My mother-in-law passed away this past weekend. Her life was punctuated by incredible hardships, but she was a survivor. Thank you, Helen, for welcoming me into your family.
Helen Dye (Galina Ivonova Lebedeva) March 19, 1923 – November 17, 2012
Helen Dye was born as Galina Lebedeva in a small village near Rzhev, Russia (100 miles west of Moscow) to Ivon Lebedev and Katerina (Yermolinski) Lebedeva, the second of three children. The family lived on their agricultural estate provided by Helen’s maternal grandparents, whose Polish family had large land holdings in the area. Helen’s paternal side had an extensive history as civil servants in the Czar’s court. Indeed, her father, Ivon was a Colonel in the White Russian Army, but was soon discharged after having contracted typhus. Foretelling her future, Helen experienced tragedies at her birthplace: When she was two years old, a fire in her home resulted in the death of her younger sister, which she remembered her whole life. Her young uncle, who had lived in her house, was a notorious womanizer, but met with a pre-mature death when a jealous boyfriend clubbed him over the head. But many extended relatives on both sides of the family lived in the tranquil area, and life was generally good.
When Helen was four years old, the NKVD (fore-runners of the KGB) knocked on their door at three o’clock in the morning and demanded they pack their bags within an hour and board a train headed for a labor camp (the Gulag). The government would confiscate their home and property as part of their collectivization program. The family was loaded into a boxcar along with other internally exiled families and sent to the Ural Mountains to work in a gold mine. Helen remembered the long trek from the train and through the snow to the labor camp. There, the family was assigned a small corner of a warehouse as their home, separated from others by a blanket hanging from the ceiling. Helen’s father appealed to the authorities to, at least, have them sent to an encampment where other extended family members were being exiled (their crimes being landowners and being associated, however minimally, with the Czar), to no avail. Later, the family escaped from the labor camp and made their way back to Rzhev and relatives, only to find their jewelry, heirlooms, and possessions that they left behind (hidden from the government) had been sold to keep the villagers from starving. They also learned that many of their extended family had perished under the harsh conditions of labor camps or had been executed as enemies of the State. Thus, they went into hiding, staying with friends and relatives. Helen’s father tried to barter and sell goods to bring food to the table, and was thrown into the Lubyanka Prison many times for this illegal activity. Eventually, the family was re-absorbed into society, and settled in Klin, about 50 miles northwest of Moscow. Helen went to school, and later trained as a midwife at the local medical school.
In 1941, the Nazis invaded Russia, and quickly overran Klin. Helen was working at the hospital when panic struck: many of the doctors and nurses decided to run and hide in the woods, but Helen chose to stay. Good choice, as the Nazis rounded up those who had hidden from them, accused them of being partisans, and hanged them as examples for all to see. Helen later learned that her 16-year-old cousin had been accused of stealing food by the Nazis, and his punishment was to be put inside a pen with hungry dogs and mauled to death. Helen’s aunt hated all Germans for the rest of her life because of this incident and other atrocities she had witnessed. Helen’s older brother, Mikhail, escaped and joined the Red Army (he suffered a bullet in the head at Stalingrad), and amid all the strife and chaos, she lost all communication with her family.
Because Helen studied the German language in school and was fluent, the Nazis found her useful. (It also didn’t hurt that she was a beautiful, young woman). She was put to work in a commissary to serve German soldiers, and was generally well-fed and well-treated. When the Russian Army counter-attacked, she was transferred by train to Minsk. Things turned for the worse when her friend sent her a letter in which she gave the opinion that the Germans were losing the war. The letter was intercepted by the Nazi authorities; Helen was accused of siding with the enemy, and was thrown into a concentration camp, and her friend was detained by the SS and was never heard from again. A German colonel, who knew her, rescued her from the camp and sent her to work on his farm near Wiesbaden, Germany. There, she lived and worked alongside the family, and ties were so strong that they continued their correspondence throughout their lives.
The war finally reached western Germany, where Helen experienced aerial bombings nearby, and finally, American tanks rumbling right by the farmhouse. After the war, she chose to remain with her adopted German family, and started working in downtown Wiesbaden. With her exposure while working with American officials and socializing with American GI’s, she learned the English language. This was important, as she could not return home to Russia – Stalin had declared anyone falling behind Western lines were traitors, and would be met with labor camps or execution upon their return. As a Displaced Person, she chose to live in the United States, and her adopted German family contacted their German friends, the Schaltenbrands of Sherwood, Oregon, who were willing to sponsor her. In 1950, she travelled across the ocean by ship, registered at Ellis Island, and took a train to Oregon. On the farm in Sherwood, she gathered filberts and performed other work, but eventually lived and worked in Portland, taking jobs with Leopold and Stevens (optics) and Jantzen swimwear. She gained her US citizenship in 1955.
In 1955, Helen met Drew Dye, a union worker at Davidson Bakery. Drew had also experienced much hardship in his earlier life, having been the tenth of ten children struggling to survive in Dustbowl, Oklahoma during the Great Depression. They fell in love and were married months later. They had their wedding dinner at The Country Kitchen Restaurant (still operating, and which remained their favorite restaurant through their last wedding anniversary) and honeymooned in Depoe Bay (convincing the owner of the Spouting Horn Restaurant to let them spend their wedding night upstairs). They decided to have a family, buying a small home in outer SE Portland in 1956, three months before Gordon was born, who was followed by Gary in 1958. Helen quit working to be a homemaker shortly thereafter.
Having been a victim of government pogroms in the past, the onset of the Cold War caused Helen to be very concerned with her Russian heritage. To be on the safe side, she decided to claim a German heritage, even on her official US papers. She told everyone she was German, including her husband and children. Finally, the truth came out, telling her husband that she lost all contact of her family since 1941. She contacted a person in Russia to track down her family, finally obtaining her mother’s address. When her mother received a letter in the mail saying her long-lost daughter was alive and well and living with her family in America – over twenty years after having been assumed killed along with millions of other Russians in the war – she fainted on the post office floor. The following years saw thousands of letters and boxes of food and essentials sent to her mother and brother (her father had died in 1952) in Russia. However, none of this was sent from her mailbox at home, fearing the neighbors might find out that she and her children were Russian.
Because telephones were rare in Russia back then, Helen heard her mother’s and brother’s voices on the telephone in 1975 for the first time in over 30 years, to be follow by a trip to Russia in 1978 (before which, she renounced her Soviet citizenship, just in case…). As one can imagine, the scene at Leningrad Airport upon her arrival and first meeting in nearly 40 years cannot be described by words. Her mother died a year later. Her brother was provided an airline ticket to America in 1985, and marveled at her good life in contrast to his own in Soviet Russia. Her brother died in 1988, but her nephew visited America in 2001. Her son Gary visited Russia in 1994 and 2002, acquainting himself with some of his Russian heritage. However, Helen was vehement about being an American, and dismissive of her Russian identity.
Helen’s interests started and ended with her family. She loved making jellies, jams, and pies from the fruit grown in the backyard. She achieved legendary status with kids in the neighborhood by serving her homemade chocolate pudding for lunch. She was a classic Little-League mom; loved to take family trips to the coast, mountains, Kah-nee-ta, and scenic places; and had many friends that she’d known for fifty years and longer. And every so often she would coax her husband to take her out dancing.
Last year, after significant weight loss, Helen was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia, causing ileus, and preventing nourishment from being absorbed into her body. Death came slow, but relatively painless, and she died peacefully in her beloved home of the last 56 years. She is survived by her husband of 57 years, two sons, and four grandchildren.