[Editor’s Note: Tom Negovan will become an American citizen later this year. He will be writing about that experience for Constitution Daily, in a follow-up to this post about his father’s journey to freedom.]
There are two boats.
Where they’re going doesn’t matter much to the throng of immigrants crowding the wharf, longing to be in the belly of either one.
The proverbial huddled masses, they’re yearning to breathe free. Somewhere among them is my father.
He knows, just barely, that one of these enormous ships — he’s never seen a vessel so big — is bound for a city called Halifax. The other’s destined for an island named Ellis. The rest is a mystery, an enigma deeper than the fog that shrouds this storied British port. He knows only that his future lies across a wide expanse of water, that these boats are the only passage. I like to picture a brave and handsome young man whose smile belies all he’s been through to get here. Three lifetimes, I often think, in his first 20 years. Before England, his last known address was a displaced persons camp in Germany.
To Bogdan Njegovan and the hundreds of lost and dispossessed post-World War II immigrants crushed around him, both destinations — Ellis, Halifax — mean the same thing. Freedom, democracy, a long shot at prosperity. There’s a word for that in the language of the collective. The only word they share: America.
This is something the son of an immigrant learns early on. Even the proud Canadian son of an immigrant; that only America can be a country, noun, adjective and objective all at once. Standing on that pier in that dawn’s early light, it was my father’s. Wherever his boat landed would be America enough.
It was. His travel papers show he arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, aboard the RMS Georgic on March 30, 1951. Georgic was the last ship made for the White Star Line, by the same builder as Titanic at the same shipyard in Belfast. Like my father, she bore the scars of war.
His father, Tomica, for whom I am named, had made this crossing many years earlier, worked in a mine in Colorado and returned, bringing money to his poor family on the farm in Yugoslavia. Serbs living in a tiny pocket of Croatia, the farm would not be theirs for long.
The term “ethnic cleansing” had real meaning for them. When war broke out, my father, a teenager, made his way to the mountains, joining his brothers and a group called the Chetniks fighting the Nazis, quickly learning how few friends they had in that fight. Even the Allies were not their allies, although the Chetniks rescued enough downed British and US airmen to be taken in by the Brits at the end of the war, lodged in internment camps, trained in the trades (my father became a mechanic) and eventually brought to England, where they learned to yearn for “America,” whatever that meant. It wasn’t yet a place, still a thing. Not a location, but an idea taking root in a young man’s mind, only beginning to germinate into the inevitable ideal. Branded “men without a country,” men like my father set out searching for one.
Many years later, that journey complete, we’d walk together, my father, mother and I, along the cobblestone streets of my adopted home, Philadelphia. The place where that very same idea was born in the minds of some other young men and began to grow. I’ve long considered those streets hallowed ground.
He loves Canada, my father. Had to renounce his homeland to become a citizen. Yugoslavia was a Communist country then. He renounced it gladly, tears streaming down his face. They could have fallen on either side of the border.
At various times, all of his children have lived in America. Half of them, one of my sisters and I, are still here, both near the end of the path to citizenship. The timing? It just worked out that way. Our reasons? Different, I think, but in their genesis, the same; that idea our father had.
Emmy-winning journalist Tom Negovan is co-anchor of WGN News at Noon in Chicago. He served formerly as weekend anchor and investigative reporter at CBS-owned KYW-TV in Philadelphia.