EuroGlass: The Tragic History of a Happy City
1. Nis was violently hot. The moment I stepped off the bus from Uzice, I felt like I was entering an incinerator. It didn’t help that I had only a day to explore Nis (pronounced Neesh), which meant that I’d be spending a lot of time on foot and soaking through at least one t-shirt. I arrived at the Aurora Hostel to get organized and, after a helpful chat with the owner, I set out with a map and a 1.5 liter of water.
The first thing I did was visit the town square for a bite to eat. I’d heard that Nis had some of the best food in Serbia, and it proved true. Like everywhere in Serbia, the primary food groups in Nis were meat, bread, meat, cheese, meat and meat, and I devoured a sudsuk sandwich (a dry sausage derived from Turkish cuisine) in the main square while looking up at the sculpture of King Milan on horseback. Around the monument is a frieze of soldiers shooting and stabbing each other from various World Wars and wars of independence, though it’s hard to know who is Serbian and who is the enemy. It made quite a contrast: the violence of the statue with the liveliness of a sunny Tuesday in Nis. Compared to Belgrade, Nis had a light and colorful touch: a man with a rolled up t-shirt showing off his tattoos rode past me on his bike; groups of girls cut diagonals across the square, twittering like the happy summer teenagers they were.
Then I went to the concentration camp. It was located on the north side by the bus station. I walked all the twenty minutes there, past shabby auto shops and groups of young men standing around and watching the passersby. In front of the concentration camp stood a bronze memorial sculpture for the Red Army soldiers who liberated Nis, which includes an engraving of a machine gun, a helmet and a five-pointed star. Then came the walls, the flat gray menacing walls, broken only by a few openings that looked like air holes but were probably used for guns. You know concentration camp walls when you see them. For an instant I wondered if the gray, blocky, menacing structure outside the walls was also part of the camp, but it had a basketball court out front and graffiti on its walls. A prison?
Inside the walls, the sun unleashed itself, with no shadows to mitigate its fire except for a sliver under the barracks, a triangle by the Wache office and a few patches by the officers’ quarters. A large woman with a beaded necklace came out of the Wache office and apologized but said she’d just set the alarm in the museum, which was in the barracks. She pointed out all the landmarks and told me that the Nazis used the camp to kill Jews, Roma and Serbs (between 300,000 and 500,000 Serbs were murdered by Croatian and German fascists during World War II). It was also the site of the first major camp escape in all of Europe. I asked her about the building that I’d originally thought might be part of the camp and she said it was a school, built during the communist era. “What do the kids think of being so close to a concentration camp?” I asked. “It was a long time ago,” she replied, and in the same breath recommended that I check out the Skull Tower, which stayed open until seven o’clock.
So I went to the Skull Tower. The Ottomans built it with the heads of 952 Serbian soldiers to instill fear into the local population. Rather than knock it down after winning independence, the Serbs reclaimed it as symbol of national courage. A chapel now surrounds it. The 54 skulls that remain smile cartoonishly out of stone cubbyholes, some with still a few molars. The tour guide explained that the heads looked small because most of the soldiers were teenagers. In the guest book, a man from San Francisco wrote in Spring 2015, “Very touched by the bravery and sacrifices of Serbs to protect their lands. This tower was a gruelling (sic) reminder of what a war can do to people and how it brings out the darkest sides. Hope these kinds of events never happen again.”
The tower was constructed in 1809. Never again? Oh, let’s hope!
2. In 1939, over 16,000 Jews lived in Serbia. Now there are about 500. The old Sephardic synagogue of Nis is now a city cultural center. But did the Jewish Cemetery still stand? Though it was indicated on English signs around the city, several locals warned me against visiting it. Or they didn’t so much warn me as suggest that it might be a challenge. The site of the old Jewish cemetery was now occupied by a Roma settlement, and in order to get to what remained of the cemetery, since some of the tombs were literally inside the Roma houses, you had to pinch your way through tiny, packed alleyways. The owner told me that the last few backpackers who’d tried were denied. “Are they likely to hurt me?” I asked. “No,” he said, “maybe just yell at you in a language you don’t understand.” He showed me the pathways on both my city map and on google maps, and I resolved to find it before nightfall.
