Symbols of Loss: 8 Yugoslav Monuments to Tragedies & Disasters

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

When it comes to exploring and investigating the monuments built across the former Yugoslav-region, much of the focus of the Spomenik Database project concerns sites which commemorate the events surrounding WWII, Partisan fighters, fascist crimes and the victory of the People’s Liberation Struggle. However, in this hyper focused analysis, there is a type of monument that my research often neglects to examine: monuments dedicated to significant Yugoslav-era civilian accidents, tragedies and disasters. Furthermore, apart from my efforts, the increase in international attention garnered in recent years by memorial sculpture and architecture of Yugoslavia has also seldom focused on such monuments. When a community is struck by such unimaginable tragedy (that often involves the most vulnerable members of society), the bereaved citizens, families and survivors band together to create symbols to remember those who were lost, which operate not only as a places for grieving but also a conduits through which those who are suffering can attempt to make sense of the horrible events which transpired. Most commonly, these honorofic symbols have taken the form of memorial sculptures around which people can gather together and unite in solidarity. Such monuments offer a unique glimpse into the strength and resilience of the communities that created them, as well as signaling the depth to which trauma rippled through the lives of those who were connected to the events. As such, in this article, I will closely examine 8 monument sites across the former Yugoslav region that are dedicated to horrific tragedies, accidents and disasters that struck at, in their day, the hearts of not just the communities where they occurred, but also the nation as a whole. Each entry will explore the events in detail, the creation of the monuments, a description of their form, and, finally, their present day conditions.

 

1.) The 1974 Zagreb Train Disaster

A view of the 1974 train disaster memorial sculpture at Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. Credit: personal photo

Author(s): Vojin Bakić [profile page]

Year created: 1978

Location: Mirogoj Cemetery, Zagreb, Croatia

Coordinates: N45°50'04.7", E15°59'19.0"


On the evening of August 30th, 1974 at about 19:45 (7:45pm), train number 10410 was beginning its approach to the main platform of the central Zagreb train station, just another stop along its ultimate destination of Dortmund, West Germany. Having begun its trip in Athens the day before, the train had passed through Belgrade earlier that day where it had picked up a significant number of Yugoslav laborers headed back to their guest-work jobs in West Germany after a summer vacation. The train, loaded with over 400 passengers across nine wagons, also contained an unusual amount of children, as many of these Yugoslav guest-workers were travelling with their whole families back to West Germany. However, as the train began to approach the station platform, it did not slow down to the customary 40 km/h that it was supposed to, instead, it was coming up to the station at a dangerous speed of 104 km/h. Consequently, when the train barrelled into the station, all nine wagons jumped the track and piled themselves into a heaping mangled wreck in front of the platform. Through the course of this horrific event, 153 people died and over 60 people were injured, making it the worst rail accident in Croatian history. Sources describe that many victims on the overturned train may have perished from electrocution, as the train had crashed into a series of active power lines. It was later determined, after an investigation, that the most likely reason that the crew and operators failed to slow the train down was the result of their tiredness and perhaps sleeping while on the job, which led to them not applying the brakes to the train in time. However, the investigation also uncovered the fact that the train company had been severely overworking the crew, as those train operators had been working for 51 hours straight before the train crash occurred.

A vintage Yugoslav-era photo of the 1974 train crash at Zagreb.

Many of those who perished in the train wreck were so badly injured that their remains were unidentifiable. As such, a collection of 41 remains that were not claimed by family members or identified were interred in a mass gravesite at the famous Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. At this mass gravesite, which is located at a notable location with the cemetery, a memorial space composed of polished black stone was established around the burial site. A large engraving made into this stone reads as (when translated into English): “Victims of the Train Accident in Zagreb, August 20th, 1974”. On the second anniversary of the accident in 1978, Zagreb sculptor Vojin Bakić installed a small memorial sculpture at the center of the gravesite. Bakić’s sculpture consists of an irregular geometric crystalline-like shape fashioned out of polished and reflective stainless steel. This sculpture is crafted in a similar style to that of Bakić’s series of memorial sculptures at the nearby Dotrščina Memorial Park in Zagreb [profile page], which commemorates a WWII mass killing site. In speaking about the symbolism of his works at Dotrščina, Bakić makes the following comments:

In the artistic solution for the memorial of the Dotrščina cemetery, I came to the realization that the crystal, realized in this glittering material, reflects what the victims who have fallen there represent for us: purity, permanence, eternal light... The brightening mass of the steel reflecting light in such a form arouses singing from among the tombstones, as well as the motivation to rediscover the physical and ideological radiation of the free-hearted people who are buried there."

