JIM DODSON: Ilya: A Hero Without a Country
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Ilya Starodubsky stands just five-foot-five. He's a small bear of a man with a serene face crowned by a duck fluff of thinning white hair. He is a daily bread baker, a doting grandpapa, a decorated soldier from Russia's own Greatest Generation.
He is also a hero of the people officially without a country and a man in limbo.
There is scarcely a wrinkle on Ilya's face as he tells his tale. When he smiles, which is often, he seems like a man far younger than 92 years. When he speaks, his voice is both booming and tender, dignified and passionate.
"Why do you look so young?" I asked Ilya Starodubsky. His daughter, Ilana Stewart, translated my question to him into Russian.
He smiled and answered robustly: "When I was a young boy living on my family's farm near Chernobyl, I ate 12 eggs and drank a gallon of milk every day. People there said I probably would die from doing this, but I never did. Perhaps it is because I never ate bread in those days. But now I bake my own!"
"That Chernobyl?" I wondered.
He nodded vigorously, curling out his lower lip, suddenly resembling a baby Nikita Khrushchev. At least he didn't take off his shoe and pound it on the table to make the point.
"It was a beautiful place then," he said through his daughter. "The problems came later."
Spread across the kitchen table of his daughter's home at National Golf Club, however, lay a dozen oddly beautiful Russian and American military medals belonging to Ilya Starodubsky -- or the Americanized "Stark" as he prefers his neighbors to call him at Pinehurst Manor. To Ilana and Tom Stewart and their teenage son Bryan, Ilya is simply "Deda" (Grandpapa) while his wife of 67 years, Manya, is simply "Baba" (Grandmother).
The bright red, white and blue medals were bestowed on Deda by the American Veterans Association for his service as an aircraft gunner protecting Allied and American supply ships during the latter days of World War II.
The darker-ribboned medals are Russian, but not the original ones that recognized his heroic service at the sieges of Stalingrad, Kiev, and several other embattled cities of the old Soviet Union. His oldest daughter, a senior flight attendant for Delta Airlines, managed to find replacements on the black market in Russia.
"When my father and mother immigrated from Russia 15 years ago," explained Ilana Stewart, "the Russian government stripped him of all his medals. He had to give them up in order to come to America. This was a sacrifice he was happy to make. He renounced his citizenship there, believing he would soon have his citizenship here.
"My mother received her citizenship eight years ago, but my father's has been delayed by one thing after another."
She glanced at Deda and smiled. The small white-haired Russian bear smiled back.
"You would not believe what he has been through in his life," she said. "Meanwhile, we wait. His biggest fear is that he will die without becoming an American citizen."
"But he does not give up hope!" injected his wife, Citizen Manya, in delightful Russian-accented English. "He must answer 25 questions about America! He already knows the answers to these questions. For many years!"
She grinned hugely. "Ask him anything!"
At a time when millions of illegal immigrants may soon gain amnesty and be permitted to pass through the express checkout line for obtaining American citizenship, it is a sad commentary on the state of American immigration that Deda Stark, a soldier decorated by two nations, has followed the rules and patiently waited his turn in line for over a decade, but not gained his citizenship yet.
The travels of Baba and Deda sound like something out of Tolstoy.
They met at a birthday party in Kiev in 1938 while students at the university studying metallurgy. A year later, on New Year's Eve, they got married and found a small one-bedroom apartment in the Ukrainian capital. They soon had an infant daughter, Ludmila.
The Germans invaded on June 22, 1941, advancing on Kiev. On June 23, Ilya Starodubsky received his draft notice and reported for duty in the Russian Army. Heading to the Western front, he said goodbye to his wife and baby daughter, uncertain when he would next see them.
By autumn, Kiev was under siege and Manya and Ludmila and her 70-year-old papa were placed on a refugee train and sent to Uzbekistan. The trip took two months.
Manya was 21, her baby 14 months, her papa old and frail. The train cars were unheated, overcrowded, full of disease and sickness. Her baby caught pneumonia and died in her arms. "There were no medications to save her," Baba said in her quiet broken English. "This I cannot forget. This is like yesterday."
Her father's feet got severely frostbitten on the journey. When gangrene set in, he died, too. The authorities took both their bodies away, and Manya never learned where they were buried.
Across the frontier in Uzbekistan, on an ancient Marco Polo trail to the Middle East, Manya was given a job working on a state cooperative farm that raised cotton. She was fortunate to find her two older sisters there, happy to have some semblance of family.
