Coming Out of the Ice: An Unexpected Life by Victor Herman: Books: Victor Herman

most of the reviewers at Amazon focus on the triumph of the human spirit. i came away from it staring at our wickedness. we all like to believe we will be the uncompromising survivors who prevail despite our oppressors. however, i've grown to fear the wickedness that lurks in my heart that would enable me to be a gulag guard or an interrogator that will comply with the order to torture a human in order to not jeopardize myself or my family.

reviewer #21 at amazon writes, "I have read many books by survivors of the Russian Gulags, and although their stories are tragic and touching you know that by definition they are not the ones who really had it bad. Those people are all dead. Victor is the exception to that rule. When he was imprisoned he was in absolute top physical condition and he was a never give up type of guy. Even with those two factors he never should have survived what he went through."

some people are so inspired that they rank this book number 2 after the Bible and they named their children after this family.

Henry Ford agreed to start up Model T plants in Stalin's USSR and sent crews from Detroit for a three year stint. Victor's father brought his children, including the teen aged Victor, and his wife. The paranoia was already pervasive when they landed. His mother cried every day and pleaded for return every day. His father kept hoping for the corner that the revolution would turn when the workers would achieve the ideals of party. Unfortunately for the party, criminals rise to the top, worse than the oppressive Tsars they replaced. While victor was impressing sports teams and shooting clubs and parachutists and aviators with his ability, Stalin started purging, and the Americans building cars for him were arrested for being spies. It didn't help Victor to set a world record in the world's highest freefall parachute jump but not pretend to be a Russian citizen. He was proudly American, too proud. One day, he was arrested. he was put in a political prison, in a jail cell with a dozen other politicals who sat ramrod straight on benches, knee to knee, around a pot that served as their toilet which was emptied once a week, who had to stare at the door all the time and could not talk. if anyone was caught sluoching or talking or not looking they were beat down and the rest did not eat their broth and bread crust for 3 days. their one lightbulb was never turned off and they didn't have a window. a bell told them when it was time to lay down to sleep and when to wake up. they laid on each other in a particular formation to maximize the space. every few hours they all switched positions. once a week, they were brought out at night to have their cell and clothes deloused, all their body hair shaved, and a shower without soap that was either extremely hot or cold. the human spirit did find a way and a tapping form of communication between the cells developed and he figured out the code and risked punishment by joining the conversation.

but the Party wanted him to sign for his crimes or sign an accusation against others. he wouldn't. so for 55 nights, except for his interrogator's weekly day off, he was beaten. the interrogator always had alcohol to assist in quieting his conscience as he beat Victor to unconsciousness every night.

could i do that? would i sign to end the pain? would i beat to prevent pain? would i allow myself to believe that a minor injustice, just one man, is less important than the survival of the state? less important than my own survival?

eventually, they sent him to Siberia, to a lumberjacking gulag. gulags, provided labor for stalin that he wouldn't have to pay for. like some slaves in the US, they were expected to work to death. if prisoners didn't work, they didn't eat.

at one point he was in a crew sent out to start a new camp. they walked 20 miles into the woods, with guards, ,and told to strat chopping and clearing and in the meantime make a little shelter from the cold because they weren't going back to the main camp. food was scarce. he ate slugs off of trees. once they killed a guards dog to eat. the prisoners who did that were killed. food got so scarce men began to cut off their own fingers to eat. then offered to share their arm with the man who would chop it off for him. eventually one man had his own legs chopped off. starvation, he concluded, was the most successful method of defeating dignity and pride and humanity. eventually the cannibalism became murder. he doesn't admit he himself ate human flesh, but he doesn't deny that he might have unknowingly. eventually, for some infraction he was put in a camp isolator for a year. in the cage nest to him was a teenage girl who the guards gang raped every day until she died. he lived for a year on starvation rations and minimal shelter. he was released to go back to work, which he couldn't do because he was so feeble. he had an optimistic Americna friend in the camp who fed him and hid him under his bunk. if victor couldn't work, he wouldn't be fed. when he had enough strength, he had that friend make a rat trap.

