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The Bravest Man I Will Ever Know: My Grandfather's Story Part Two

Leyba Dreyer's story posted by Gary Dreyer on February 28, 2012 at 10:50 pm. Leyba emigrated from Riga, Latvia to New York, United States in 1989

This is the continuation of the immigration story of Leyba Dreyer, who immigrated from Riga, Latvia to New York City in November of 1989.

After the war was finished, one did not simply return home right away. You continued serving for an additional period that could be as short as a few months and as long as a few years. I personally chose to continue serving in the army until 1953, when I applied to become an officer. However, such an application required obtaining a special security clearance, which was not granted to me as my father, when he was sentenced and deported in 1941, was declared an enemy of the state, thus sinking any chances for my promotion to a government post of any higher rank. During those eight years, I was stationed in Riga and was responsible for doing bureaucratic work that originally was the responsibility of officers, however, as there was a severe shortage of officers in the immediate post-war USSR, and an even greater one of those willing to take such a position, soldiers not holding an officer’s rank were appointed to such positions, myself among them. Riga, most of the other large cities of Europe, was devastated by the conflict of the Second World War. Thus housing, among other things, was in a seriously short supply, and if one managed to get their hands on it, conditions were never pleasant nor spacious.

In 1946, I was given a room on the sixth floor of the building at Number 2 Mer?e?a iela, at the corner of Mer?e?a and Krišj??a Barona, very close to the Old Town in Riga. While the building had an elevator, it was more often broken rather than working, beyond that, the space was not particularly large and did not have the best sanitary conditions. Meanwhile, the rest of my family had left Tatarastan and moved back to Zilupe. However, conditions there were not particularly good, so it was decided that it would be better for them to come live with me in Riga; today, it is simply surreal for me to imagine how absurd and desperate the situation had to be that it forced a family of five people to inhabit one small room for five years. After my marriage in 1952, I moved in with her family. The rest of my family would continue to live in that room until they gradually moved into their own apartments; however this process lasted into the 1970’s. Conditions at my wife’s home at 56 Dzirnavu iela in Riga were not much better, however my daughter would be born there and we would continue to live there until 1956 when we moved to the apartment we would inhabit for the next three decades at Number 57 on what was then called Engels iela. In order to get this apartment however, I had to pay the former owner 20,000 rubles on the side, which in those days was a very large sum. This apartment was on the fourth floor without an elevator and the building did not have central heating until ten years after we moved in.

Life in the Soviet Union was becoming more and more difficult and unstable. However, it was extremely difficult to leave, in fact impossible before the 1970’s, and the only possible destination was Israel. However, gradually our friends and relatives started immigrating. My wife’s brother left for Israel with his family in 1972, and he we began to receive invitations to apply for an Israeli exit visa. Out of fear and uncertainty, among other circumstances, we continued putting this off for almost two decades. We came closest to leaving before we actually did during the Moscow Olympics debacle in 1979-1980, when many people, including my sister-in-law and her family departed for the United States; however we did not wish to interrupt our children’s educations nor risk becoming refusniks should we be denied. By the time we received the invitation in 1988 however, staying in the Soviet Union became not only pointless, but also dangerous and disadvantageous. Our children had completed their educations, and were not earning particularly high salaries, and standards of living were clearly falling rapidly all around the country. We also already had two young grandchildren, and we were determined, along with their parents of course, to ensure that they had much more freedom and opportunity in their lives then we all had. Thus, after some persuasion from my wife, we all unanimously concluded that immigration to the United States would be the best option.

In order to immigrate, we all had to submit a request to abandon the country permanently to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Riga. Processing the request took three months, which were very difficult and full of uncertainty. After receiving permission to depart that fall, we, like all the other applicants, were given six months to leave the country and denounce our Soviet citizenship. In addition to this difficult and pressing time constrain, we also had to go through the seemingly endless array of paperwork necessary for us to depart. First, obtaining Israeli exit visas through the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, which was responsible for representing all Israeli interests in the USSR from the Six Day War in 1967 up to the collapse in 1991, and also visas for us to enter Austria where we would be processed before hypothetically entering Israel.

After bidding farewell to all our friends and relatives who would be staying behind, my wife, son, daughter, son-in law, my two grandchildren, and myself along with six others who would be accompanying us in Moscow, boarded the overnight train from Riga to Moscow in February of 1989. Upon arriving at the train station, we were met by a group of people who we had contact to organize logging and other accommodations during our brief stay in Moscow. The primary reason for this was that finding a hotel room in the USSR was practically impossible. After they met us and got our luggage, they drove us to Sheremetyevo airport to drop off our luggage, and then to the dormitory where we would stay that night. At the dorm, we had a brief lunch and went to bed early in the evening, as we knew we would be getting up in the wee hours of the night. At 3 AM, as planned, our contacts in Moscow arrived to take us to the airport, as the regulations of the time demanded that passengers on departing international flights be at the airport within twenty hours or so of scheduled departure time.

