Another tale of sacrifice that forces us to ask ourselves if we truly understand its meaning is a lot more recent than the story of William Mompesson. It took place during the WWII siege of Leningrad, which lasted 900 days. On the eastern front, the Nazis created a military blockade that left the entire city cut off from supplies. It’s estimated that around a million people died, 90% of them from starvation.
Adolf Hitler knew that, militarily, he could likely not win a straight fight without heavy losses, so he sought the cruelest of victories. In September 1941, the German chancellor issued Directive No. 1601, stating that “St. Petersburg must be erased from the face of the Earth” and “we have no interest in saving lives of civilian population.”
By November, his strategy was decided, and he said during a speech in Munich: “Leningrad must die of starvation.”
During the siege, about one and a half million fled Leningrad to escape the almost inevitable fate. But there was one group that refused to leave. At the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, a collection of crops, plants, and seeds had been gathered. These were specifically designed to be crops that could survive in extreme conditions. In fact, it is to this very collection that many of today’s plants are related, in America and around the world. They were genetically modified to be hardy and to resist pests. It’s fair to say that almost every person alive today benefits from this initial collection.
The scientists running the institute were faced with an impossible choice. They could flee and save themselves, consigning the crops to who knows what end. They could outlast the siege and survive by eating some of the crops. Or they could slowly starve to death while sitting on tons of potatoes, rice, and nuts – all in an effort to preserve something of value for the future.
Alexander Stchukin, Dmitry Ivanov, and a handful of other scientists chose to slowly starve to death surrounded by mountains of food … all for the sake of an unknown and unknowable future. We have to ask ourselves how long we would hold out? Would we break early, and decide that we must keep up our strength to preserve just some of the crops? Would we finally break when we saw our colleagues perish, knowing full well that we would not be far behind them?
The scientists didn’t break. They chose the benefit to future generations over their own lives. What makes this sacrifice so moving is that their deaths would have been so slow and torturous. Perhaps we can imagine sacrificing ourselves in a blaze of glory, but to waste away, so painfully, so tormented when your salvation is just one decision away. It’s unimaginable what they must have gone through. When the siege was broken, all the seeds, plants, and crops were intact and accounted for.
J.D. Salinger says in his classic The Catcher in the Rye: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
In the wake of this Coronavirus, as we look at the sacrifices we each have to make, perhaps it’s better not to see ourselves as making heroic gestures and equate our minor inconvenience with the actual suffering endured by many throughout the ages. Maybe we need a little more humility.