It would seem that Bakić’s words would equally apply to his memorial sculpture here at Mirogoj that is dedicated to the train disaster victims. Much of the memorial sculpture work that Bakić created over his life meditates on the idea of using reflective materials to bring light into a place that is shrouded in darkness. Commemorative ceremonies still occur at the memorial site and efforts were put forward in 2014 and 2015 to restore the complex. It is important to note that in the aftermath of this tragedy, laws were passed in Yugoslavia dictating that train operators can not work shifts longer than 10 to 12 hours before they must rest.

 

2.) 1956 Mavrovo Avalanche

A photo of the monument to the Mavrovo dam workers who perished in the 1956 avalanche. Credit: Xiao Yang

Author(s): Boro Krstevski & Milorad Stanković

Year created: 1967

Location: at the Mavrovo Dam, Mavrovo Lake, North Macedonia

Coordinates: N41°41'50.3", E20°44'55.8"E


In the early morning hours of February 11th, 1956, the workers of the new Mavrovo Dam project were asleep in their bunkhouses in an area along the Radika River Valley near the remote Šar Mountain villages of Strezimir and Sjtirovica. Well over 100 workers were asleep here that night, all of which were miners, engineers and other technical personnel who had been working since 1947 towards the construction of the largest dam of the SR of Macedonia. During the midst of this evening, large amounts of snow had been falling, leaving the slopes packed with large blankets of fresh newly laid powder. During that morning, some unknown force triggered an avalanche that swept swiftly down the mountain side and over the bunk houses, burying the workers under untold amounts of white snow. Rescuers from across the region quickly descended upon the area of the workers’ barracks, with the quick action and heroism on the part of these rescuers leading to more than 50 of those trapped under the snow being saved and brought to safety. However, 52 of those workers who were buried under the avalanche that morning did not survive. This event was the deadliest avalanche disaster ever documented in Yugoslavia.

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard view of scenes from Mavrovo, including the dam workers monument.
A recent photo of one of the water intake towers of the Mavrovo Dam. Credit: 91 Days Macedonia

Eleven years later in 1967, a memorial complex was unveiled just a few dozen meters northeast of the then completed Mavrovo Dam, near the village of Mavrovi Anovi. This year of the monument’s unveiling was selected in order to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the construction of the dam. Situated just off of the side of the main road that encircles the lake, the central element of the complex is a memorial sculpture created by sculptor Boro Krstevski and architect Milorad Stanković. The sculpture depicts the stone carved figure of a mine worker drilling with his jackhammer into a stone pillar, with his right leg thrusted back dramatically and the stone crumbling as a result of his efforts. Bare chested and barefoot, the miner figure, rendered with enormous muscles, operates as the embodiment of all of the brave workers who lost their lives during the 1956 avalanche. Around the memorial complex are several stone slabs engraved with significant messages and information. One stone tells of the youth volunteers who worked on the construction of the dam, while another shows a diagram of the dam and communicates its statistical information. However, the most significant stone at the site is engraved with the names of the 52 workers who perished in the avalanche, along with an inscription which reads as follows (when translated into English):

We proudly remember the victims of the avalanches and all the other workers who lost their lives during this construction, they are the grandfather of our glory, of our efforts, of our path to a bright future.

Overall, the complex is in good condition and is regularly maintained by local patrons. Commemorative events continue to be held at the site on a regular basis. Since 1962, an annual honorific event called the “Mavrovo Memorial Nordic Skiing Competition” has been held at Mavrovo and centers its events around the monument. It is the oldest annual ski competition of the former Yugoslav region and among the oldest in Europe. It is held every year around early to mid-February, around the time when the 1956 avalanche would have occurred.

 

3.) 1971 Semizovac Train Disaster

A contemporary view of the monument in Stragari dedicated to the train crash victims. Credit: Lavlja Jazbina

Author(s): [unknown]

Year created: 1971?

