RAT TASTES like chicken. It's very good. Cats are like rabbit. I've had birds, crows. Slugs are wonderful. You eat them raw because over a fire they just melt away."
Victor Herman kept himself alive for nine years in the russian gulags by eating rat. He'd capture them -- big as cats, and vicious -- when they came to feed off the dead bodies of his comrades. It was the only way he could accomplish his daily quota of cutting 20 cubic yards of wood.
"Every day I took my rat to the woods," he writes in "Coming Out of the Ice," his story as an American-born citizen who spent 18 years in Siberian exile and, in all, 38 years in Russia. "I'd sometimes chop him up with my ax and try to boil him in a pail. But mainly I ate my rat raw.... It was when the fall came and the weather turned that I had to use the bonfire, because the rat would freeze, there under my jacket, and I'd have to warm him up first."
Herman, now 63, went to Russia with a group of American auto workers from Detroit to help set up a factory to build tractors in the 1930s. At first, as a teen-ager, he loved the life. A natural athlete, he gained considerable fame for his marksmanship, his flying, his long-distance parachute drops. Even the Detroit Times had a piece about "the Lindbergh of Russia."
Most of the other American workers, including Victor and Walter Reuther, got back when the Ford fcontract was cut short in 1936. But some stayed on, lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. Walter Reuther's first wife, Lucille, stayed, and eventually married Herman's older brother Leo. And then, one by one, the Americans vanished into the Soviet penal system.
Herman's parents, both born in the Ukraine, had come to the U.S. in 1909. His father, a Jewish revolutionary who had carried guns in the 1905 Russian revolution, embraced the chance to return to Russia. He died there, bitterly disappointed with the Soviet Union. His wife died there. His oldest son Leo committed suicide there.
Either because he knew too much about the reality of Soviet life, or merely because as an American he was making too much of a splash in Russia, Herman was taken to a prison, beaten on the kidneys until blood ran from him, spent a year with 15 other men in a room 10 by 5 feet, where one sat motionless all day and all the bodies had to turn at once during the night. Then he went to the gulags.
These were the places that even for Solzhenitsyn were only terrible rumors: Burepolom, Nuksha 2, Fosforitneya, the deadly phosphorus mine.
At least there he was given quilted pants and jacket and grass boots. For more than a year he had been wearing the clothes he was arrested in, a purple tshirt, cotton trousers and sneakers without socks.
A skilled boxer fired by boundless fury, Herman fought his way into the group of prisoners who ran life in the cells, the urkas, the wolfbloods, the ruthless men like those who bullied Solzhenitsyn. Even among these, there were degrees of cruelty -- and a kind of justice.
One scene: Some prioners were cutting birches at a rail line when a train stopped near them and 50 women prisoners in summer dresses were shoved out into the snow. One tall, black-haired aristocratic woman was obviously pregnant. The 11 guards yelled at fthe women: They would make a bonfire, and later would submit to the prisoners, the guards, the guards' dogs.
"There was a terrible wail from the woman that was pregnant, and then I heard her call out, 'Please! Please! I will give birth in a month!' and then I heard our team leader, a vicious criminal named Pavlov, shout, 'All right, the month is up!' He advanced on the woman and kicked her square in the belly.
"What Pavlov had done happened fast: It happened before anyone could stop it. It was the same for what was done to Pavlov. No one could have stopped it. But no one tried. In an instant he was dead, hacked to bits by the axes that hit him, his head taken clear off at the neck, but chopped open before it was cut from his body. The snow where his destroyed body lay looked as if pails of blood had been carried to the spot and poured out. The guards were visibly frightened.... The kicked woman lay crabbing along in the snow, her hands grabbing and her feet pushing so that she moved in a little circle...."
It was years before Herman learned about World War II. The way he found out about Lend Lease was: Some guards were trying to take his spoon from him but he was lying down and didn't want to get up because they might find his rat, the frozen rat that he was hiding in his shirt for his lunch, and then he saw that the guards were eating from cans, and the cans had labels on them: Franco-American Spaghetti, Campbell's Pork and Beans, Dinty Moore's Beef Stew.
