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Zaječar (Зајечар)

Brief Details:

Name: 'The Gallows (Vešala/Вешала)' or 'Monument to the Fallen in the Liberation War and the Victims of Fascist Terror'

Location: Kraljevica Hill in Zaječar, Serbia

Year completed: 1971

Designer: Vladimir Veličković (Владимир Величковић)

Coordinates: N43°53'21.2", E22°15'53.6" (click for map)

Dimensions: Three trilith-like monuments, ~9m tall

Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar

Condition: Fair, neglected

(ZAH-yeh-char)

History:

The spomenik complex here at Zaječar, Serbia commemorates the local fallen fighters and victims of the National Liberation War (WWII), along with the Yugoslav Communist Party members who were hung to death here on Kraljevica Hill in September of 1941.

World War II

After the invasion and collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by Axis German fores in April of 1941, Zaječar, along with the rest of the country, soon found itself gripped by brutal and oppressive occupational forces. Seen by the Germans as a strategic location, it was highly fortified, while the normal citizens living there were severely punished, even killed, if they showed any signs of resistance or or dissent. As a result of this brutal occupation, groups of resistance fighters (mostly Partisans & Chetniks rebels) began to amass across Serbia, which catalyzed on July 7th, 1941, in Bela Crkva, Serbia, when Partisans shot multiple German collaborators. The German commanding general in this region of Serbia, Wehrmacht commander Franz Böhme, was furious at these rebel attacks against German forces and partneres. In a retaliatory move, Böhme issued a sweeping order to his officers across Serbia that for every one wounded German soldier, 50 civilians should be executed, while for every one dead German soldier, 100 civilians should be executed. Furthermore, Böhme's order stated that any civilians Jews, Communists or suspected rebels should be rounded up as 'hostages' and then be executed (Photo 1) if any further German soldiers were killed or even attacked.

Photo 1: A hanging in Zaječar on Kraljevica Hill, 1941

Photo 2: Milenko Brković Crni

As a result of this order, any and all rebellious actions or plots by locals in the region were violently squashed. One of the most prominent victims of this crackdown was Milenko Brković Crni (Миленко Брковић Црни) (Photo 2), who, after recently being appointed as a Communist Party of Yugoslavia Secretary a few months earlier, was captured and arrested on September 12th, 1941, by Axis forces while on a train in the village of Zlota, near Zaječar. Crni had been on his way from Kutina to Zaječar in order to help organize uprising efforts there. After being tortured for six days while in captivity, he and several other prominent local Communist Party leaders were taken, on September 18th, to the top of Kraljevica Hill, just on the south outskirts of town, and were hanged from gallows (vešala/вешала) until dead. Meanwhile, as Partisan attacks in the region of Zaječar continued, hundreds of civilians were arrested by German forces as 'hostages' in retaliation against these Partisan actions and were subsequently executed at Kraljevica Hill. Over the course of the entire war, the death toll at the hill climbed into the thousands.

On August 23rd of 1944, King Michael I of Romania instigated a coup against the country's Nazi-aligned government ran by Ion Antonescu. As a result of this move, there was a rush by both Axis and Allied forces to secure northeastern Serbia (as it could decide control of the Danube River), which made the control of nearby Zaječar of pivotal importance. However, the Partisans of the 23rd Serbian Partisan Division (Photo 3), being better positioned in the region, were able to liberate Zaječar from the control of 5,000 German soldiers (along with many of the now Axis-aligned Chetnik) on September 7th, 1944 after a grueling day lone battle. However, despite the liberation of the city by the Partisan forces at this time, killings are said to have continued on Kraljevica Hill, as it is reported that the retaliatory killings of many Axis soldiers and their suspected collaborators were conducted here in the months after the war by the town's new Communist Party leadership.

Photo 3: The 23rd Serbian Partisan Division in Serbia, 1944

Spomenik Construction

In 1966, a design competition was held in Zaječar for the creation of the town's first monument dedicated solely to the Yugoslav revolution and its fallen victims and heroes. The winning design of the competition was to be judged by members of the town's municipal Assembly. The selected proposal which won the competition was a submission put forward by Serbian architect Vladimir Veličković. Interestingly, reports indicate that before the decision was finalized, the Assembly took their selected proposal and opened up the choice to a public town discussion and evaluation to ensure that it was going to be a work the townspeople would be happy with, especially since the monument was to be such a culturally significant landmark. A model of Veličković's proposal can be seen in Photo 4. The public subsequently approved of the composition of Veličković's proposed design and construction for it began soon thereafter. An fascinating side note about the creation of this monument is that Veličković consulted and coordinated with famed Belgrade architect Bogdan Bogdanović on its its preliminary design phase. Yet curiously, the style nor appearance of the work contains no overt hints or characteristics that indicate Bogdanović might have been involved with it. Meanwhile, the site chosen for the construction of the monument was Kraljevica Hill, where fascist forces hanged and executed many people during the war, most notably Milenko Brković Crni.

