WE'VE GOT MAIL

WE'VE GOT MAIL

Wed, 11/27/2013 - 13:32

Regarding your inquiry for further information about the "Pleven bones" story, I would like to point out the following.

The source used by myself in the Encyclopaedia of Islam to which I am a contributor is a short remark by Rupert Furneaux in his The Siege of Plevna, Anthony Blond publishers, London,1958. On p 198 you can read that Pleven cost the Russians 30,000 deaths to take it, the Turks 10,000 deaths to defend it... On p216: "In all, some 50,000 Turks died in Russian captivity. Out of 43,000 men who set out (as prisoners on the way to Russia), only 15,000 reached Russia, and only 12,000 returned to their homes after the war."
On p233 Furneaux mentions the following: "In 1879 Montagu read the following news item in a Bristol newspaper: 'Thirty tons of human bones, comprising 30,000 skeletons, have just been landed at Bristol from Pleven.' Those who sacrificed their lives in the assault and defence of an obscure Bulgarian town ended their careers as fertiliser of the soil of England." End of the story by Furneaux.
It is visible in Furneaux's words that half the bones landing at Bristol were from the attackers.

There is nothing sensational about this story. After the Second World War the Russians wanted to make a big memorial cemetery for their fallen soldiers outside Warsaw. Local peasants were used to dig up the bones and were given a bit of money for each skeleton they delivered. At the same place many dead Germans had also been buried. The peasants took their chance to make more money and mixed Russian bones with German ones, thus "selling" more skeletons. Nobody was able to distinguish between German and Russian bones. This story was related by Professor Dr Dariusz Kolodziejczyk, one of the leading historians of Poland in our time.

After World War II in Skopje (which had been a very important Ottoman centre for ages) the Communist municipality wanted to clear out a huge Turkish cemetery. The local Christians refused to do the work. Finally it was done by Gypsies. The story is related by the traveller and writer, A. Den Doolaard, famous in Dutch literature and an insider expert of the Balkans.

From my own 18 years working as mason and stone-cutter at the Netherlands Service for Historical Monuments I vividly remember the removal of wagonloads of skeletons from underneath the floor of the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, in Central Amsterdam. The bones were put in wheelbarrows and brought to big lorries waiting outside the church. They were taken by a firm specialised in this kind of transport and nobody knew what happened afterwards. The lorries were so badly loaded that skulls jumped out and rolled over the Damrak, the main street of Amsterdam.

It will be interesting, in this specific context, to know what happened to the bones from the large Turkish cemeteries around Shumen? They are all gone. What happened to the bones from the graves of 10,000 Jews buried around Thessaloniki? At any rate, you can see everywhere in the Upper City of modern Thessaloniki pieces of Jewish grave stones with Hebrew inscriptions, used as street pavement.

Do you expect more respect for bones than for gravestones? I do not.

Finally, I would like to point out to Constantin Jireček, the first minister of education in independent Bulgaria. In his 1891 Fürstenthum Bulgarien he wrote about the victims of the terrible fire in Stara Zagora. Then Christians and Muslims were buried side by side in the same mass graves. The way Jireček wrote this story is in pleasant contrast to what is going on in today's Bulgaria. Jireček's Fürthentum was translated in Bulgarian almost immediately after it appeared.

Too much about bones. There is better work for historians to do.
Professor Dr Machiel Kiel,
Bonn, Germany

Issue 86

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