Saturday, September 12, 2015

A History Story for Our Time

Coming Out of the Ice, Victor Herman
Freedom Press, 1979, 369 pages

Sometimes readers get on a kick and read similar things for a while: books about animals, or biographies of famous people, or fantasy fiction. If there's a kick that's sure to both bring you down and make you wildly glad to be alive, it's memoirs of prison camp survivors.

After a friend found out that I loved Unbroken, she loaned me Coming Out of the Ice: An Unexpected Life with promises that I'd be impressed. I devoured almost the whole the book in three days. And with each turn of the page, I became more and more grateful for the life I have, and for the choices my parents - and their parents - have made which have given me this free and overflowing life.  

Victor's story hinges, as do most lives, on the decisions and passions of his parent. His father, Sam, a Socialist living in Depression-era Detroit, jumped at the chance to live in Russia for a few years, helping to further the cause in a practical way as an auto mechanic for the Ford Motor Company. Victor was a teenager in 1931 when he traveled with his family to Russia and he expected to be back home in three years. Instead, he spent the next 45 years battling one harsh Russian wilderness after another: first a long and unexplained imprisonment, then a sentence of lumberjacking forests in Siberia, then an isolated exile, and finally an extended tangle in the endless red tape of the Russian government.

But it didn't start out that way. For the first few years, life in Russia bloomed for Victor. He found himself to be skilled at nearly every sport he attempted, and joined local teams to compete in basketball, riflery, boxing, and track events. Later, after being taught to fly airplanes in a prestigious flying school, he taught himself fancy piloting tricks, took up parachute-jumping, and even logged a world record deadfall jump. He even became known internationally as the Lindbergh of Russia.

And then... An arrest one July afternoon after a track practice. A year in one prison cell shared with fifteen other men. Fifty-five nights of brutal beatings. No less than four different Siberian prison camps where failure to chop down the required trees meant no food and where even meeting quota brought barely a mouthful. Nearly two hundred covert meals of raw rat. Bits of toe chopped off with scissors after frostbite. "It was like anything else," Victor said of one camp's cruel method of food distribution. "You couldn't believe it at first. Then you got good at it. And then you prided yourself on your skill. That's what being a prisoner is, in a way - a man who at first can't believe it, and then he gets good at it, and then proud of getting good at what he could not believe."

Coming Out of the Ice records a life that became so unexpected, Victor ceased to be surprised. Unlike most who were subjected to similar experiences, Victor came back. "But not all of me came back," he said. "Something, I left behind. I think it was disbelief. Not ever again would I not believe. It will happen - whatever can happen will."

Today there is terror just as unbelievable on the other side of the globe. And for me, most of the time, it's easy to draw the curtains and leave it over there, hidden behind the headlines of articles that I choose not to read. But a story like Victor Herman's brings the real brutalities of oppressors into focus and reminds me that it's safe to assume that "whatever can happen will." Will my perfectly blooming life take a sharp turn toward something resembling Victor's eighteen years of imprisonment? Will my son's life? Could something so unexpected happen to us?

Victor doesn't mention faith in his narrative, so I don't know if he clung to the hope of eternal peace while enduring his tortured life. But whether he intended to or not, he pushed me to grip tightly to something no one can take away, to fix my eyes on the place prepared for me, and to prepare my heart for enormous loss, knowing that the things which really matter are secured already. It's not the sort of book I'd like to read often, but a prison memoir brings a helpful perspective to a life that seems rather ordinary. And perhaps it is mine, the one laced with blessings and heaped up high with things to be grateful for, that is actually the unexpected one.

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