The monument was unveiled to the public on July 7th, 1941, a date which commemorated 30 years since the first Serbian uprisings against German occupation. The primary element of the the memorial park is three trilith-like concrete squared arches, with each set at a successively steeper angle. The monument was given the name "Vešala" or "The Gallows", and is meant to be symbolically understood as the gallows of death falling to the ground in defeat after the town's liberation. Underneath the monument is a crypt within which are interred the remains of members of the 23rd Partisan Division of the 14th Partisan Corps who perished in the struggle to liberate the city in the autumn of 1944. During the Yugoslav-era, the memorial area was a very popular location where large gatherings and memorial events were often held (Photo 5).

Photo 4: A model of the 'Gallows' monument created by Veličković

Photo 5: A ceremony being held at the monument in early 1970s

Photo 6: A view of the Outhide Festival at the Gallow monument in Zaječar

Present-Day

As stated above, for many years during the Yugolsav-era, this spomenik complex was a popular attraction and valued community asset. However, after the wars of the 1990s and the dismantling of Yugoslavia, this monument fell into a state of severe disrepair and neglect. Not only have a majority of the memorial's elements been damaged, but most have also been covered in graffiti and even destroyed in some cases as well. Yet, despite this damage, annual commemorative events are still held here by the local government and veterans groups. Meanwhile, in addition to such memorial ceremonies, many in the younger generation of Zaječar are beginning to use this space to host musical events and concerts (Photo 6). Similar instances of Yugoslav spomenik sites being utilized as general purpose community spaces for the hosting of non-commemorative events (often musical events) is a phenomenon occurring across the former Yugoslav region, such as at Seagull monument at Podgora, Croatia or Monument to Fallen Fighters at Barutana, Montenegro.

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

There are a number of inscribed elements at the memorial complex here at Zaječar. Firstly, as you walk up from the parking area along paved trail towards the monument you will see two stone markers which have attached engraved polished granite panels. One of them can be seen in Slides 1 & 2, which bears a verse from the Serbian poet Đorđe Radišić. It reads as, roughly translated from Serbian to English:

"Children of the future, in ages yet to come, tell whomever it may concern: we're standing guard on Kraljevica in an endless shift ready to shoot. Tell them: We fought so you could live, we were men and we were stone. We still are, as long as you live, the roots of freedom and her symbol."

Slideshow

That translation was courtesy of Reddit user theystolemyusername. Meanwhile, the second engraved granite panel, located at the start of the trail to the monument by the parking lot, can be seen in Slide 3. The engraved inscription on this panel reads, when translated from Serbian to English, as:

"Monument to the Fallen National Liberation Fighters and Victims of Fascist Terror"

1941-1945

Graffiti covers most of the elements of this spomenik complex at Zaječar, as can be seen in all the the above slides. It does not appear as though the municipality is doing much to clean or remove it.

Symbolism:

The name of the sculpture series here at Zaječar is 'The Gallows' (Vešala/Вешала), so there is not much question that its form relates to the hanging executions which occurred here at Kraljevica Hill during WWII. Each of the sculptures can be understood to represent a set of gallows (which were often similarly shaped) (Photo 5). The progressively angled orientation of these sculptures could be representative of these oppressive instruments of death falling to the ground and being destroyed, itself a reference to the subsequent defeat of the Germany Army and liberation of the city of Zaječar in 1944 by Partisan and Red Army forces at the end of the war. Another interpretation of the sculptures is that they could be understood as a stylized dramatic representation of the stool of the hanging execution victim falling out from underneath them. When evaluating the sculpture from the perspective of it being a stool, the grisly fate of the victims is directly referenced, however without having to employ any macabre or visceral imagery. Meanwhile, academic sources point out that the strange gravity defying angles of these sculptures could be an attempt by the artist to create an atmosphere of "misbalance, anxiety and fear" within the viewer, a "geometry of fear" as historian Sanja Horvatinčić calls it, which perhaps may be an attempt to imbue those witnessing this monument the very same feelings of dread felt within those hanged at this location.

