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 started going to Curves gym,” my 88-year-old grandma told me last week. “And I asked them, ‘Which curves should I gain, and which curves should I get rid of?’ ” As long as I’ve known her, Viktoria Dreyzen has had her easygoing, almost child-like sense of humor.
She certainly doesn’t have a lot to worry about. A 20-year-old Ukranian student from Portland State visits regularly, to help with household chores and grocery shopping. She visits the senior center once a week, to get some exercise in a relaxed Tai-Chi class. “Tai-Chi is a martial art,” she said. “But we move so slow, there’s no way we could ever hurt anybody!” My dad visits her almost daily for tea, food, and the 6PM news; when my brother and I are in town, we join as well. Grandma lives an altogether relaxed life in her small, cozy Beaverton home.
All has not always been well, though. Grandma’s present is the culmination of a difficult and storied past, as a chemistry student in Russia and as an American immigrant. Her success is a testament to the continued vigor of the American dream.
Troubles in Russia
A young Viktoria earned her masters at a textile institute, where she met Ilya. She then started working towards a Ph.D. in materials chemistry. Her project was to create a surface to which zebra mussels, a viciously invasive species, couldn’t adhere. She never finished her work, though: as Hitler rose to power in the years preceding WWII, Viktoria was sent off to a Nazi labor camp.
When she returned, her dad had her swear to never tell anyone about what she had experienced. She took his command very seriously. Several months afterwards, she saw a woman she had known from the labor camp. The woman recognized my grandma with surprise and approached her. But my grandma pretended she didn’t recognize the woman and kept walking.
To this day, grandma doesn’t want anyone to know what happened to her at the labor camp. And I’ll respect her wish. But her experience there placed upon her an emotional burden that she still sometimes struggles with today.
Back in Russia, Viktoria abandoned her Ph.D. work and began working at a textiles factory. Even after the war, the climate in Russia was often hostile toward Jews, and her family never managed to break into the middle class. Finally, at age 55, Viktoria heard news from abroad. One of Ilya’s brothers had secured for the family an invitation to immigrate. It was time to move to America.
A rough start in the States
In 1981, the last of the Dreyzen family immigrated to America. Viktoria, Ilya, Tatyana (Viktoria’s mom), and Alex (my dad) had pretty much nothing between them: the Russian government had withheld what little retirement savings they had, along with their citizenships. They almost-literally fit the stereotype of the penniless immigrant family.
In the beginning, saving money was of utmost importance. Viktoria and Tatyana once walked for two miles to the doctor in order to save two coupons for subway tickets, worth 75 cents each. Viktoria would walk a mile farther to reach a different store, just to save 10 cents on peanuts.
Even so, Viktoria and her family probably would not have managed were it not for several social programs offered by the U.S. government. Viktoria was part of an assistance program called Section 8, where she received training and worked as a bookkeeper in exchange for food stamps and housing assistance. And she received a free translator to help her mother communicate at the doctor’s office. After the family had lived in the U.S. for 3 or 4 months, Tatyana began receiving SSI, or supplemental security income, from the government. Only then did some of the financial burden ease up.
Still, other difficulties remained. “It was cultural shock, it was absence of language, I cried for a year!” Viktoria recalls. The Dreyzens lived in a Russian enclave in the Bronx; still, moving to America was a jarring experience. Viktoria worked tirelessly to learn the English language, filling notebook after notebook with Russian words and their translations. Finally, by the time my dad finished school and got a job in Portland, Viktoria was comfortable enough to move into a predominantly English-speaking neighborhood.
In Portland, Viktoria worked for a few years as a teaching assistant, helping Russian students learn English. Eventually, it was time to retire. Sure, she never found work in the primary labor market. She never worked in textiles, her original area of expertise. But she did come a long way from the distraught immigrant walking for miles through a strange city to find affordable food. America was good to Viktoria, and it was good to my whole family—certainly better than Russia was. I asked her if she would have succeeded in America without its safety net for immigrants. “Um, no, unless I would go to sell my body, I don’t know, but nobody wants my body, it was not young at the time,” she laughed. Viktoria found humor even in this notion, but the possibility was very real. Immigrants, and the poor in general, often fare much worse elsewhere than they do in America. If my grandma and her family is any proof, the American dream is still alive and well.
Even today, not all is perfect. Grandma still struggles sometimes with anxiety and depression, brought on by memories of her difficult past, and by the loss of friends and loved ones today. At times like these, perhaps the old country has something to offer. Ben and I got her a copy of the Brothers Karamazov in the original Russian, which she read eagerly. “Think less like Ivan, and more like Alyosha,” I told her once, after she complained of depression. She seems to have taken it to heart. In this sense, our connection to Russia remains a gift rather than a burden.
Nowadays, between Tai-Chi, Sudoku, 60 Minutes and Time Magazine, there’s not much Russia left in Viktoria’s daily life. But now and then, whether it’s a few words exchanged with Alex, or a quote from Dostoevsky, or an old Russian joke that hardly translates, our family’s Russian past appears in full. And maybe it’s thanks to America’s treatment of this immigrant family—to its ability to welcome immigrants to their new home, while respecting the culture of their old one—that, somehow, these Russian memories tend to be fond ones.