History's numbers

History is full of numbers. There are dates, fractions, the number of this, the number of that.

For example, today, we mark the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. That’s a mouthful of numbers, and the numbers don’t stop there.

If you go online and Google “World War II statistics,” you’ll get a lot of numbers, enough to fill up a couple or more textbooks. You’ll find out that the Germans murdered 6 million Jews. You’ll find out that altogether 52 million people died in the war, more or less. You’ll hear that 20 million died in Russia, 7 million died in Germany. Two million in Japan. The country my mom and dad came from was Poland, and it lost a sixth of its population. Before the war, there were 36 million Poles; that means about 6 million died. In Warsaw, the capitol city of Poland, a quarter of a million civilians died during a 60-day battle to throw the Germans out in 1944.

America got off pretty easy in WWII. It lost just a half a million, mostly soldiers. In those other countries it was about half soldiers and half civilians. “Civilians” is another way of saying wives and husbands and their children.

There are also the numbers involved in how much was spent on the war. The numbers here run pretty high. The U.S. spent the most money on the war, an estimated $341 billion. Germany was next, with $272 billion, followed by the Soviet Union with $192 billion. All the billions spent probably add up to a trillion.

There are also numbers associated with what kind of mess was made by the war. The Soviet government calculated that Russia lost 30 percent of its national wealth. As far as I can figure, that means it lost one out of every three of everything: houses, banks, cars, schools, railroads, bikes and farms.

In Germany, bombing and shelling produced 4 billion cubic meters (5 billion cubic yards) of rubble. I don’t know how big a pile that is, but it sounds like a big pile of rubble. By the end of the war, the Germany capitol Berlin had been pretty much leveled. The people that count up such things estimate that 400,000 buildings were destroyed in Berlin.

After the war, the Germans who survived the war got shovels and bulldozers and shoved all of those 400,000 building out of the city. Altogether there was about 17 million cubic yards of rubble, bricks, bits of glass and silverware that melted together during the bombings, wood beams, busted up furniture, rusting pipes and porcelain bathtubs. It made a mountain 390 foot tall that for a time was used by Berliners looking to ski in the winter. It’s called Teufelsberg in German. That means Devil’s Mountain.

War does generate a lot of numbers, and the numbers tend to be big.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine. She’s a mathematician, a person who studies numbers, and she said that most people can’t imagine a number larger than 1,000.

I know I can’t.

I can only think about small numbers, human numbers. My mother, for example, who saw the women in her family raped and murdered by the Germans and then spent three years as a slave laborer in Germany, would be one. My dad, who was captured by the Germans in 1940 and spent almost five years in a German concentration camp, would be another one.

My mom’s one plus my dad’s one makes two. But as my mom used to like to say, she and my dad weren’t the only two who suffered in the war.

There were hundreds of millions of others, and their suffering didn’t stop when the war ended on VE Day, May 8, 1945.

I know and you do too.



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