Location: Stragari, Serbia

Coordinates: N44°09'35.0", E20°39'56.7"


In the darkness of the early morning of July 17th, 1971, an overnight express passenger train from Belgrade was travelling southeast along the Bosnia River towards Sarajevo on its way to its final destination of the coastal Adriatic town of Ploče, Croatia. Aboard this express train were 400 passengers, of whom roughly 230 were elementary school children from the Kragujevac region and surrounding villages who were on their way to a school beach holiday at Gradac, a seaside resort town just north of Ploče. Travelling in the opposite direction along the same track was a freight train that had just departed from Sarajevo heading north towards Doboj. At about 3:08 in the morning, the freight train came to a scheduled stop at the station of Semizovac, a village just north of Sarajevo along the Bosnia River. As a result, signalmen at Semizovac gave the approaching Belgrade express train a red signal to stop. However, the operators of the Belgrade express train did not follow or heed the stop signal given to them, instead, they continued onwards at full speed towards Semizovac. Just moments later, the Belgrade express train collided head-on into the locomotive of the freight train which was stopped at Semizovac. The bulk of the train’s impact with the freight cars was absorbed largely by the first few passenger wagons of the Belgrade train, which were accommodating school children from the village of Stragari (a small settlement just 25km northwest of Kragujevac). As a result of this impact, 14 of the Stragari children, along with their teacher Zlatimir Ivanović, were all killed instantly. In addition to these children, the two drivers of the freight train were also killed. The two train operators of the Belgrade express train, Alojz Pokrajac and Ivan Jurilj, were both summarily arrested by authorities, however, I was not able to find any sources relating their fate or any explanation regarding how or why it was they came to cause the disaster at Semizovac.

A photo of the cemetery for the children who perished in the 1971 train accident. Credit: Lavlja Jazbina

Later the same day of the crash, Sarajevo authorities sent the bodies of the killed school children and their teacher back to Kragujevac. A special cemetery was established for the 14 young children just north of the village center of Stragari where they were all interred together, with photographic plaques depicting each child sitting atop their tombs. With the creation of this cemetery, a monument to their memory was also created at the same time. Positioned on the hill overlooking the cemetery, this monument is composed of fourteen abstract concrete forms fixed in a circular arrangement around a central pillar. The shape of this work is no doubt a symbolic representation of the children huddled around their teacher. A plaque attached to the monument relates the names of the children and teacher who perished in the train crash at Semizovac. Also on the plaque is a poetic verse about the tragedy, which reads as follows (when translated into English):

My dearest... youth has dawned at dawn just as it is beginning to bloom. The wonderful childrens’ dreams of the blue sea has disappeared forever, covered in darkness. Don't weep for us, we have no tears of pain, instead, give us flowers, because our youthfulness wanted happiness. We wanted more life and love... our young lives are gone but remembering them cannot erase anything, not even the time that passes. These graves warn that we have been failed in the greatest of human responsibilities. Conscience and responsibilities.

Recent photos of the memorial site at Stragari show the monument to be overgrown with vegetation. Meanwhile, I found no online media or news articles related to any events or activities at this site. Furthermore, the author of the monument, as well as its year of creation, are details that still remain elusive. If anyone has any information about this site, as well as recent photos or documentation, please share them with me.

 

4.) 1969 Banja Luka Earthquake

A contemporary photo of the 1969 earthquake monument at Banja Luka, BiH.Credit: BanjaLukaTravel.com

Author(s): [unknown]

Year created: around 1971?

Location: Banja Luka, BiH

Coordinates: 44°46'13.8"N 17°11'22.4"E


On the afternoon of the 26th of October, 1969, there was a mild earthquake that shook the city of Banja Luka, BiH around 4pm. Only minimal damage resulted from this quake, however, the residents of the city were highly alarmed and skittish as a result, especially as a series of light tremors continued throughout the rest of the evening and into the early morning of the next day. Many residents spent the evening outside for fear that another quake would occur. It was not until the sun had risen on the day of the 27th, while people were starting to prepare themselves for the day, that the true menace of this fateful series of events would strike. Then, at 9:11, a massive quake began to shake Banja Luka and the surrounding area. The rumblings stopped after only a few seconds, yet, the city lay devastated in the aftermath of this disaster. Buildings across Banja Luka crumbled and toppled over, resulting in the destruction of over 86,000 apartments. Miraculously, despite the extent of the destruction across Banja Luka, only 15 people perished in the quake, possibly as a result of the heightened awareness the tremors caused leading up to the massive quake. Though, while just over a dozen perished, casualties were significant, with over 1,000 people injured. This was the worst ever earthquake to have its epicenter in the region of Bosnia i Herzegovina since the era of modern measurements.