"I screamed. I think it was the first time and the only time in my life that a scream escaped from my lips. I stood in that snow, staring and screaming. I just kept forcing them out of me, one long scream after another, until my voice broke and then cracked and all that came from me was a kind of hoarse, watery honking, and then nothing came out of me at all except the whistling air while my mouth hung open...."
After nine years in the gulags, Herman was brought out to Krasnoyarsk, where he organized a prize-winning boxing team, met his future wife Galina. In 1951 he was sent back to a milder exile in Siberia, and Galina followed him. Their first daughter, Svetlana, was born there. Life was still not easy.
"Papa," Svetlana would say, "tell about the food in America. Does everyone have a whole potato?"
December 1955: He was returned to Krasnoyarsk. A letter from the Moscow Military Tribunal: "This tribunal has reviewed your case and finds that no case exists."
It was still another 19 years before a cousin in America, aided by his congressman, got Herman back to his native land. Last August Galina was freed to rejoin him in Michigan with Svetlana, daughter Anna and His mother-in-law.
"I hope to meet the president," Herman said. "I don't need anything from him, but I could clarify so many things. He has made some good decisions, especially with China, but he and his advisers just don't understand the Russian mentality."
It was his determination to bring this message back to his own people, he said, that kept him alive: not religion or hate, simply the will to bring word out of Russia.
"Solzhenitsyn has written me, he wants me to explain it to Americans because he is Russian and can't convey the ideas the same way. He wrote about people like me. When he went to the gulags they were better because the Russians by then had realized they had to make the gulags part of the economy. So it wasn't quite as bad."
The other Americans from Detroit who stayed on are dead, all except one.
"This was my friend Red Loon, the man who made my rat trap for me. I thought he was dead, but he's still alive, with a family, in Russia. I hope to bring him back for a visit."
There may be two others, teen-age girls when they were arrested for talking to Soviet soldiers in the 1930s. They got 10 years for prostitution. Their defense was that they were still virgins.That didn't last long in the camps.
"The Soviet Union is at it peak right now. The people are getting fed up. They're great producers of steel, yet they're still importing it for their tanks. If they don't move in the next five years, their military machine will be obsolete."
Basically his message is that the Russian is a bully, pushing until pushed back, always calculating, never forgetting, a chess player who thinks in terms of small advantages and who when challenged goes on the defensive -- but only then.
"They are putting themselves in position for a confrontation. They want the world. Their leaders from Lenin to Khrushchev to Brezhnev all said it publicly: 'we will bury you.' We laugh it off, but when a country's leaders say such a thing, it is a threat. Our leaders don't say these things. Today the American agreement with China, even though it is not military and is only for trade purposes, may be the only thing that is holding them back."
Herman has another message, embodied in his own quiet, steady-gazing simplicity:
"The main thing Americans have is their unlimited freedom. They can move where they want, they can get an education. They are free and they must not take it for granted."
Herman lived on welfare when he first came here. His daughters and friends help support him now, but he is bouncing back. In prison he dreamed up three inventions, all patented: Two are educational games for learning English, one is a device for parchuting from jets. He has been an interpreter (his Russian is better than his native English), he has taught in a Russian unviersity.
And there is the book, just published by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, which may succeed in its readability where Solzhenitsyn, for all this could passion and his names and dates and documentation, may never attract a muss audience.
"I never had to take notes," said Herman. "I could never forget. That's why I don't hate."
Incredibly, his health is good, even his kidneys, his frozen fingers and toes. He has suffered two heart attacks recently. He says that if he had to, he could do it over again.
At the next table in the hotel dining room his wife, fine-skinned, a former gymnast, and his stunning 27-year-old black-haired, blue-eyed daughter were eating breakfast. There were platters and platters: steak, scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese cake, jam, marmalade, toast.
They ate almost nothing, just sat with all of it in front of them.