I cannot forget my experience at the customs checkpoint at Sheremetyevo. It was arguably the most humiliating and disgraceful series of events in my life. The Customs Officers did everything possible to make our experience more unpleasant, to say the least. To say we were searched rigorously is a grave understatement. The documents from the medals I had received for my service in the Soviet Army were seized, as was a watch my father-in-law had given to my wife on our wedding day. But luckily, we were able to pass the watch over to my brother-in-law who then returned it to us when he immigrated two years later. However, I have never seen the papers again. As our intended destination was the United States, we knew that we would have to be prepared to spend as many as six months in Italy. We also knew that the support Jewish organizations paid was only enough to cover food and rent, so we knew that we would have to bring things to sell. We knew that among the most popular items in Italy were small nick-knacks, and the one which we had settled on was a small wooden toy in the shape of a chicken, and we packed around ten or fifteen of them. Every single one was packed in an individual box with wrapping and newspapers so that they would not be damaged. The customs officers, for whatever reason, that these wooden chickens deserved special attention, and he unwrapped every individual toy, inspected it from all sides, then took a peek inside the mechanics, and then proceeded to very slowly and purposefully, repack the toy. After inspecting around six or seven, my cousin, who was one of the six people accompanying us in Moscow, yelled out from the sidelines, as the customs checkpoint was visible to them, “Be careful, an egg’s going to fall out now!” After this, everyone started laughing hysterically, and the customs officer backed off.

            After a flight of two hours, we crossed the Iron Curtain and arrived in Vienna, Austria. Soon thereafter, we were asked to declare whether or not we were going to proceed with immigrating to Israel. If we agreed, the rest of the process would be rather quick, in essence, we would be in Israel and finished with immigration in a few weeks, and would become citizens almost immediately. However, for a number of reasons, we choose to continue with pursuing immigration to the US.  One of the first things we had to in Vienna was for the heads of household, in this case myself and my son-in-law, to go to the Jewish Agency or Sochnut in Vienna to confirm that we were not going to immigrate to Israel. It turned out that the Israeli diplomat I was questioned by there was the husband of my cousin, who had immigrated to Israel with her husband through Poland in the 1950’s. At first, I did not know it was him. He began to ask us why we were deciding to go to America rather than Israel. The initial reason I gave was that we had most of our close relatives in the US, such as my wife’s brother and my sister-in-law. After I said this, he gave me a disbelieving look and picked up the phone. He spoke a few sentences in Hebrew, which I could not understand, and then handed the phone to me. At the other end was my cousin, and she explained that the man before me was her husband. While she was disappointed that we would not be going to Israel, it added some comedy to the otherwise sobering and difficult process.

            After spending a week in Vienna, which was very much surreal for people who had spent most of their lives in the Soviet nightmare of shortages, rationing, discontent, misery, and instability to experience their first glance of freedom, liberty, and capitalism, we took a train to Italy. Life in Italy was not easily. We counted literally every penny spent and earned. The financial support which we received from Jewish organizations was, as expected, only enough to cover food and rent. Housing conditions, again, were not particularly good, and over the course of nine months we had to change apartments three times, and our relations with the landlords were never particularly good. Work was not very easy to find, however, eventually all of us found something. I found a job working in a synagogue, my son took a job as a teacher in one of the schools for the children who were immigrating with their parents, and my daughter and her husband found work as well. Those nine months were long, and very stressful. However, of course there were things in Italy which I look upon fondly. For example, the climate and the beaches were absolutely wonderful, swimming was possible almost year-round. The beauty and history of what surrounded us was also beautiful and simply unforgettable.

            When we first arrived in New York in November, we lived with relatives for the first few weeks; however we found an apartment on Ave V where all seven of us lived for our first year in America. Eventually, however, it became necessary to find separate apartments, and our daughter found one in a building on East 18th Street between Quentin Road and Avenue R, and we also found one for ourselves a few blocks away. A few years after that, my daughter was able to achieve the American dream by buying a house on Staten Island, and my son got married, had two children, and achieved success as well.

            Today, when I look at what my children and grandchildren have been able to achieve already and what opportunities to achieve even more they have been granted and will be granted in this country in the future, I am certain that it was worth all the heartache and difficulty that we had to go through in order to get to the United States so that they could live as free people in a free nation. I love this country with all my heart, and will forever be grateful towards what it has done for both my family and I.




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wonderful story -- oh, those wooden chickens! they helped us in a difficult times. The Sokhnut episode must be very emotional for you. thank you fo rthe story.

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