Unlikely Survival


Coming Out of the Ice: An Unexpected Life, by Victor Herman, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, 369 pp., $12.95.

Even after inoculation by such accounts of the Soviet holocaust as The Gulag Archipelago trilogy, the reader will find Victor Herman's book at times almost too excruciating to read. The story of an American who left with his family at age 16 to build trucks for Stalin, Coming Out of the Ice is about torture overcome by optimism, about fate mocked with common sense and even humor. The style is direct, its simplicity revealing the intensity of pain with understated eloquence. Victor Herman was no dissident, no intellectual—a mere boy at the time of his arrest for the crime of refusing to surrender his US citizenship.

The story begins in 1931, when Victor Herman had followed to the Soviet Union his father, Sam, a poor immigrant Jew with visions of socialist equality. Sam's ideals had suited his employer, Henry Ford, just fine. Ford did business with anyone; "it didn't matter what the politics were," writes Victor Herman, "it only mattered where the marketplace was." That marketplace, as it turned out, swallowed some of the partners.

Yet Victor Herman, however implausibly, survived to testify. In fact, the book's subtitle, "An Unexpected Life," captures the surprise that death should have been intimidated by a kid determined to defy his torturers to, some day, come home. It took 45 years for him to return to Detroit, but return he did. Coming Out of the Ice is the record of that miraculous feat.

Among the miracles that saved his life was the idea to eat a loathsome mammal, unspeakably repulsive: the Gulag rat. I mean that literally: a monstrous kind of rat, the variety of rodent grown enormous by feeding on corpses discarded in the virtually unapproachable outhouses. Unapproachable, at least, to one less determined to outwit his executioners. (It is interesting that nearly all of his fellow prisoners turned down his offer to share with them some of his rat, so disgusted were they by the beast and its nest. Yet he describes numerous instances of cannibalism in the camps—often involving self-mutilation. What does it take to have to eat your own leg?)

The suspense and drama of this book would alone earn it a place on the bestseller list. But Coming Out of the Ice is much more than a well-written tale of unlikely survival. It is also a comment about our own government. A comment, for example, regarding the fact that hundreds of Americans who went to the Soviet Union on the Ford project were never to return, victims of the Stalinist purges, with no noticeable official US concern. A comment, too, about the fact that, while one of our citizens was risking his life to catch scavenger rats, his Soviet guards were feasting on canned food…Made in America! A comment, finally, about President Carter's human rights policy: the president, to this day, has never seen fit to meet with Victor Herman.

But ultimately the story is to be appreciated for its spirit, its grace, its unaffected dignity. This is not an innocent book—it cannot be, written as it was by a man who survived on raw rat. It is nevertheless a tribute to innocence: not to the naivete of the myopic capitalist, nor to the gullibility of the utopian dreamer, but to the faith that ice need not freeze the arteries, provided there is enough hope to kindle the inner fuel. Victor Herman is an example of how much of that hope there may be—hope, perhaps, for us all.

Juliana Geran Pilon is the author of Notes from the Other Side of Night (Regnery/Gateway).