Photo 5: A set of gallows for hanging executions

Status and Condition:

In general, the overall condition of the central elements of this spomenik complex at Zaječar is fair, however, many aspects of it are severely degraded and neglected. Firstly, while it seems that some form of regular maintenance is done to the grounds and landscaping around the monument, it is evident that efforts towards this end are extremely minimal, a fact which leaves the complex looking almost abandoned and forgotten.

Photo 6: A 2016 event being held at the memorial complex

Meanwhile, the structure of the three central squared-arch sculptures seem reasonably solid and intact, however, the courtyard the sculptures are situated in is significantly damaged, having clearly been subject to extreme freeze/thaw heaving and a lack of maintenance and repair over the years. Furthermore, all of the lighting and wiring that once existed around the complex has been stolen and removed, apparently for quite some time now from the look of it. As far as directional or promotional signage around or leading up to the site, it exists in the form of a labeled map at the entrance to the park pointing to the location of the spomenik complex, however, outside that, it is non-existent. Meanwhile, at the memorial complex itself, there exists no sort of multi-lingual interpretive or informational signs or placards informing visitors of the site's cultural or historical significance. A few brief (and damaged) plaques do exist here, but they are limited in information and are written only in Serbian. Finally, it also appears that the official website of the city of Zaječar makes little to no mention is made of the Kraljevica Hill memorial in any appreciable form.

While there are regular visitors to the park in the form of local people engaging in recreation and sport (as the memorial is situated in the center of a functioning city park), it did not seem as though many people were patronizing the site in any sort of honorific form. Upon my most recent visit to the spomenik, I found no signs of commemorative flowers, candles or wreaths left at the site which might indicate it is being actively honored as a memorial site. Yet, I did find information that official commemorative events are still held here annually during July 7th Uprising Day ceremonies, as well as on September 7th (Zaječar Liberation Day) (Photo 6). But despite this official recognition, there are no signs or indications that the local government or veterans groups have any plans to repair or rehabilitate the site, or even to remove the significant amount of graffiti and vandalism that plagues the vast majority of the memorial's sculptural elements. In recent years, the monument complex was used as a backdrop for a musical event called the Outhide Festival (Photo 7), which is a youth oriented concert featuring bands playing 80s-throwback electro-pop and rock music.

Photo 7: Logo for the 2017 Outhide musical festival

Additional Sites in the Zaječar Area:

This section explores additional Yugoslav-era historical, cultural and memorial sites in and around the greater Zaječar area that could be of interest to those studying the monuments of the former Yugoslavia. Here we will examine the two Zaječar sites of the Monument to the Timok Rebellion and the Memorial Ossuary to Fallen Fighters.

Monument to the Timok Rebellion:

Roughly 1km northeast of the Vešala monument at Kraljevica Park in Zaječar is a Monument to the Timok Rebellion (Timočka buna) of 1883 (Slides 1 - 3). This rebellion, which began in the village just to the east of Zaječar called Lukovo, was started by the People's Radical Party, who were angry over their being over taxed and burdened by the bureaucrats of King Milan Obrenović. The rebellion lasted 10 days before it was put down by the Royal Serbian Army. One of the prominent figures from the uprising was a local Zaječar politician named Ljuba Didić (Љуба Дидић), who was captured at the end of the Timok Rebellion and subsequently executed by firing squad at Kraljevica Park. On November 3rd, 1940, exactly 57 years after the start of the rebellion, a monument was built at the site of Didić's execution. The memorial's central element is a ~4m tall bronze sculpture which depicts Ljuba Didić tearing his shirt open, preparing himself for his execution in a dramatic fashion.

Monument to the Timok Rebellion - Slideshow

The sculpture was created by famous Croatian artist Antun Augustinčić, who, during the Yugoslav era, was the author of some of the country's most significant WWII monuments. The sculpture that Augustinčić created here at Kraljevica Park survived the conflicts of WWII and became a very treasured symbol for the town of Zaječar during the Yugoslav era, most likely as it's story was easily integrated into the narrative of the socialist revolution. However, after the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the cultural significance of the monument was marginalized by some, which led to the monument site being struck with a great deal of vandalism and defacement (as seen in the first few images in the slideshow from the early 2010s. However, current evidence indicates that the town of Zaječar has made efforts to rejuvenate and rehabilitate the site (Slide 4). Historical images of this monument can be seen in Slides 5 & 6. The exact coordinates for the Timok Rebellion Monument are N43°53'40.7". E22°16'43.2".

