21 April 2015

The illusion of numbers

by Marc Masurovsky

Ever since WWII ended, there have been a flurry of numbers thrown about to give a sense of the scope of the destruction of infrastructure and loss of life and property across Europe, with very little focus, by the way, on the Far East.

Still, this is what we commonly work with, lest you disagree:

-1/3 of Europe’s infrastructure bombed out of usefulness, including roads , railroads and bridges;

-at least 200 cities completely destroyed;

-close to 2000 towns or ‘shtetls’ razed from the face of the Earth where Jews accounted for most of the residential population;

Body counts:

Genocide of six(6) million Jewish men, women and children, at least two thirds of whom died in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Mass murder of another five (5) million non-Jewish men, women, and children in camps, prisons, and other areas of confinement across continental Europe.

Perhaps as many as 40 million men, women, and children belonging to all groups, nationalities, ethnicities, and faiths across continental Europe, killed in the crossfire of “total war”.

Numbers games are hellatious exercises. They are numbing. They tend to neutralize our capacity to understand our propensity to kill. But there it is.


A bit more difficult to assess.

We should state, from the outset, that the victorious Allies devoted most of their energy in assessing the volume of financial assets that were looted by the Nazis in order to gain an idea of what was lost so as to come up with a reasonable/unreasonable reparations formula enshrined in the Paris Reparations Agreement of 1946 and in many more international agreements resulting from bilateral, multilateral talks and often complex discussions involving the representatives of Jewish communities in Europe and those survivors who sought refuge in the Americas and elsewhere.  Bank accounts, insurance policies, monetary and non-monetary gold and silver, precious stones, stocks, bonds, patents, trademarks--all of these instruments became subject to careful audits and assessments by the Allies. But we can't get into this right now.

The victorious Allied armies and the governments of liberated nations failed to conduct official audits of their cultural losses. Hence anyone today who professes to know how many paintings are still missing SHOULD NOT BE BELIEVED. There are no reliable sources of information to confirm or deny those assertions. One latest example is the final minute of “Woman in Gold”, a film by Simon Curtis, chronicling the losses suffered by the Bloch-Bauer family in Vienna at the hands of the Nazis in 1938 and 1939, and the (successful) attempt of their surviving heiress, Maria Altmann, to recover what became priceless paintings by Gustav Klimt hanging at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. In the final minute, one can read rather dramatically that 120,000 works of art are still missing which were looted during WWII.

Who came up with that figure? We don’t know. But it is a gross perversion of the truth and the historical reality.

Back in December 1998, on the occasion of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets, the World Jewish Congress fed the delegates a similar figure then—125,000 paintings. PAINTINGS. Not drawings, not sketches, not furniture, not sculptures, PAINTINGS. Who came up with that? How did the WJC, in all of its infinite wisdom, arrive at such a number? No explanations given.

Then, another figure was bandied up in the following years, perhaps out of embarrassment that the previous figure of 125,000 was too low. 600,000 works of art were still missing. Now, that was a meaty number, indicative of a much larger problem. But no one cared to define what a work of art was—and is. Still, 600,000 stuck in the popular imagination, repeated effortlessly by pundits and journalists both in North America and in Europe. As if repeating the figure would make it accurate.

In sum, we have no idea how many paintings, drawings, sketches, gouaches, engravings, sculptures, furniture pieces, netsukes, pendants, candelabras, buddhas, decorative plates, murals, frescoes, tapestries, wall hangings, rugs, rings, earrings, necklaces, and other decorative objects, let’s not forget antiquities from every part of the Ancient World on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean,

Let’s not forget ritual objects from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other faiths and religions, were stolen, many of which were melted down (those made out of gold and silver) to produce ingots that were then deposited at the Reichsbank.

We just don’t know. But 15 to 20 million objects sounds just about right.