Saturday, July 11, 2020

Bełżec and Black Death Mass Graves

These days it is germs rather than guns that make the headlines, be it because of what has happened and is happening or because of what some fear might still happen. Interest in past pandemics like the Black Death and the Spanish flu has probably increased accordingly, related monographs like John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time and Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World are likely to be in higher demand, and as concerns works of fiction I’m probably not the only one who discovered Albert Camus’ The Plague on this occasion. At this moment man-made disasters of the past don’t have the connection with a current threat that past pandemics have.

That said, discoveries regarding the latter sometimes provide information that is of interest to research about the former.



A 2014 article in the Spanish newspaper El País, Peste negra en primera persona (English version Staring Black Death in the face in Barcelona), mentions an excavation under the sacristy of the Basilica of Sant Just i Pastor in Barcelona in which 120 skeletons of plague victims were discovered. There were people of both sexes and all ages, including children. The corpses had been unclothed and wrapped only in linen shrouds, lined up in rows 11 bodies deep, then covered with quicklime dissolved in water to attempt to stop the disease spreading and mask the smell of the rotting bodies. The archaeologists were not able to excavate the entire grave, which was partially dug up in the mid-15th century when the church was extended. The original grave may have been four meters long, 3.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep. Bearing in mind the density of the remains found, the archeologists estimated that there would originally have been around 400 people in the grave.

400 people in a grave of (4 x 3.5 x 1.5 =) 21 cubic meters means a density of ca. 19 corpses per cubic meter. At this density the mass graves at Bełżec extermination camp discovered by archaeologist Prof. Andrzej Kola, who estimated their total volume as 21,310 cubic meters, could have accommodated 404,890 corpses distributed by ages and sexes like the corpses in the mass grave at the Basilica of Sant Just i Pastor – which would have been the distribution of the general population unless the Black Death killed in a distinctly age- and/or sex-selective manner. Most of Bełżec’s 434,508 victims could thus have fit into the mass graves discovered by Kola (which were probably not the only ones), even without considering factors like "recovery" of grave space through corpse volume reduction due to leachate leaving the corpses (as the corpses were buried not all at once but over a period of months), which I addressed in this article and due to which the pre-decomposition burial density was probably much lower than what would have been possible.

Bełżec was one of those places where human beings inflicted on other human beings suffering on a quantitative scale exceeding that of many a natural cataclysm, including the current pandemic. According to my projections based on the increase of cases between 9 and 10 July 2020, as published here, the current pandemic will have caused 1,655,677 deaths throughout the world by its first anniversary assuming linear growth (same number of new deaths every day as on 10.07.2020, i.e. 5,416), or 22,974,051 assuming exponential growth (new cases increase every day according to the growth factor total cases on 10.07.2020 ÷ total cases on 09.07.2020, which is ca. 1.019, and the case fatality rate is as on 10.07.2020). The latter figure seems quite unlikely as things stand at this moment. The former is a little higher than the total number of people murdered at four small places in Poland during World War II, mostly in 1942.

Crisis mortality from infectious diseases can be more devastating for a continent’s or the world’s population than any man-made disaster so far. The current pandemic, however, is still very far from being one of those cases.

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