of Yugoslavia under the leadership of the Communist Party and its leader Tito, at this place, the ghastly invaders shot 10,000 warriors and militants from all parts of the Republic of Serbia, the faithful sons of the revolutionary struggle of our people and their freedom of the past.
Niš Alliance of NOB Fighters
July 7th, 1950
1950 Memorial Marker - Slideshow
This condition of this monument is very good, with in existing in a very well maintained state without any graffiti or vandalism. It is clear that it is still well honored and patronized by those in the surrounding community. A historical image of this original monument can be seen in Photos 5 & 6.
Status and Condition:
The status of the Bubanj Spomen-park complex at Niš has improved greatly over the last ten years. Firstly, the grounds and landscaping and grassy lawns within the complex are very well maintained and manicured, which is partly explained in that this area is also a popular city park for the local community, with wooded trails, picnic tables and an expansive amphitheatre. Since a 2017/2018 renovation to the memorial complex, the landscaping, greenery and grounds around the monument are now in pristine condition, while the paths and walkways are excellently manicured and trimmed of weeds and over-growth.
Photo 9: Glass Chapel
Meanwhile, the three 'fist' memorial sculptures (along with the accompanying marble wall) also appear to be in very good shape structurally, as I was not able to see any significant degradation or deterioration on the facade of any of these memorial elements. In 1973, officials with the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Niš designated the monument to be a cultural property of exceptional importance. Then, in 2004, a 'glass chapel' sculpture was added to the park (Photo 9), which was created by Niš architect Saša Buđevac, yet, even this structure has experienced degradation, with many of its lower glass panels being shattered. The entire memorial complex underwent an extensive renovation and rehabilitation process in 2009. While I did find a significant amount of graffiti on the monoliths on my most recent visit to the site in 2016, recent photos as of 2018 reveal that it has since been removed. This is not surprising, as I have come across many articles from recent years announcing successful graffiti cleaning efforts at the memorial complex, so it seems consistent efforts are being made to maintain the site. As far as the condition of other elements at the memorial, the white marble wall appears in very good shape and it is completely free of graffiti. Meanwhile, the amphitheatre adjacent to the monoliths was in poor condition up until recently, through current photos of the site after 2017 renovations reveal it now to be completely restored. As for promotion, the city of Niš lists the Bubanj complex as a local attraction on thier official English-language touristic website, indicating the municipalities eagerness to share this site with international visitors.
As this monument complex is also used as an active city park, it can see hundreds of visitors a day, while also having very abundant signage and directional markers leading visitors to the memorial from all parts of the city. In addition, the memorial is very much promoted in public city advertising. In addition, there are numerous multi-lingual signs and placards across the complex explaining the historical and cultural significance of the memorial park. Yet, it is not clear as to how many of visitors come specifically to see the monument. While I did not observe any wreaths or flowers laid at the site upon my most recent visit, there are significant annual ceremonies held at the monument on October 14th (Niš Liberation Day) (Photo 10) as well as on May 6th (Djurdjevdan - St George's Day), both of which are generally attended by hundreds of local citizens. In July of 2016, there was controversy over the use of the spomenik's amphitheatre to put on a musical concert, which angered some who felt that the Bubanj complex should not be used for any large events other than those directly commemorating the tragic events which occurred here.
Photo 10: Ceremonial events during a Niš Liberation event in 2018 [photo from palilula.eu]
Photo 11: Small bronze sculpture of Bubanj monument at Niš, 2019 [photo from niskevesti.rs]
There were announcements that in 2017, funds to the amount of 20 million dinar (~168,000 euro) were to be provided by the Serbian Ministry of Labor, Social and Veterans Affairs for a massive restoration and rehabilitation effort at this spomenik complex. As this project progressed through 2017, questions began to arise directed to the Niš municipality about why the project was not completed after the passing of its September 30th deadline. Through, by 2018, the project had reached a point of being nearly fully restored and rehabilitated (though some additional work may still be needed and graffiti continues to be an issue). Finally, in the spring of 2019, a small bronze relief sculpture of the Bubanj monument (Photo 11) was placed along the entrance pathway to the memorial by the local organization called "Juče, danas, Bubanj" (Yesterday, Today, Bubanj). The sculpture, created by local artist Milena Lazarević, was intended to give an impression of the shape of the monument to blind visitors. Future plans include adding a Braille information placard to the small sculpture.
