Bloodcurdling messages discovered in catacombs of the Pancevo museum: "Dad won't be coming back"
As soon as you step inside the basement of the museum that used to be a prison, you get the sense that you've stepped into the past. But the most terrible kind of past
"My name was Johan Fiser. I lived in Pancevo. I had a wife and two children. I had just turned 42 years old. I went out to buy bread and milk when the Germans arrested me for being Jewish. I was taken to the Gestapo prison, where I was brutally tortured for days. 20 of us slept on the floor of a narrow, mouldy room. Tomorrow I'm be taken to the gallows. Take the bread and the milk to my family, if they're still alive. Dad won't be coming back."
If he had a piece of paper, Johan Fiser would probably have left a letter like this. Still, he only had a broken graphite pen, which one of the prisoners in his cell had hidden in his jacket. He wrote his name on a mouldy wall, as a trace that he had been detained in one of Gestapo's most horrific detention facilities during the Second World War. His signature is still visible today, along with hundreds of others.
These walls, which represent a diary of the suffering of Pancevo citizens at the hands of the Nazis, are located in the catacombs of the city's National Museum and are a reminder of the horrific crimes that have taken place here. As soon as you step into the basement of the museum where the prison used to be, you have a feeling that you've stepped into the past. The door of the cells, that still exude terror, is opened to us by the museum's senior curator, historian Srdjan Bozovic.
"This had been a prison, that is, a detention unit of the City Magistrate of Pancevo ever since the first half of the 19th century. At that time, it was mainly used to bring in homeless people, drunks, petty criminals. As the city grew larger, so the situation changed. More 'serious' prisoners also came in. There were also some of the first political prisoners. Later, during the war, it was used for certain military purposes, that is, some citizen of Pancevo were arrested based on their ethnicity."
"During the Second World War, Jews, Communists, that is, Skojevci (members of the Communist Party Youth), members of the Resistance Movement were brought here. Some of them were brutally tortured in these rooms before being taken to the gallows. Signatures on the walls are the marks that detainees wanted to leave behind before their final day. Although most of the signatures have been preserved, many have unfortunately been wiped out or damaged in the years following the Second World War by those breaking into the premises of the former prison," Bozovic says.
According to him, but also judging by the ambience itself, the appearance of the prison remained as authentic as it was then, almost 80 years ago. It's the same kind of cold, that creeps into your bones after just a few minutes spent in these basement. The prison has four cells. Each is not much larger than three coffins lined up together. In each of the cells, in conditions unworthy of a human, from 20 to 50 prisoners were spending their last days.
"People were not brought here to die, but to extract information from, or simply to keep them somewhere until the execution. Certainly, the conditions were so bad that it would have been hard for anyone to survive for longer than ten days. The prisoners were sleeping on the straw that was strewn across on the floor, there were no beds. They relieved themselves in the corners of the cells, and very rarely had access to food. They were tortured every day in the most brutal ways you can imagine, and the prison was made so that no one on the outside could hear their screams. It is suspected that the famous teacher Mara Mandic, who was so cruelly abused that on the day of her execution her own father didn't recognize her, was also held in this prison," Bozovic says.
Almost all prisoners in the infamous Gestapo prison experienced a similar fate. Few citizens of Pancevo were released, with orders to report back regularly. Communists and known members of the Resistance Movement were sent to other camps. Jews were sent to detention camps in Belgrade, where most were killed.
Members of the Jewish Community of Pancevo are frequent visitors to the catacombs. They come here to pay respects to their ancestors.
"During the Second World War, between 92 to 98 percent of Jews of Pancevo were killed. This prison is one of the largest monuments to the crime suffered by the innocent citizens, simply because of their nationality. There is also a former collection camp, the old silk factory building, as well as the Stratiste in Jabuka. We have lists of Jewish community members and we have lists of people who returned after the Holocaust. But the Germans were killing down to the fourth generation. And a huge number of those who thought they would hide under a different last name or with forged documents, if caught, would also be shot. Every time I enter the premises of this prison, I feel the same terror," David Montijas, the president of the Jewish Municipality of Pancevo, says while visiting the mouldy cells.
He stops at one of the walls, puts his hand on a graffiti, and, surprised, turns to his associate Mirjana Kon Panic:
"Miro, look! Could it be the same man?"
Not too long ago, David and Mirjana read a long list of names of Jews from Pancevo who were executed by Germans. Among them was a first and a last name that caught their eye - Fiser Jovan (Johan in Hebrew).
The video at the top of the page will take you to the cells of the infamous Gestapo prison, where you can see what one of the scariest solitary confinement cells of the Second World War looks like.