When I opened the Guardian on 1 July and saw the headline Grenfell fire: volunteers help residents compile death toll I thought of one of the first blog entries I wrote: How many may have died in the Odessa pogrom? (https://odessasecrets.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/how-many-may-have-died-in-the-odessa-pogrom/) Like most people, I had never thought about how many of the figures we accept about populations, births, deaths, or illness, may not be easy and straightforward to obtain. Shortly afterwards I remember having read an article, possibly in the New Scientist, about the difficulties of calculating civilian casualties in Iraq and how sample areas are chosen and individual households are contacted, either door-to-door or by telephone, to find out if anyone in that household was killed during the war. But different methods produce widely varying results.
From several articles I have checked in the New Scientist, civilian deaths in Iraq have been estimated to range anywhere from 183,000 to somewhere between 400,000 and 950,000. So the range in Odessa from the 300 in the Jewish death records and eyewitness estimates of 3000-5000 deaths, or the number of deaths at the Grenfell Tower from the official 80 up to whatever the occupancy (estimated at 400-600) is calculated minus the survivors, illustrate a perennial problem of counting the dead in wars or disasters. Besides the fact that no one knows which occupants of Grenfell Tower were actually there that night, and how many non-occupants were staying with friends or relations, some of the flats were sublet without a record of who they were sublet to. And like many horrific disasters, there are few remains. Similarly, in the Odessa pogrom, many houses were set on fire and many families may have disappeared without trace.
Obviously, for a massacre that happened a hundred years ago in Russia, I only expected to be able to find hints from witness statements and newspaper articles that the official figure might not have been accurate. It must be very difficult for witnesses to judge the number of bodies they have seen lying in the streets, or add up the number of deaths in the stories they hear from neighbours. And how many more people might have been hidden away in attics or cellars? The most important pieces of information I gleaned from the newspapers were the observations that carts loaded with dead bodies had been seen being taken away to mass graves in the night, and several reports of gravediggers describing the size and number of mass graves in different cemeteries. There were also eyewitness descriptions in police reports of the slaughter of various families, particularly mothers with children, and children in the street, which did not tally with the very few children in the 300 victims, mostly men, in the official pogrom death records. I tried checking the directories before and after the pogrom, but the owners of buildings were not those who rented the flats, similar to the problem of subletting in Grenfell. The closest and most detailed census was the Russian census of 1897 which would not have given accurate information for 1905. A census was done after the pogrom in December 1905, as so many people had fled the city, estimated at 50,000.
The Times 5 November 1905 Every Jewish bakery has been destroyed, and 600 families have been rendered homeless. Some of the ruffians put their victims to death by hammering nails into their heads. Eyes were gouged out, ears cut off, and tongues were wrenched out with pincers. Numbers of women were disembowelled. The aged and sick, who were found hidden in the cellars, were soaked in petroleum and burnt alive in their homes… The police would not allow any assistance to be given to the wounded, actually firing upon the Red Cross workers. At an early hour this morning the work of plunder was still being carried on in the more remote suburbs. The casualties in yesterday’s disturbances do not exceed 140.
The Manchester Guardian 7 November 1905
Anti-Jewish disorders near Odessa – slaughter and pillage
Of the 6000 victims of the riot in Odessa, it has been ascertained (says Reuter) that 964 were either killed outright or died of their wounds. The bodies of 313 of these have been removed to the Jewish cemetery, and 651 are lying in the various Christian cemeteries. The ferment against the Jews has spread to the villages in the Odessa district.
Aberdeen Daily Journal 7 November 1905
The Grenfell Tower fire had certain similarities to the Odessa pogrom. There was the possibility of blame being apportioned to all and sundry, the local government, central government, construction companies, as, in Odessa, the government, army and police had been blamed for allowing the pogrom to continue for three days and even aiding the hooligans. There were also similarities in the background situations – inequalities between rich and poor, government complacency, increases in immigration, tensions caused by lack of jobs, working conditions and inadequate living conditions. And no one caring enough because many of the victims in both situations were considered to be second-class citizens – immigrants, often newly arrived in the city and struggling to make a living.
But it was not obvious to anyone, judging by the outcry, that the police or government officials could not give a count of how many people had survived or were missing or dead from the disaster.
The Guardian 30 June 2017 The shortage of official information, 17 days after the fire, has become one of the most sensitive and controversial issues for residents, who cannot understand why the police have not released a full list of the names of the 80 people presumed dead, or why they have not released the provisional names and numbers of survivors…
Michelle von Ahn, who used to work as Newham council’s senior demographic adviser, has been collaborating with a team of online volunteer investigators. They have allocated names to flats on different floors of the building and are listing 197 survivors, 52 people presumed dead, 24 confirmed dead, two missing. They believe there are a further 27 people unaccounted for – neither reported missing nor safe – raising the probable death toll to 103, von Ahn said, a figure she describes a “conservative estimate”.
The group has analysed the council tax register, electoral register, online telephone books and publicly available Kensington and Chelsea documents about the tower block, cross-checking information with residents’ testimonies and news reports…
Volunteers have put names to most of the 41 one-bedroom, 82 two-bedroom, one three-bedroom and three four-bedroom flats but question why the council has not made public its own list of residents, built up from housing benefit and child benefit data, and information from local schools and GPs’ surgeries.
Whatever the situation, people will continue trying to find out whatever they can about missing family. Now there are far more methods and technologies to try and recover information about people in horrific disasters than there were a hundred years ago, but there is always a limit to what can be found out. Sometimes absence is the only proof.