Additional Sites in the Niš Area:
This section will examine additional Yugoslav-era historical, cultural and memorial sites in and around the Niš area that might be of interest to those studying the monuments and WWII heritage of the former Yugoslavia. In this section, we will examine the Red Cross Concentration Camp site in Niš, as well as the Park to NOB Heroes in Niš and the Memorial Ossuary to Bulgarian fighters in the suburb of Ledena Stena.
Red Cross Concentration Camp:
Established in the summer of 1941, not long after the German Army began to occupy Serbia, the Crveni Krst (Red Cross) Concentration Camp set up in Niš by the Gestapo originally as a transit camp. It was named "Red Cross" after an actual Red Cross International facility that was nearby. The camp primarily held Jews, Serbs, Roma, communists and other types of dissidents and anti-fascists. By the fall of 1941, the Gestapo began to shift operations of the camp from simply transiting prisoners to housing them on an indefinite basis. After an escape attempt was made at the facility in January of 1942, the industrial execution of prisoners began in a coordinated way. Such executions mostly occurred at a site called Bubanj Hill, just on the outskirts of Niš. Sources estimate by the time the camp was liberated by the Partisans in 1944 that well over 30,000 prisoners had passed through the camp, and of those, roughly 10,000 were executed, but exact numbers are unclear.
Red Cross Concentration Camp - Slideshow
After the end of WWII, the Red Cross Concentration Camp site was preserved as it was left, making it one of the few fully preserved concentration camp sites in Europe. In 1967, the camp was set up a public museum-memorial complex called "12 February" (Slides 1 - 4), while the site came under state protection as a historical landmark in 1979. Sources indicate that the museum complex was damaged during the region's 1999 NATO bombings, but was renovated soon thereafter. Annual commemorative events continue to be held at this site, generally on February 12th. The museum's official website can be found at THIS link, while the exact coordinates for the museum site are N43°19'48.8", E21°53'16.7". As an interesting aside, a new monument at this site was built in 2015 along the approach pathway to the camp entrance from the main road (Slide 5). This memorial recognizes Soviet Red Army soldiers who were killed after what was reportedly an accidental friendly-fire incident by American planes on November 7th, 1944 along the road between Aleksinac and Niš, shortly after the liberation of Niš.
Park of NOB Heroes in Niš:
Just north of the Niš city center on the south bank of the Nišava River is the Park of the NOB Heroes of Niš (Park heroja NOB-a u Nišu) also called July 7th Park. Situated with a large circular flowerbed at the park's center is an abstract bronze monument called "Iskra slobode" (The Spark of Freedom), which was created in 1985 by Belgrade sculptor Vojin Stojić (Slides 1 - 4) This monument specifically commemorates an incident on August 2nd, 1941 when Partisan fighter Aleksandar Vojinović bombed a group of German officers at nearby Hotel Park, killing five people. This act resonated greatly with Serbs across the region during the war, leading Vojinović to later write a book about the bombing in 1964 called "Hotel Park" [online version]. Meanwhile, around the monument is a circular pathway around which are located several sculptural busts of local Yugoslav national heroes: these include Sreten Mladenović, Mije Stanimirović, Konrad Žilnik, Filip Filipović, Stanko Paunović and Filip Kljajić.
Park to the NOB Heroes in Niš - Slideshow
While the park has been subject to vandalism in past decades, city officials have put forward much work in recent years to rehabilitate the site, most notably in 2014. Annual commemorative events are still held here, often on May 9th (Victory Against Fascism Day). A short student-made documentary about the memorial park can be found at THIS YouTube link [in Serbian]. The exact coordinates for the memorial park are N43°19'21.7", E21°53'50.5".