A vintage Yugoslav-era photo of the 1969 Banja Luka earthquake. Credit: SarajevoTimes.com

One of the largest buildings damaged by the earthquake that was subsequently demolished during the city’s reconstruction phase was a large horizontal apartment block known as the “Titanic”, a housing complex for the families of JNA officers located right on the old town square. This giant residential complex was built just a few years before the quake struck and was a landmark structure within the city center of Banja Luka, resulting in many being saddened to see it removed. However, in its place, the city square was greatly expanded and modernized, with an extravagant new department store named “Boska” being constructed as the centerpiece of the square. At the center of this new square was erected a modest monument dedicated to the memory of all those who suffered and perished as a result of the 1969 earthquake. The primary element of the monument is the large three-faced “Insa” clock that formerly sat at the center of the old town square before the earthquake struck, with its hands forever frozen at the time when the shaking began at 9:11. The clock is dramatically perched upon a stainless steel pole that is zig-zagged, a clear symbolic reference to the quake. Behind the clock is a rectangular 5m tall black tile wall, perforated by a single square hole. This element may exist as a ghostly reminder of the many buildings here in the city center that were demolished as a result of the quake. No inscriptions or engravings exist on the monument, other than the date of the earthquake being written out on the faces of the Insa clock: “27 X 1969”, with the “X” being the Roman numeral for the 10th month, October. Unfortunately, I was not able to determine the exact year this monument was erected or who the creator was who designed it. Meanwhile, one additional memorial dedicated to the earthquake exists nearby on the side of the Boska department store in the form of a bronze plaque. A photo of it can be seen at THIS link.


The monument has been kept and maintained in good shape over the decades and is regularly commemorated. However, in 2014, a negligent driver struck the clock with his car and knocked it down. It was quickly repaired and replaced. Informally, the Banja Luka Earthquake Memorial Clock is known as the “Crooked Clock” or the “Wrong Hour”, while also being one of the most popular downtown meet up spots for young people in the city.

 

5.) 1984 Vodna Mine Disaster

A vintage Yugoslav-era photo of the monument to fallen miners at Vodna, Serbia. Credit: Miodrag Živković Archive

Author(s): Miodrag Živković [profile page]

Year created: 1985

Location: Vodna, Serbia

Coordinates: N44°06'06.9", E21°33'39.5"


On the morning of April 21st, 1984, miners of the Vodna coal mine (part of the “Rembasa” and “Resavica” mine system) had just begun their shifts at work and were busy chipping away diligently at the rock. On this morning, one particular group of several dozen miners at Vodna were working deep in the Strmosten Pit, a notably deep shaft which goes down roughly 150 meters. Because of the depth of this shaft, a special ventilation system was in place in order to feed in air as well as for the removal of the build-up of dangerous gases. However, as a result of an electrical breakdown, the ventilation system stalled, allowing gasses to accumulate in the Strmosten Pit in the area where the miners were working. At about 10:30 in the morning, a large amount of methane which had accumulated suddenly ignited and caused an enormous explosion. Rescue teams from across the region descended upon the Vodna mine, however, reports indicate that all 34 miners who were within the Strmosten Pit perished.

