Psychological Survival in Banjica Concentration Camp due to Inmate Creativity. A Recommendation to Future Victims

Review Article

Austin Anthropol. 2019; 3(2): 1008.

Psychological Survival in Banjica Concentration Camp due to Inmate Creativity. A Recommendation to Future Victims

Tomic I1, Milic V2, Lazic D3 and Marinkovic S4*

1Department of Art History, Academy of Fine Arts and Multimedia, Serbia

2Clinic of Children Neurology and Psychiatry, University of Belgrade, Serbia

3Psychiatric Clinic “Laza Lazarevic”, University of Belgrade, Serbia

4Department of Neuroanatomy, University of Belgrade, Serbia

*Corresponding author: Slobodan Marinkovic, Department of Neuroanatomy, Institute of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, University of Belgrade, Dr. Subotic 4/2, 11000 Belgrade, Serbia

Received: September 09, 2019; Accepted: September 27, 2019; Published: October 04, 2019


Artistic activity, as a psychological defensive mechanism, was not sufficiently analyzed in Banjica (Banyitsa) concentration camp. The aim of this study was to examine retrospectively the psychological state of the prisoners, and the influence of creativity to their survival in the camp. Banjica was the largest concentration camp in Serbia, through which passed about 25,000 prisoners, while 1,000 of them died, over 4,000 were executed, and several thousands were deported to other European labor and death camps. In order to survive psychologically, many prisoners used certain cognitive, emotional and social mechanisms, but also creativity. There were 351 drawings and watercolors, and 257 design products available for examination, created by 30 professional artists and 139 incarcerated amateurs, who were 24 to 47 years of age (31.3 on average). In addition to these 169 visual artists, many other prisoners were engaged in poetry, literature, music, and the theatre. The main subjects of artistic activity were the prisoners themselves and the situation in Banjica camp, which were most often depicted in realistic and expressionistic manner. Creativity was very important psychologically to both artists and their fellow-inmates. Of the mentioned 169 artists and amateurs, even 121 managed to survive (71%). Some of them were promoted to University professors or Academy members later on. In conclusion, artistic activity most likely influenced a better survival of the imprisoned artists and other creative inmates. Creativity could be a recommendation to future victims of long-lasting extreme social conditions.

Keywords: Concentration camp; Creativity; Fine art; Torture; Stress; Survival


Nazi concentration camps were among the worst places in history for mass killings and torture of millions of innocent people, especially Jews, but also Slavs, Roma, and some others [1-11]. The genocide committed, particularly in gas chambers and crematoria, is known as the Holocaust (Greek hólos = whole, and kaustós = burned) and Shoa (“disaster” or “catastrophe” in Hebrew) [12].

We were mostly interested in the psychological state of the inmates, caused by extreme stressors, and the ideas used in their struggle for survival, but especially in the role of their cultural life, including fine art, music, theatrical, and literal activities, which helped many artists and some of their fellow-inmates to survive the horrendous conditions in the concentration camps [5,12-22]. At the same time, special attention was paid to the neuropsychological basis for such creativity in the light of recent achievement in this domain [16-18,23-32]. We also analyzed the psychological and social impact of inmate creativity and the fate of the camp artists during imprisonment and after liberation [2,5,13,33-35].

We chose for this study the largest concentration camp Banjica (Banyitsa) in Serbia, due to a lack of research about the beneficial effects of creative activity in this institution. Over 100 documents regarding this camp were examined in the collection of the Banjica Camp Museum, the City Museum, and the National Museum, as well as those published in two specific books [2,13]. Special attention was paid to prisoner cultural and artistic creativity, which was reported in some documents, the mentioned publications, and a catalog regarding a 1945 post-war exhibition, and presented in collections of their artworks and design products in the mentioned Museums. The subject, technique, and art types were analyzed in all the artworks.

In order to compare our findings regarding Banjica camp to data published about similar places, many scientific articles and Internet presentations were examined vis-à-vis the cultural life and creativity in other European camps and ghettos [5,13,16,21,33,34,36-38]. In addition, a large body of literature was also examined in the field of fine arts, music, literature, psychology, psychiatry, and neuropsychology [18,27-29,32,39-51].

Banjica Concentration Camp

As soon as the troops of the German Army invaded and occupied Serbia [11], the Nazis organized a collaboration government in Belgrade, the capital, and started actions primarily against the Serbian resistance, the illegal Communist Party, and the intellectuals, as well as the Jews and Roma [2]. A list of all Jews in Serbia was compiled immediately, their human and other rights were repealed, and their property was confiscated. Jews and thousands of Serbian people were soon arrested and sent to certain prisons or directly to four large concentration camps organized by the Nazi regime in Serbia [2].

Belgrade prisons were places for the investigation of some detained individuals mainly led by agents of the Gestapo. The investigation comprised of extreme physical torture and psychic abuse, due to which many of the victims died from the torture, e.g. composer Vojislav Vuckovic, a few of them committed suicide, and several were executed in the prisons themselves. Most of the surviving Jews were transferred to the Staro Sajmište camp near Belgrade for execution [20], including the writer Martin Hosier and the opera singer Irina Kurtega [2]. The remaining Jews, along with all the Serbian victims and some others, were transported to Banjica concentration camp in Belgrade which was established on July 9, 1941, long before the majority of the European camps [2].

In addition to the survivors from the Gestapo prisons in Banjica camp, a lot of citizens arrested in raids were sent there as well, especially the members of the Resistance and the mentioned Party, their supporters, intellectuals, artists, peasants, and hostages, as well as the captured partisans and a few American pilots later on. The intellectuals, including artists and many professors at the University of Belgrade and several academicians, were arrested for potential anti- Nazi activity. The Resistance members were imprisoned for creating various sabotages against the Nazis in Belgrade. As regards the hostages, they were intended to be part of a German revenge. Namely, 100 of them were to be executed for each single German soldier killed by the Resistance, and 50 for each wounded soldier [2]. Whilst some groups of prisoners were exterminated upon admission, the others were registered by their names, assigned rooms and locked up (Figure 1). If they were accommodated in the hostage room (Figure 2) or the “death room,” they were very likely to be executed eventually.