Memorial Ossuary to Bulgarian Fighters:
Roughly 1km NW of the Bubanj Memorial Park in the Niš suburb of Ledena Stena is a memorial complex which commemorates Bulgarian fighters who aided in combat efforts towards the region's liberation from German occupation during WWII (Slides 1 - 3). Built in 1963, the central component of the memorial is a large abstract mosaic wall (~4mx5m). Behind the mosaic is a collective tomb where the remains of over 2,000 Bulgarian fighters are interred. Since the end of the Yugoslav-era, this monument has repeatedly targeted with graffiti and defacement by anti-Bulgarian vandals, even as recently as 2018 (Slide 4). As of 2019, a large section of the lower left side of the mosaic has been completely destroyed. Such defacement has led to official protests by the Bulgarian government towards Serbia. However, despite this vandalism and neglect, annual commemorative events continue to be held at this site. The exact coordinates for this site are N43°18'55.1", E21°51'09.4".
Memorial Ossuary to Bulgarian Fighters - Slideshow
And Additional Sites of Interest:
Niš Fortress: Just north of the city center right on the north bank of the Nišava River is the Niš Fortress (Niška tvrđava), which is an 18th century Ottoman-era fortification. It is widely recognized as one of the best preserved and historically intact fortress of its type in the Balkan region. The fortress is set of predominately as a public park, within which are several notable historical monument sites. The exact coordinates for the fortress's south entrace at Stambol Gate is N43°19'24.1", E21°53'43.2".
Dom JNA/Dom Vojske: Just east of the Niš city center on Sinđelić Square is the 'Dom Vojske' (Army House) (Photo 12), or what was originally called the 'Dom JNA' (House of the Yugoslav People's Army). Unveiled in 1956 and created in the International Style of architecture, this civic center included a large theatre space, restaurant and other public community spaces, as well as a seven-floor tower with offices and classrooms. The center changed its name to 'Dom Vojske' after the dismantling of Yugoslavia during the 1990s and early 2000s. The space has often been used for military functions, but also as a space used by the general public. Its exact coordinates are N43°19'12.8", E21°54'02.8".
Niš National Museum: Located within the Niš city center is the Narodni muzej u Nišu (Niš National Museum). Set up as an institution in 1933, this museum has thousands of exhibits related to the history, culture, ethnography and archeology of the region. In additon, it has a significant amount of information about region's WWII history and Yugoslav era events. The official website for the musuem can be found at THIS link, which its exact coordinates are N43°19'06.2", E21°53'36.0".
Photo 12: A Yugoslav-era photo of the Army House in Niš, Serbia
The Bubanj Spomen-Park is located about 1-2km south from the Niš city center along Vojvode Putnika road. When driving from the Niš city center along Vojvode Putnika, parking can be found on the left hand side of the road, directly across from a small lone pub/cafe on the right side of the road (Photo 12). The exact coordinates of the parking lot are N43°18'26.9", E21°52'07.4" (click for map). From the parking lot, you walk up the paved stone walkway to the top of the hill where the memorial complex is.
Photo 12: Parking lot along Vojvode Putnika
Click to open in Google Maps in new window
This sub-section details information related to the directional/spatial orientation info for elements of the Bubanj monument complex at Niš, as well as local and seasonal lighting conditions, all primarily geared towards those wanting to photograph the site. Firstly, the white memorial wall element faces to the west, so morning would often be the best time to photograph this element with sunlight on it. The fist sculptures can be photographed successfully from any angle in the grassy field in which they reside, but it is important to note that the monuments face the amphitheatre to their southeast side, creating a pleasant scenic view. Best chances for sunlight on the front of the monuments from this perspective are optimal in the late afternoon hours. For month-by-month data on sunrise and sunset times throughtout the year at this location, check out the profile page for Niš, Serbia on the TimeAndDate.com website.
Selected Sources and More Information:
Please feel free to leave a message if you have any comments, if you have any questions, if you have corrections or if you have any additional information or insight you feel might be appropriate or pertinent to this spomenik's profile page.