A recent photo of the monument at Vodna, Serbia dedicated to the fallen miners. Credit: personal photo

At the marking of the one year anniversary of the tragedy, a memorial complex dedicated to the 34 lost miners was established in Vodna along the Resava River near the main entrance to the mine facility. The central element of this complex is a large concrete memorial sculpture titled “The Flower in the Stone”, created by famous Belgrade sculptor Miodrag Živković (author of some of the most significant monumental works in Yugoslavia). This sculpture, which sits upon a raised platform, is composed of a triangular body that is pierced with a flower-shaped cavity through its center. This whole sculpture is cantilevered off the edge of the platform and is perched in such a fashion that the whole arrangement appears to defy gravity. From the bottom to the top of the triangle is roughly 7 meters in height. While the symbolism of the flower component of the monument is straightforward (usually representing hope and life), the symbolism of other aspects (such as the triangle shape and the precarious positioning) is less clear). In addition, in 1988, a bronze triangular pillar was erected along the entrance pathway to the site which bears the names of all of the miners who perished.


The memorial complex continues to host regular annual commemorative and remembrance events to honor the lives of the fallen miners. In 2020, the concrete surface of the memorial sculpture was cleaned to its original bright white appearance after it had accumulated years worth of staining as the result of weathering and soot.

 

6.) 1989 Pojatno School Bus Accident

A photo of the monument at Marija Gorica dedicated to the children who perished in the bus accident. Credit: Mapio.net

Author(s): [unknown]

Year created: 1989?

Location: Marija Gorica, Croatia

Coordinates: N45°54'39.2", E15°43'34.3"


A group of 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade children from the “Ante Kovačić” Elementary School in the small Zagorje village of Marija Gorica, Croatia (as well as some additional children from the nearby village of Prigorje Brdovečko) were readying themselves on the morning of September 22nd, 1989 for a field trip to visit the Matija Gubec Monument at Gornja Stubica (about a 60 minute drive away just north of Zagreb). When all were prepared, about 28 students (along with three teachers) boarded a school bus, which proceeded to head east over the hilly Zagorje countryside. A thick fog lay over the landscape that morning, making visibility difficult, but they continued onwards towards their destination. As the bus reached the bottom of the hills which open up into the Krapina River valley, they came up to the town of Pojatno. In Pojatno, before the road continues east over the Krapina River, there is a rail crossing. As the bus driver Ivan Jakolić approached the crossing, he stopped and looked in both directions along the train track, but saw and heard nothing, however, the fog, still thick, prevented him from seeing any great distance. One of the teachers on the bus even got out to evaluate the situation before the bus proceeded over the track, but nothing was seen. No automatic rail crossing gate was installed at this intersection, so, in the thick of the fog, they had no other indications to go off of other than their eyes and ears. As such, the bus began driving over the train track. However, a split second after the crossing began, someone yelled “TRAIN”. Jakolić attempted to step on the gas in order to miss the oncoming locomotive, but it was too late... the train slammed into the back of the bus. As a result of this horrific crash, 14 children perished, leaving the entire community devastated.

A vintage photo of the accident site in Pojatno [left] and a photo of the memorial plaque that exists there now [right]

Not long after the accident, a monument dedicated to the victims of the bus crash was erected in Marija Gorica across the street from “Ante Kovačić” Elementary School. This monument consists of a white marble horizontal slab that is elevated roughly half a meter off the ground. Around the edge of the slab are relief carvings depicting scenes of children at play in an idyllic setting. Also, amongst the scenes are the names carved off all the children who perished in the accident. Laid across the top of the horizontal marble slab is a cylindrical marble element which is cracked in half at its middle. This element may perhaps represent a piece of school chalk which in turn symbolizes the school children, with the breaking of the chalk piece thus operating as a symbol for the children who perished in the accident. Unfortunately, I was not able to determine who the author of this work was or what year it was established, but it was presumably created soon after the disaster occurred in 1989. Commemorative and remembrance ceremonies are still held around the memorial marker and it sits in a well maintained condition. In addition, at the railroad crossing where the accident occurred [Google map location], there is a metal memorial plaque which marks the location of the tragedy and bears a poetic verse which roughly translates into English as:

In this place, let there be no more sorrow and let all trains, like the morning stars, carelessly give birth to the path of the distant sun.

Not long after this accident occurred, a railroad crossing gate was installed at the intersection at Pojatno, as well as numerous other crossings across Yugoslavia. More details about this incident can be read at THIS link and THIS link.

