Sunday, March 2, 2008

Lessons from the Gulag

By Philip Humbert

This week I read, Coming Out of the Ice: An Unexpected Life, by Victor Hermann. It's the story of a 15 year-old American who went with his family from Dearborn, Michigan to what is now Gorky, Russia in the 1930's. His father wanted to help build a Ford automobile factory as part of modernizing Stalin's "worker's paradise." Unfortunately, despite his father's idealism and great intentions, Victor ended up spending twenty years in Stalin's "Gulag," a series of Siberian prison and extermination camps.

The book is out of print, but if you can find a copy, I highly recommend it. It's amazing writing. It will break your heart and inspire you. Victor was finally released from the Gulag in the mid-50's but then fought another 25 years before being allowed to return to his native America in 1978. It's an astonishing story.

Three things struck me as being important to write in this reader.

The first is the casualness of evil.

Humans are capable of extraordinary love, beauty, and compassion, but we are also capable of evil. Some of Victor's suffering was inflicted by cruel people, but much of it came from ordinary incompetence and casual indifference. Clerks lost his papers. Guards put him on the wrong train, food didn't arrive or cooking fuel was misplaced and prisoners starved, froze, or were simply forgotten.

Few of us (hopefully none!) will experience anything like the Gulag, but I couldn't help think about the ordinary slights of everyday life. In our hurry, how often do we neglect the people around us? How often do we criticize or judge people without thinking? We are the richest, most blessed people in history, and yet we allow people to slip through the cracks. Especially if they are different or unwashed or unpleasant, we shy away. It's a troubling reality.

The second is the power of the human will.

Victor was determined to survive, and he did. Despite enormous obstacles, he lived. Once, he and seventeen others were sent to load rail cars in the Siberian winter. After three days without food or shelter, and with only melted snow for water, he was the only one (!) left alive.

I think it was Clement Stone who said, "What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve." In this political season, we'll hear a great deal about how hard it is to "keep up" or "get ahead" and, of course, we do work incredibly hard and life is difficult. That's true.

But we also have so much to be grateful for! When I hear how "hard" it is to start a business, get an education, or make "ends meet," I have to shake my head. Folks, the library is free! The internet is cheap and easy! We've never had more resources to create and live the life we want.

Finally, I thought about the power of clarity.

With clarity, anything is possible. Even surviving the Gulag and eventually (after 40 years of struggle) getting permission to return to America is possible. But many of us are confused or unclear about our major priorities in life.

We want more savings, but we buy flat screen televisions. We want travel, larger homes, newer cars, and fashionable clothes--with less work. We want more (and richer) food, but slimmer bodies!

Victor Hermann was rarely confused. He was an American and he was determined to go home. To do that, he had to survive, and to do that, he had to get a piece of bread, a bit of soup, and shelter, even if it was only in a snow cave. When we are clear and determined, we can achieve anything!

Practice kindness. You never know when your smile or helping hand may make all the difference to someone who is losing hope. Then, strengthen your will until nothing can stop you. As Churchill advised, "Never, never, never, never give up!" And know your priorities. Make the hard choices. Say a resounding YES! to what you want and say no, or "later, maybe" to things of lesser importance.

These things saved Victor Hermann's life and they'll help you create the life you truly want.

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