16 Ways

Posted: 2011/01/30 in Stories
Tags: , , , ,

I once read a book about Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812. You know the story. Napoleon invaded Russia with one of the largest armies ever assembled—something like 600,000 men—in June of 1812. Six months later, something like 5% of them staggered back out of Russia, the rest victims of disease, exposure, combat, starvation and, in some cases, each other.

Like so many bits of history, the disintegration of Napoleon’s Grande Armée on the retreat from Moscow reminds me of just how bad things can get, and just how much people are able to endure.

But the lasting memory for me was how the suffering seemed to divide the soldiers into two categories. Some killed their comrades for a piece of bread. Others would go out foraging, come back with a piece of bread, and divide it 16 ways. They took turns dragging their dead on sledges behind them. Tempting though it must have been, the author didn’t try to explain what made the difference. He just told the stories, as recorded in soldiers’ diaries.

A friend of mine says that she hopes, if it ever comes to it, that she’s the kind of person who will hide Jews in the attic. I hope I’m the kind of person who will divide my last piece of bread 16 ways, and at least for those other 15, for a moment, turn a horrifying retreat into a path of love.

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