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Author Who Was Russian Prisoner Dies : American Victor Herman Held 18 Years; Ordeal Became TV Film

March 29, 1985|From Times Wire Services

DETROIT — Victor Herman, an American who endured 18 years of brutality in the gulags of Siberia and later wrote a book on his experiences, has died at the age of 69.

Herman died Monday at Providence Hospital in suburban Southfield after suffering a heart attack at his Detroit home, a secretary for Herman's attorney, Robert Greenstein, said Thursday.

Herman was born in Detroit and was 16 when his Russian-born father and other Ford automotive workers took their families to the Soviet Union to work at a tractor plant in Gorky.

Among the other emigres was Walter Reuther, who one day would become president of the United Auto Workers union. Reuther's first wife, Lucille, stayed in Russia and eventually married Herman's older brother, Leo.

'Counterrevolutionary Activities'

In his new home, Victor Herman became an athlete, pilot and record-setting parachute jumper. But in 1938, after refusing to sign a form that would identify him as a Russian, he was arrested for "counterrevolutionary activities" and spent most of the next 18 years in Siberian prisons.

Most of the other workers had returned to the United States when their contract lapsed in 1936.

With the help of a cousin in America and some congressional pressure, Herman finally was able to return to the United States in 1976. His Soviet-born wife, whom he met in prison, her mother and the couple's two daughters followed. His book, "Coming Out of the Ice," was the basis for a 1982 CBS-TV movie.

In the book Herman described trapping rats and cats to eat so he had the strength to cut the 20 cubic cords of wood he was assigned each day.

'Like Reliving It All Again'

"In a way, it was like reliving it all again," he said after watching the television film. "But they couldn't show the prison camps as terrible as they actually were. I don't think Americans could imagine it."

Herman filed a $10-million suit against Ford Motor Co. in 1978 over his imprisonment, claiming that his father had been sent to the Soviet Union as part of Ford's plan to build a plant there. Ford denied the claim.

However, he and the company had agreed to seek mediation of the case, Greenstein said.

"Victor hadn't given up hope," said his sister, Rebecca Kemsley. "In fact, there is another hearing scheduled for next month."

Herman is survived by his wife, Galina, and daughters. His father died in 1953 and his mother in 1933 in the Soviet Union.

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