"I write letters to my husband," she explained vigorously. "But the mails, they don't work. I hear nothing from him."
Still, she kept writing. The Red Army promised to get her letters through.
Finally, something came back. It was an official notification that Ilya Starodubsky was missing in action while fighting with an artillery unit in the Western Ukraine. A short time later, another official notification arrived saying he was dead.
She kept writing him anyway, refusing to believe it.
Reunited at Last
Out of the 120 men in his unit, in fact, just 13 survived on the Western front. They were sent to try to save Stalingrad from the Germans. Next his gunnery unit was dispatched to protect a port city on the White Sea where American and British supply ships were bringing in vital supplies to the Red Army. On the way there, he passed through Buchenwald concentration camp. "The camp had been liberated," he said through his daughter. "But the ovens were still warm."
After this he was sent to Latvia, in the Balkans, to work in a large military hospital.
There, because he was a farm boy, a captain made Ilya Starodubsky a staff cook. He cooked for 2,800 people every day and continued writing his beloved Manya, not knowing whether she was alive or dead. He sent the letters to their old apartment's address in Kiev.
Near the end of 1944, three years after they parted, Manya returned to that small apartment and found others living in it. There was no glass in the windows or locks on the doors, she recalls. Everything they owned had been looted. The city was in ruins, but she had learned her husband was alive. Better yet, a neighbor had saved both of their letters to each other.
When Ilya finally climbed the steps to their apartment in late October 1945, his wife was not there.
"I was working that day at the post office," she said with a laugh.
The factory where both had worked as scientists before the war was also in ruins. Ilya eventually joined the work force rebuilding it by hand, brick by brick. In 1946, Manya gave birth to another daughter, Maya. Daughter No. 3, Ilana, was born in 1960.
In 1977, Ilana immigrated to a kibbutz in Israel, but she never felt comfortable there.
"In Russia I was a Jew, and in Israel I was a Russian," she said.
Through an American sponsor, she legally immigrated to Albany, N.Y., in 1979 and found a job wrapping gifts at Macy's while she learned English.
"My first real word of English was 'delectable,' -- from the Nine Lives TV commercial," she said with a laugh that sounded remarkably like her papa's.
When her sponsors moved to Miami, she did, too -- and soon began attending community college. She eventually went to work for Pan Am Airlines, flying the Moscow route. "I took the job," she admitted, "so I could go home and see my parents." Ilya and Manya were proud Russian Jews living in a Ukrainian city where anti-Semitism was on the rise. One evening as he was coming home from the factory, tiny Ilya was jumped by a man twice his size, who put him into the hospital for more than a month.
Her parents legally immigrated to Brooklyn in 1990. Not long after he arrived, Ilya suffered severe chest pains and went to a hospital on Coney Island, where he was left on a gurney in the emergency room for more than 24 hours.
When Ilana's fiance Tom Stewart heard about it, he arranged to have her father flown to a hospital in his hometown of Petoskey, Mich. At that time, Stewart was working as the seasonal head professional for two distinguished golf clubs in Florida and Michigan.
"They treated Deda like the hero he is," Tom remembers. "In the space of a day, Deda went from a gurney in an emergency room to a private room with a view of Little Traverse Bay. The local paper ran a front page story on him."
'Sad and a Little Angry'
When the Stewarts and their young son Bryan moved to Pinehurst in 1997, Deda and Baba came with them. The next year, Manya "Stark" received her citizenship.
But once again, the system forced Ilya to wait.
"We were finally called in for an interview, they told us to send his medical papers to Charlotte," Ilana explained. "We did this but heard nothing. When I checked, they admitted they either lost or never received his transferred papers. I checked with Florida, and they had no idea where his paperwork had gone. He was officially lost in the system."
Recently, the INS in Charlotte got in touch to say Ilya Stark will eventually have his American citizenship processed -- but probably not for another two years.
"This makes me sad and a little angry," admitted his daughter Ilana. "This is a man who has waited his entire life without ever complaining. All he wants is to die an American citizen. At 92, the days may be very brief."
When Deda spoke through his daughter to a Sandhills Men's Breakfast not long ago, the group gave him a lengthy standing ovation and a salute. Deda wept, and so did many of his U.S. military counterparts in the audience.
"I feel close to the American people, and I wish to belong here before I die," he said simply.
"What do you like about being in Pinehurst?" I asked Citizen Deda, in place of the citizenship questions he's known the answers to for years.
"I love the pancakes at Mac's!" he boomed back at me, and smiled.
Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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