Argus title : Horror revisits us 60 years on
It is 60 years since the gates were opened on the horrors of Auschwitz and Red Army soldiers first saw the death chambers, ovens and chimneys in which hundreds of thousands of human beings had been gassed, immolated and pitched into the atmosphere as stinking ash.
Their deaths and those of millions more in countless massacres and other death camps are what is now most often collectively referred to as the Holocaust.
Since the nineteenth century the word holocaust has been used to describe terrible massacres of large numbers of people. But it is also an ancient word signifying sacrifice by fire.
How strange then that in Sussex, this week of remembrance should begin with the violent death and immolation of a woman on the seafront in Eastbourne. In its savagery and cruelty, this death by rape, repeated stabbing and fire equalled anything meted out by the Nazis to individual victims.
The woman was burned beyond recognition. No one reported her missing or immediately claimed her. She was a ‘transient’, a ‘hostel dweller’. Her name we now know was Jennifer Kiely. It is a surname sometimes associated with Irish travellers. We know she suffered mental illness.
Twelve million people were killed in gas chambers and death camps, mental hospitals and prisons. Six million of them were Jews and between half a million and 1.5 million of them were Roma (Gypsies). Between 200 – 250,000 were mental patients
Hundreds of thousands of people died because their political and religious beliefs or life styles conflicted with the Nazi world view. Anyone considered an enemy of the state was at risk of imprisonment and murder. Trade unionists, communists and socialists, homosexuals, dissident clerics and writers all lost their lives.
But the prime targets were the “untermensch”, sub-humans, “lives unworthy of life” as Nazi theorists called them. These were the groups targeted for extermination. They were those who by virtue of racial origin, incurable mental illness or disability could not change or mask what they were. Doomed by virtue of their birth, they were an affront to racial purity and to the so called “regeneration” of the German people.
All were despised and hated, but none more than the Jews. In the appalling hierarchy of the camps, the Jews were at the bottom of the heap – with the Roma just one step away.
Everything which made them human was stripped from them. Eventually, all that was left was flesh and bone and ash.
Nazi propaganda presented the Jews as maggots, parasites and rats breeding in the sewers of Christian Europe – living off German civilisation, but undermining its foundations all the while.
The Roma people though perceived as less of a threat to German culture, had long been presented as a “plague” and a “menace” and were now deemed congenitally mentally ill and therefore criminal. Nineteenth century German scholars, in language later adopted by the Nazis, referred to both Jews and Roma as the “excrement of society”. In such a way racists and Nazis dehumanised their enemies.
It is said that the Nazis burned the bodies of the millions they murdered because they could find no more efficient way of disposing of them. This may perhaps be the case.
Or it may be that the Nazis intended burning to be the ultimate act of violence and humiliation. At a time when most Christians buried their dead, it was probably the worst fate the Nazis could conceive of for their victims – short of eating them. Indeed, there were allegations in the Middle Ages that some crusaders did cannibalise Jewish victims of early anti-semitic purges.
Significantly, the Roma people refer to the genocide of their people by the Nazis as “Porrajmos” (pronounced paw-rye-mos. In Romany it means “The Devouring”. It is the nearest equivalent of the Jewish ‘Shoah’
Burning changes the substance of a person. Once burned the victim is no longer human, but charred flesh or ash. The ultimate way in which the aggressor exerts control is to render his enemy into dust.
Historically, burning has been the chosen weapon of racists and misogynists, whether they be the brutally anti-semitic leaders of the Crusades or the sadistic witch-finders of the Church. . For of course the first great European holocausts were of women burned as witches. It is variously estimated that between half a million and four million people died, most of them female.
Henri Boguet said of Germany in1590 that it was “almost entirely occupied with building fires”. Strasbourg alone burned 5000 people in a period of 20 years.
Over the centuries, pogroms against Jews have almost always involved conflagration and death by burning, all too often encouraged by the Church.
More recently, during the genocide in Rwanda, Tutsis who fled to churches for refuge were locked in and set alight, often with the active connivance of priests.
Within living memory, in the southern states of the USA , Black people were burned by racist lynch mobs. Who could forget the photographs of smiling parents picnicking with their children beside the charred bodies of lynched men.
And in contemporary Britain, burning is often associated with misogynist and domestic violence. An increasing number of women escaping violent partners face arson attacks in which sometimes they and their families perish.
And so it is elsewhere. In Pakistan the police report an increasing number of women who have acid thrown in their faces. If they survive they are horribly scarred, their features having melted away.
In India too, rejected wives are all too frequently burned to death with household kerosene.
Just over a year ago in Sussex, the Firle Bonfire Society burned a caravan with the anti-Roma insult ‘pikey’ scrawled on its side. Within the caravan were effigies of a traveller woman and her children. There was an outcry at the time, but the Bonfire Society appeared not to understand how and why they had given offence.
They seemed not to realise that under the Nazis such travellers would have been deemed “unworthy of life”. Such children, so casually and lightheartedly burned in effigy, would, in real life, have suffered medical experiments, sterilisation and death.
Zyklon B, the poisonous gas which slowly and painfully choked the life from victims of the gas chambers of Auschwitz, was tested in Buchenwald Concentration Camp- upon Roma children.
In 1941 Heydrich, chief architect of the Final Solution, issued a directive to “kill all Jews, Gipsies and mental patients” In the same year Himmler issued criteria for racial evaluation which involved investigation of Romany families through 3 generations.
It was on 16th December that Himmler ordered that all remaining gypsies left in Europe be transported to Auschwitz Birkenau for extermination. It is known that on 1st August 1944 four thousand Roma were gassed and cremated in a single action at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Nobody knows exactly how many Roma died. Only 5,000 left the camps alive and, alone amongst the victims, they received no compensation.
Roma continue to be viciously persecuted in the countries of Eastern Europe. Despite this, and to our shame, their presence is rarely welcomed here in Britain.
Murders and violent attacks upon women far outstrip hate crime against any other group of people. Therefore, it is statistically most likely that Jennifer Kiely died at the hands of a misogynist.
However, it’s also possible that Jennifer met her death because she was considered ‘itinerant’, a woman who ‘travelled’. Associated mental illness may have made her even more vulnerable.
It’s hard to comprehend the enormity of holocaust. Often it’s through the stories of individuals that we are helped to understand it.
And that is why it’s important this week, as we think about the Six Million – and the millions of other victims – to find some time to remember Jennifer Kiely as well.
She was a traveller who died on our doorstep.