Memorial Ossuary to Fallen Fighters:

Roughly 2km northeast of the Vešala monument at the entrance to the Zaječar city cemetery is the Memorial Ossuary (Crypt) to the Fallen Fighters of the People's Liberation War. Within the crypt are contained the remains of over 1,300 from the Partisan Army, as well as the Red Army, who fell during the liberation of Zaječar on October 8th, 1944. Created in 1951 by architect Radisav Živković, the complex consists of a small Greek temple-like memorial pavilion with four marble pillars holding up a marble roof. In the sanctuary within the memorial is an engraved tomb, while at the east entrance to the pavilion is tall white stone inscribed with a dedication to soldiers and officers of the Red Army who aided in the 1944 fight for Zaječar. The memorial currently remains in very good condition, while annual commemorative events continue to be held here (generally on Zaječar Liberation Day, Oct. 8th, and Victory Over Fascism Day, May 9th). Its exact location is N43°53'54.2", E22°17'16.1".

Memorial Ossuary to Fallen Fighters - Slideshow

And Additional Sites of Interest:

  • Wall Sculpture on the Committee Building: Near the city center of Zaječar is place called the 'Committee Building' (Zgrada komiteta), which originally acted as the former local party headquarters for the League of Communists during the Yugoslav-era. High on the upper wall of the west side of the building is a bronze sculptural relief work (roughly 7m tall) portraying three abstract figures side-by-side in an exuberant stance with their arms raised to the sky in perhaps victory or happiness (Photo 8). The figures appear to be holding farm tools and harvested food, so the work is more than likely some nature of tribute to local workers and farmers. In the center background, a bright sun rises optimistically over the workers while one woman releases a dove into the sky, all no doubt symbolizing progress or something to the effect of the "glory of the proletariat laborer". However, I am yet to find any definitive records about this work, even any indication of who created it or when. Locals in the community tell me the work goes largely unnoticed and overlooked in contemporary Zaječar. Yet, despite not getting much attention, it seems to remain in good condition. Interestingly, this building still operates as political offices for various local parties. The exact coordinates for this site are N43°54'14.5", E22°16'42.4".

Photo 8: A recent image of the sculpture on the Committee Building

  • Monument to WWI & Balkan Wars: In the city center of Zaječar, adjacent to Freedom Square, is a monument dedicated to the local soldiers who fought and perished during WWII & the Balkan Wars. It was created in 1929 by Dalmatian sculptor Frano Meneghello Dinčić. The piece consists of three bronze sculptures of charging fighters situated on a tall pedestal. It was removed for several years after WWII, but it was soon returned and continues to this day to act as a symbol for Zaječar. A photo of the monument can be seen at this Wikipedia link. Its coordinates are N43°54'10.1", E22°16'43.2".

  • Roman Ruins of Felix Romuliana: Situated roughly 11km west of Zaječar are the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Felix Romuliana, near the village of Gamzigrad. Founded around 300AD, the ruins of this site were not properly explored or researched until the Yugoslav era, and the name of the ancient town were not established until 1984. These vast ruins were officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. You can find the official Serbian Tourism website for the Felix Romuliana HERE, while the exact coordinates for the site are N43°53'57.3", E22°11'04.2".

  • National Museum of Zaječar: located right in front of Freedom Square in the city center of Zaječar is the city's National Museum. Founded in 1951 and housed in an ornate yellow Greek-revival building, the museum contains thousands of artifacts telling the history of the region. The official website for the museum can be found HERE, while the exact coordinates for the museum are N43°54'12.5", E22°16'43.1".

Directions:

Finding the Vešala memorial site in Zaječar is a relatively easy endeavor. Firstly from the city center of Zaječar, head south until you intersect with 7th of September Street (7. септембар). Turn left, then, head west until you approach the entrance for Memorial Park "Kraljevica Forest" ("Шума Краљевица"). The entrance can be seen HERE on Google StreetView, and has a metal entrance arch over top of it which says "DOBRODOŠLU" in big letters, which means "welcome'. Follow this road south up into the forest hills for about 1km until the road ends at a parking area. Park here and then follow the trail in the west corner of the parking area  up the hill and after about 100m, it will take you to the spomenik complex. The exact coordinates for the parking area N43°53'18.1", E22°16'01.1" (see HERE for Google StreetView).

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Comments:

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