 

7.) 1962 Trstenik Boat Tragedy

A recent photo of the monument to the Trstenik boat accident victims. Credit: morski.hr/Jurica Gašpar

Author(s): [unknown]

Year created: 1962

Location: Trstenik Island, Croatia

Coordinates: N44°39'48.7", E14°34'56.6"


On the 27th of April, 1962, a group of students from the School of Economics and Maritime Studies in Mali Lošinj, Croatia were taking a boat back to their homes on Rab Island (a roughly 33km journey). Packed with 18 students (ten girls and eight boys between the ages of 11 and 19), the five meter long boat was being piloted by its owner, Josip Španjol, who the students had hired to ferry them home over the Adriatic to Rab for the May holidays. However, as the group set off from St. Martin marina in Mali Lošinj in the late morning of the 27th, a violent and sudden storm began to form in the direction they were traveling. By the time the boat had passed Punta Križa, the storm was in full force and knocked the boat around tremendously. As a result of these violent conditions on the sea, the boat capsized, tossing all those onboard into the churning water. Two of the girls were able to swim to nearby fishing boats (which took them two hours), while one young man, Marijan Pičuljan, was able to swim to Trstenik Island, which was a small island occupied only by a lighthouse and its keeper. The Trstenik lighthouse keeper radioed for a search party to be quickly organized in order to attempt to save those who fell into the sea, but because the storm was still raging, it was severely delayed. By the time the storm had subsided and rescue boats could be dispatched, all except the three that had initially swam to safety succumbed to the ordeal, amounting to 16 who perished all together (fifteen students plus the boat pilot). This was among the worst maritime tragedies to occur on the Adriatic during the Yugoslav-era. Also during this storm, another small boat capsized 30km north of Trstenik just off Galun Island near Krk, killing four additional people, with a total of 20 lives all together the storm took that day.


A photo of the Trstenik monument with the Trstenik lighthouse in the background. Credit: emorje.com

A few months after the accident, the municipalities of Mali Lošinj and Rab worked together to erect a memorial sculpture at the south end of Trstenik Island where Marijan Pičuljan had initially swam to shore during the storm after the boat accident. The monument consists of a concrete abstract sculpture roughly 4-5m tall that sources recount as being a representation of a seagull with a broken wing, which itself symbolizes youthful lives cut short by tragedy. Another famous sculpture in Yugoslavia which also uses an abstract depiction of a bird with a broken wing to symbolize tragedy befalling youth is the “Interrupted Flight” monument by sculptor Miodrag Živković at Kragujevac, Serbia [profile page], which commemorates school children who were executed by fascist forces during WWII. Unfortunately, I was not able to establish the identity of the author of this monument at Trstenik. The monument itself sits atop a 2m tall pedestal constructed of rough native stones, while on the front face of that pedestal is installed a large polished stone memorial plaque engraved with the names of all those who died in the boat accident. Above the list of names on the plaque is also an inscribed poetic verse by Croatian poet Vladimir Nazor, which translates roughly into English as:

“...but they did not see their targets, the sea swallowed them violently

Meanwhile, to the left of the monument is a more recently installed upright-standing stone memorial plaque that relays the basic information about the 1962 tragedy, written in both Croatian and in English. The monument overall is in good condition and annual commemorative and remembrance events continue to be held here every year.

 

8.) 1963 Skopje Earthquake

A vintage Yugoslav-era photo of the monument at Butel Cemetery dedicated to the 1963 Skopje earthquake.

Author(s): Dimitrije Mladenović & Tibor Bence

Year: 1966-1973

Location: Butel Cemetery, Skopje, North Macedonia

Coordinates: 42°02'25.4"N 21°26'12.2"E


On July 26th, 1963, a massive earthquake struck the city of Skopje in the SR of Macedonia at 5:17 in the morning. The shaking lasted for roughly 20 seconds and the shockwave of the quake affected an area of roughly 50,000 square kilometers across the Vardar River valley. In an instant, roughly 80% of the city was destroyed and 1,070 people were killed (with over 3,000 injured and 200,000 left homeless). Just one day after the earthquake, Yugoslav president Jozip Broz Tito made his now famous statement in regards to the tragedy: “Skopje was struck by an unseen catastrophe but we will rebuild it again. With the help of our entire community, it will become our pride and a symbol of fraternity and unity, of Yugoslav and of global solidarity.” Just as Tito had said, an immediate global aid response began in the quake’s aftermath, all aimed at leading the city of Skopje towards recovery and eventual reconstruction. Over the following decades, a massive effort to rebuild the city was undertaken, an effort which resulted in the construction of dozens of amazingly bold and ambitious modernist buildings across the city. More info about this reconstruction process can be read about at an article I wrote on this topic which can be found at THIS link.