It was shocking how fast the city changed after I crossed the train tracks into the Roma quarter. In a way, it reminded me of crossing 96th Street in New York and transitioning from luxury to working class. One of the first things I saw was a man on a wooden cart pulled by a horse. There were broken windows and ripped up façades, shirtless kids in clumps, and a dumpster filled with black woman’s shoes, some inside, some splayed on the asphalt. Yet several people talked on cell phones, and every so often a sedan would splash through the streets that, despite the sun, still had patches of mud and puddles. I walked with my Cubs hat in my hand and my map in my pocket, trying not to look down the gap-toothed alleyways hung with laundry, old men staring from concrete slabs (tombstones?). But in my turquoise t-shirt and navy blue shorts, a Jewish tourist from New York trying to find a cemetery in what was now someone’s neighborhood, I felt ridiculous.
I walked the length of the street until I reached a corner store and a dead-end, then retraced my steps to the train tracks, imagining potential excuses for my failure (“It didn’t look safe,” etc…). Then remembering my goal, I turned and re-retraced my steps, determined at least to attempt cutting through the alleyways to the Jewish Cemetery.
Now, walking past the same clumps of kids and the same old men, I must have looked not only foreign but suspicious. A young girl in a pink dress with sores on her leg slowed her bike to my walking pace and stared at me; I looked away, and when I glanced back she was still staring at me, staring who knows why, riding at my pace and staring. At a muddy patch, a short man in a plaid shirt waved to me, but when I waved back and approached him with the map, he flinched away like a child. Then with a child-like smile he waved to the next passerby, his hand to his heart. He wasn’t all there. I continued on with my map out, and soon a huge old woman on a chair called to me. She was clearly the queen of her house. She asked me a question in Serbian (or their Serbian-Romani dialect) and I answered in English that I didn’t speak Serbian but did she know where to find the cemetery. She said, “Sprechen sie deutsche?” Cemetery, graveyard, bones, dead, deadsleep, mortality, I tried, hoping for a cognate. What was the German word for death? I showed her the map and she poured over it, and soon she was firing questions at me in Serbian-Romani, and others in her house including an attractive young woman with a black ponytail who I assumed was her daughter started looking at the map, confused but trying to help and also firing questions at me in Serbian-Romani. I took out my phone and showed them a picture of a cemetery and then indicated the map of Nis. They poured over my map and the old woman fired questions at me in German. We weren’t getting anywhere. I thanked them and went onward into the twilight, everything a little hazier, a little more knotted.
More frustration. I finally worked up the courage to cut through an alleyway, but it was the wrong one, and I ended up at a normal-looking street with shops and businesses. I re-re-retraced my steps. At the dead-end corner store I bought a bag of pretzels to use as a negotiation tool, while the store clerk poured over my map, confused but trying to help, and pointed me in the general direction of the alleyways. No one knew where to find the cemetery or they weren’t saying. But a change had come over me: I was no longer nervous about standing out, just obsessed with finding the Jewish Cemetery. I didn’t really care about seeing it. But I had to find it. So I hurried down an alleyway terminating at a ramshackle house where three men sat with beers; they were on some stone steps, near what looked like a wall. I said the word “cemetery” in English and a bald man shook his finger and said, “Not here.” There was no arguing. I retreated to the main street, ready to admit defeat. I opened the bag of pretzels and put one in my mouth, spat it out. The expiration date was August 2014.
Then a strange thing happened. On my way back to the train tracks, the old woman and her family stopped me and wanted to know if I’d found what I was looking for. Now there was a bigger group that included the young woman with the black ponytail and a shirtless man with a crazy tattoo. The tattoo depicted a mermaid praying in front of a demonic face of fire. But this man, too, seemed to want to help. In fact, more and more townspeople gathered around us, looking at the picture of the cemetery on my phone (which I held tightly in my palm) and arguing with each other. A toddler waddled up to me; perhaps he thought he was supposed to beg for money because the young woman laughed and pulled him away; the toddler started crying and the young woman boxed his ears. Was it her son? Soon the shirtless man with the demon tattoo called over a young guy in faded jeans and a backwards cap—was this his son?—and dispatched him on a mission. The young guy didn’t seem happy, but he motioned for me to follow him. And I followed.
Where was he taking me? In contrast to what the local Serbs claimed, the Romani seemed so helpful, but then again, “they seemed so helpful” is what most tourists say after they get robbed. I remembered all the worst stereotypes about Romani and criticized myself for remembering those stereotypes. It was too dark to see faces.
