This article is part of a series on Our Grandparents. See also:
- Irving Diamond: A Neuroscience Great Left Big Shoes Behind
- Ilya Dreyzen: A Faded Russian Hero
- Viktoria Dreyzen: Home of the Brave
- Michelle Diamond: Washington Prom
I have only one memory of Ilya Samoyilovich Dreyzen. I was no more than four. Ilya was a distant, oppressive figure in the back of an enormous room. My grandfather never spoke to me personally.
Ilya was to die soon after. My father spoke on the phone in Russian in the airport; he hung up the phone and a tear slid down his rigid face. I understood that something deeply affecting had taken place.
Through conversations over the years with my grandmother, Ilya’s full life story has begun to emerge. Ilya Dreyzen was towering and great. He was a war hero and a PhD. Behind this imposing man, I’ve found a fascinating and troubled history.
Ilya was left behind as a young child in Russia. His parents departed for America without him when he was four years old and left him in the care of an aunt. They cited administrative difficulties: Ilya’s name had been misspelled on his passport. Later, his family painstakingly, even using bribery, arranged for the his escape from Russia in a cargo vessel. Ilya declined their offer. His motivations remain unclear. Ilya, by this time sixteen, was a Pioner – the Russian military’s equivalent of a boy scout – and I’m told he felt beholden by a sense of patriotism. I suspect that he was developing the beginnings of a powerful, proud bitterness. Ilya would not see his parents again until middle age.
Ilya found work on an industrial river boat. Three years later, he joined the war.
My grandmother, Viktoria Dreyzen, remembers Ilya’s recollections from World War II. They used to march for eternities on end. They even slept while marching: “If I could put but a finger on the moving caravan,” Ilya would recount, “I’d experience the most heavenly sleep!” Hygiene was poor, and Ilya – like his comrades – developed boils on his seat and legs. “I mounted a horse once,” he said, “and burst them all at once!” This experience, I’m told, replaced immediate pleasure with eventual comfort.
Ilya soon became a decorated platoon leader. He twice earned Russia’s second-highest military distinction, The Order of the Red Star, and also earned the Order of Glory and the Medal for Bravery. Here, Ilya’s commanders describe the feats which earned him his Red Stars.
“He never told any of this to me,” my father said disbelievingly, shaking his head, as he read Ilya’s awards.
Ilya met Viktoria at a dance. Viktoria studied at an all-female textile institute; the institute often invited the sailors to their large gymnasium for formal dances. Ilya asked Viktoria to dance. “Here is a man I could marry,” Viktoria remembers thinking that night. I pushed her to explain. “He was dedicated to learning, and intelligent,” she remembers. “He cared about important things. He had also been in the war,” she added. Viktoria trusted him.
At lunch one afternoon, the young couple was approached by a belligerent drunken stranger. The man yelled insultingly at Ilya. Ilya stood up and stared him in the face. “He had been in the war, and he was not scared,” Viktoria recalls. The man left them alone.
Ilya and Viktoria were working at a factory when, one day, Viktoria received a telegram. Ilya’s parents and brothers had managed to return to Russia, and were waiting in Leningrad! She ran for miles to deliver the news to her husband. They boarded the next train. The family was soon reunited, though only briefly. Only a handful of black-and-white pictures – Russians lounging with half-smiles – serve to reveal to me the secrets of this meeting.
It was around this time that the couple had their only child, Alexander, my father.
In 1965, Ilya earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Rostov University. Ilya was an early researcher in Novikov Gears, a highly strong and efficient gearing design. Alex, by this time ten years old, remembers hearing, as he lay awake at night, the endless cranking sound of his father’s mechanical calculator in the small apartment’s neighboring room.
The family moved to America in 1981: husband, wife, son, and Tatyana, Viktoria’s mother.
I never knew Ilya personally. I imagine my grandfather as large, forceful, stubborn, and silent; I picture him as reserved, reticent, and hesitant to offer his opinions. Ilya spoke English poorly, I suspect, and had a narrow circle of friends. Ilya Dreyzen died in 1995, of a heart attack, divorced and alone, in Portland, Oregon.
16-year-old Ilya belonged in Russia. 71-year-old Ilya, I suspect, did too. Ilya was a magnificent Russian reduced to obscurity.
To me, though, Ilya is still young, smiling proudly in that small, fading picture, looking off into the distance with his war medals. To me, Ilya Dreyzen forever remains a hero.