A vintage view of a destructive scene from the 1963 earthquake in Skopje. Credit: LIFE Magazine

However, before the rebuilding of the city began, it was first necessary to address the solemn task of creating a memorial graveyard that would house the remains of the +1,000 people who perished in the disaster. Space within the large Butel Cemetery just north of the city center of Skopje was subsequently set aside as a space for the burial of these victims. Work on this memorial complex began in 1964 and was completed in 1965. The cemetery component of the complex, laid out over about 6,000 square meters, is composed of a unified grid of triangle-wedge shaped gravestones which are each inscribed with the names of one of the earthquake’s victims. As one looks over the arrangement of gravestones, one can see a striking similarity to the rows of relief tents set up across Skopje just after the earthquake. After the cemetery was completed in 1965, the city of Skopje commissioned a memorial sculpture to be built at the focal point of the complex. After a design competition, the selection jury chose a concept proposal put forward by a team made up of Zagreb architect Dimitrije Mladenović and Zrenjanin architect Tibor Bence. For reasons that are not clear, records indicate that it took from 1966 to 1973 (a full 7 years) for Mladenović & Bence to complete this monument (but it may have been because as they were working on this monument project, they were concurrently working on additional reconstruction efforts across Macedonia. The monument stands in the northwest corner of the cemetery and consists of a 6 meter tall sculptural composition made of raw concrete. The form of this monument is characterized by a delta shape created by two symmetrical triangular masses elevated by horizontal cylinders, with this arrangement resting within the V-shaped cradle of two sloping pedestal boxes. These two triangular bodies are connected at their center by a thin concrete line. From this tenuous connection, the sculptor inserts stylized cracking lines, which operates as the one clear symbolic gesture within the work referencing the earthquake. Furthermore, designs on the face of the two triangles also depict falling blocks, which may be understood as the city collapsing during the disaster. As for the cylinders on which the triangles sit, these may operate as symbols for the precarious foundation the city of Skopje itself rested upon right before the earthquake struck. In speaking of the symbolism of this work, Mladenović made the following remarks in his 2016 monograph (translated here into English):

In the subconscious of the observer, it is possible to create a convincing associative connection to the [earthquake] phenomenon and, thus, with the Skopje cataclysm, through the concrete character of the form. The impression of a labile balance and movement that tries to stop before destruction is shown by two strong masses that “slide” over the shapes in an effort to destroy everything in front of them. With its dimensions, the monument dominates the space and is best viewed and experienced from the access pathway of stairs.
A recent photo of the monument dedicated to the victims of the 1963 Skopje earthquake at Butel Cemetery.

Today, the memorial complex here at Butel is in a very good condition and is widely commemorated and honored, most particularly during the anniversary of the earthquake on July 26th of every year, for which significant ceremonies are held. Finally, it must be noted that numerous online sources across the web have wrongly attributed this monument to an unknown character referred to as “Georgi Gruin” (such as THIS and THIS notable source), who, by all accounts and investigation, does not and has never existed as a person. My theory on the creation of this fake person is that it is some accidental mish-mashed amalgamation, more than likely, where the first name of famous Skopje architect Georgi Konstantinovski (who was instrumental to the city’s post-earthquake reconstruction) was mixed up with the last name of Konstantinovski’s well-known Austrian-American architect teacher Victor Gruen. As far as how this name came to be wrongly associated with this monument to the victims of the Skopje's 1963 earthquake, that is anyone's guess.

 

Special Thanks

I just wanted to give a special thanks to Stevan Tonevski in Kumanovo who was especially helpful in getting me photo documentation of the monument to fallen dam workers at Mavrovo.

 

More similar examples?....

If anyone reading this article is aware of additional monuments across the former Yugoslav-era that are of a similar style and commemorative purposes, please reach out to me and I may be able to include in in this article during future updates!