Before long, the young guy, who walked fast and looked straight ahead, led me to the same normal-looking street that I’d come to earlier in the evening, but now he approached a man outside the Chinese department store—could it get any stranger?—who pointed us to the back lot of Princ Restaurant. It was, I noticed with a jolt of optimism, close to an official sign for the Jewish Cemetery. In the lot, a man told us conclusively that we couldn’t enter. He kept repeating two words for me: “sutra” and “deche,” which I understood to be “tomorrow” and “ten.” Tomorrow at ten. I’d done it. I was going to see the Jewish Cemetery of Nis, all thanks to a friendly group of Romani. I bought the young guy a Coca Cola and we waved goodbye at the train tracks.
4. As I walked back to the hostel, I developed a counter-narrative about the Romani settlement and the Jewish Cemetery, in which far from obstructing the path to the cemetery, they actually wanted to help out. Perhaps it was the city that prevented access, not them at all.
If only it was that simple. Online, I read about the multi-year struggle of Nis’ small Jewish community to preserve the cemetery. The first article, from 2003, showed the cemetery filled with garbage from the Romani settlement, an 18th century tomb with three round pieces of horse dung where there might have been stone gravemarkers. In one case, the deceased’s bones were uprooted and scattered around the grave. Articles from more recent years tracked the communities struggle with the Romani and with private businesses that had encroached on the cemetery from the other direction. The articles mentioned a Chinese department store and Princ Restaurant, as well as a company next door called EuroGlass, all three of which had built illegal walls, blocked access to the Jewish community, and now operated on parts of the old burial ground.
That night I made a friend at the hostel and strolled around the pedestrian street, consuming a delicious slice of ham pizza without any guilt. Everyone was young, everyone was eating popcorn and drinking and talking and meeting up and kissing and walking and laughing, and I was exhaustedly brainlessly satisfied, and for a moment I toyed with thoughts about the pointlessness of the past. “It was a long time ago,” the lady at the concentration camp had said, and was she wrong? Did it really matter that an extinct Serbian species no longer had its cemetery? Should we burden these happy summer teenagers with another memory of pain and erasure? The crimes in Nis, like the crimes of the Balkans, were almost too numerous to name. How many Skull Towers would they have to build?
5. The next morning at ten-thirty, even hotter than yesterday, I arrived at the lot. No one was there with a key. Maybe I was late, but I don’t think so. Two workmen hosed down the sidewalk while another unloaded crates from a truck. I showed one of them a photo of the Jewish Cemetery sign and he said, “Closed.” He didn’t stop me from wandering around, but it didn’t matter. I looked without hope at the flat gray menacing wall over fifteen feet high and at the locked metal door. Between the wall and the restaurant stood two rows of stone pillars that could have passed for an ugly communist-era war monument. Then, in a little divot in the wall, where it changed from stone to brick, I found a gap. A peephole. I couldn’t believe it. My heart pounding, I climbed onto a stack of square stones and tried to look. My view wasn’t good, so I stuck in my iPhone, angled it and clicked. This is what my camera saw:
I wasn’t done yet. I walked next door to Euroglass, separated from Princ Restaurant by big bushes that cast hooded shadows on the asphalt driveway. No one told me to stop. No one was there to tell me to stop. EuroGlass was silent. In the back I came upon another flat gray menacing wall, but this lot, overgrown with weeds, was used as a dump. There were green water bottles and foam insulation, plastic shopping bags, dirt piles, soap bottles, wood, a tire, a frame, the corners of packages, a newspaper, a hose, gray dandelions, the broken stems of yellow dandelions, fleas, bricks, pipes, a wheel axel, a black tube, the sound of a car starting, a yogurt carton, a gas can and a trash bag. But mostly there was broken glass. I couldn’t have invented an irony so cosmically crushing apt. All over. Shattered panels leaning against each other’s bodies. Jagged fragments thrown out like stacks of discarded limbs. Glass slashed in the center, glass that was dirty. Glass in piles and glass in bits. Bluish and grayish and whitish glass that caught glints but not reflections. Wasted glass. Ruined glass. Dead glass. This, too, a kind of monument. I documented the glass on my camera and, with nothing else to do, retraced my steps down the asphalt driveway, past the hooded shadows.