dead bodies were stored in the outhouse until the weekly body pickup. and rats the size of dachsunds fed on those bodies. he trapped those rats and ate them raw, daily, for a month, until one day his trap was confiscated. those rat bodies gave him protein. he was able to work. he go strong on rat flesh. his co-workers were too proud to share with his feast, except for a couple. once again, russia was thwarted in killing him slowly.

the injustices continued. he was finally released to exile in siberia. when he achieved success at the embarassment of the KGB athletic club, he was banished to a town 40 miles further north, to which he wasn't provided transportation. to the kgb's chagrin, he made it, so he was not allowed to live in town. he ahd to live in the woods outside of this town in the far north of siberia for a year. he built himself an igloo and started chopping down trees. an old man who traded potatos for chopped wood told him to dig into the permafrost for a better winter shelter. so he made a 10x10 room underground that his wife and daughter shared with him. his wife came looking for him, carrying her infant. she found him. the lvoe and affection with which he writes about his wife is so tender. when he wrote the book, in his detroit apartment, she still hadn't been allowed to leave russia. their two daughters came before she did.

they survived. they were allowed to return from exile. he was a successful boxing coach. he was offered a job in the western russia. the job incentives never panned out. he continued to endure lies and deception while doing a whole-hearted excellent job coaching. he lived the golden rule. he behaved the way he wanted to be treated. he started the process of trying to return to the states. he put up with 10 years of intentionally difficult legal obfuscation. he'd stand outside of offices for hours, long past his appointment. he filled out forms in triplicate over and over again. after 10 years, he was allowed to return.

he never claims any faith in God. but he had faith. he had dignity. he had an unswerving determination. last night, we read Hebrews 11 in my home group Bible study. i can't hold a candle to that hall of faith. my only resort is to daily pray, "keep me from temptation and deliver me from the evil one."

an apocryphal story from the Nuremberg trials: a little old Jewish man who had been rehabilitated enough was brought in to testify against an SS officer. when he saw his former tormentor he whitened and passed out. they revived him and the prosecutor told him that he was safe, that the Nazi couldn't hurt him anymore. the little old man said that wasn't the problem. "when i was in the camp, i thought this man was a demon...now that i see him here, i know that he's a man, like me, which means that i'm just as capable of the same evil."

i just read in my reading plan Jesus' comments on the those who died when the tower collapsed and those killed by the government. as Peterson rephrases it, everyone's gonna die, but will you die repentant? will you die to eternal life or something worse? what's worse? well, i try to do some greek translation every night, and i did the part in Mark with Jesus and the legion of demons. they begged Jesus not to torment them. Torment. Jesus!? These beings he created originally to worship him. they know their rebellion is worthy of torment at Jesus' hands.

we are given this opportunity to repent. we are given his Spirit to live contrary to our nature. we are given his Spirit as a deposit on the hope of our full salvation, complete restoration, new creations. he has been so good to me. i pray i'm like Job in my times of trouble, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

Comments

Anonymous said…
Good commentary. You are right, all men are capable of the worst evil and the highest good. That is a lesson in Hannah Arrendt's commentary on Eichmann as well. It's up to us to strive for the good in ourselves and for society. I agree that Herman's spirit was inspiring. He kept faith in the good alive within him while others debased themselves. We all die eventually, so living sincerely, with faith, is best, whether one lives a short or a long time -- and God is in all places, no matter how terrible. The purpose of the gulag was to break men, break their souls -- as in Orwell's 1984 - but they did not succeed with Herman. And if he can perservere, we who have greater advantages, certainly have no excuse not to keep the faith.
John Umland said…
thanks for the comment. did you read this book? have you seen my other book reports on the gulags?
God is good
jpu

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