Sleeping Where the Stench is the Worst

Victor Herman (1915-1985) was a Jewish-American who spent eighteen years as a Soviet prisoner in the work-camps of Siberia. In his 1979 autobiography Coming Out of the Ice, Victor tells a thought-provoking story from his own experience. For a period of time he was held with fifteen other prisoners in a cell measuring 5½ by 10 feet. Victor says he was nearly insane after only twenty-four hours in the cell, surviving only because of a fellow prisoner known simply as the Elder. The Elder was recognized as the leader, a man who looked out for the other prisoners. The Elder slept closest to the Parasha – the latrine – where the stench was the worst. He was also closest to the door, where he was the first to be beaten by the inhumane guards.

The prisoners were fed once a day, and the Elder counted the sixteen bowls of soup, seeing that every man was fed, not letting anyone eat until all were served. At night, the men filled every bit of space on the cold stone floor. Prisoners couldn’t turn without disturbing the others, so twice a night the Elder called out for the men to turn.

Victor Herman, who later converted to Christianity, said that his Siberian cell would always remind him of Christ-like service. In every situation of life, no matter how grim, it pointed to the need for a servant leader. But the cell told him also that the person who is closest to the Parasha – that person most exposed to the blows of the system – could claim authority to lead and to serve. That’s something of what it meant for Jesus to “make himself nothing” for our sakes (Philippians 2:7).      

In writing to the Christians at Phillipi, Paul extolled Christ’s humility and His servant leadership: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul wrote, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only on your OWN interests, but also to the interests of OTHERS. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5). Considering the interests of others as more important than our own links us with Christ, who was our true Example. In this “It’s all about ME” society, let’s look for opportunities to serve others, even if it’s where the stench is the worst!

— Paul W. Brubaker

May/June 2017