Socialist-era monuments: exploring Belgrade’s stunning Spomeniks

Ever since the Dutch photographer Jan Kempenaers published his Spomenik photo series in 2010, the Yugoslav socialist-era monuments have been attracting global attention due to their abstract, almost otherworldly designs. As the former capital of Yugoslavia and a city heavily affected by the war, Belgrade has a fair share of impressive Spomeniks, which tell stories of the city’s losses and resilience during one of its darkest periods. Most of them, apart from Kosmaj and Jajinci, are located within easy reach from the city centre, and are a treat to architecture, art and history buffs alike. 

Although the initial interest in these memorials was mostly aesthetic, initiatives such as Spomenik Database and the 2018–19 exhibition of Yugoslav socialist-era architecture at New York’s MoMA, provided further historical and sociological depth to these intriguing works of art which commemorate Yugoslavia’s struggles during WWII.

Memorial to the Serbian Jews who perished in the Holocaust at Belgrade's Sephardi cemetery © Srdjan Garcevic / Lonely Planet

Memorial to the Serbian Jews

Between 1941 and 1944, during the WWII Nazi occupation, around 90% of Serbia’s (mostly Sephardi) Jewish population perished in the Holocaust. Their collective suffering is memorialised by a monument inside Belgrade’s leafy Sephardi cemetery. The monument, designed to resemble the Tables of the Law brought by Moses, ingeniously combines stern, grey stone with the remains of old masonry, alluding to the Jewish community’s long history in Serbia. Built in 1952, this was also the first memorial designed by Bogdan Bogdanović, who went on to become one of the most renowned architects of socialist Yugoslavia and even served as the mayor of Belgrade between 1982 and 1986.

Although rarely visited, the cemetery is easily reachable from central Belgrade by public transport (tram 12 and bus lines 27 and 65) and is open every day except Monday.

Alley of the Fallen Patriots

Across the road from the Sephardic cemetery, in the heart of the historic New Cemetery, is an evocative memorial to Belgraders who were shot or hung by the occupying forces during WWII. Designed by Bogdanović and Svetislav Ličina as a garden bordered by austere concrete walls, this monument contains four Doric pillars, one for each year of Belgrade’s occupation, as well as a miniature of Belgrade’s Terazije Sq with gallows, in honour of those who were publicly hung there. There is another monument at Terazije marking the spot where the executions happened.

Also worth visiting is Ličina’s brutalist Alley of Meritorious Citizens, just next to this memorial, where many of the greatest Serbian and Yugoslav artists and political figures of the 20th century are buried, including the Nobel-prize-winning author Ivo Andrić.

Introducing Eastern Europe

Flaming Menorah of Jalija

From the 16th century up until 1941, Jalija, a neighbourhood stretching between Dušanova, Dubrovačka and the Danube, was the centre of Jewish life in Belgrade. With most of its residents having perished in the Holocaust, the neighbourhood was completely transformed after WWII and retains little of its Jewish character. However, Nandor Glid’s sombre monument on the banks of the Danube, close to the Milan Gale Muškatirović sports complex, commemorates the suffering of Jalija’s residents during the war and preserves the memory of the neighbourhood’s past.

Shaped as a menorah engulfed in flames, it evocatively captures the horrors of the Holocaust, which were personally experienced by Glid – many in his family were killed in Auschwitz. After joining Tito’s Partisans (a communist-led resistance group) during the war, Glid went on to become one of Yugoslavia’s most renowned sculptors whose emotive works grace memorials at Dachau and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps, as well as Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem.

Jajinci Memorial Park

Located some 11km from central Belgrade, Jajinci served as the site for mass executions throughout WWII. It is estimated that between 65,000 and 80,000 civilians and opponents of the Nazi regime were shot there, many of them tethered to wooden stakes which can still be seen at the site. Despite its very grim history, the idea behind the main monument in the park is one of hope: between mass graves, a stylised stainless steel dove of peace rises from a tall concrete pillar. This poetic, shimmering centrepiece, designed by Vojin Stojić and erected in 1988, contrasts with the initial, more sombre socialist-realist monument built in 1951.

The memorial park can be reached by the 401 bus, which departs from the Birčaninova stop by Bulevar Oslobođenja, close to Slavija Sq.   

The gravity defying, star-shaped memorial at Kosmaj © Srdjan Garcevic / Lonely Planet

Kosmaj Memorial Complex

With five fins forming a star seemingly suspended in mid-air, the stunning Kosmahj Memorial rises from the slopes of Kosmaj mountain and was built to commemorate the creation of Kosmaj’s first anti-fascist resistance regiment in July 1941. Designed by Vojin Stojić and Gradimir Medaković and unveiled in 1971, it is one of the most famous Spomeniks due to its gravity-defying, dramatic design.

Kosmaj is some 50km away from central Belgrade and has a tricky public transport connection, so the monument is best reached by car. To make the most out of the day trip, you can also visit Jajinci memorial along the way.

Memorial to the victims of Staro Sajmiste © Srdjan Garcevic / Lonely Planet

Staro Sajmište

Staro Sajmište was a notorious concentration camp on the New Belgrade side of the Sava River. Technically on territory which was ceded to the Nazi-supported Independent State of Croatia, the camp was run by the Gestapo as Judenlager Semlin, and claimed the lives of over 40,000 of the 80,000 prisoners between 1941 and 1944, most of whom were Jews, Roma and Serbs. Although the site of Staro Sajmište is yet to be developed into a full memorial complex, an imposing monument was built on the banks of the Sava in 1995 – making it the last of the Spomeniks – and commemorates the victims of the camp. It was designed by Miša Popović, and symbolises two praying hands flying up in the air.

The best way to reach the monument is by taking public transport to the New Belgrade side of Brankov most, and walking to the monument.

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