American History Monday, July 1, 2019
Independence Day is “my” day. I feel that way because of the reaction I get every year from the assembled crowd which attends my reading and discussion of the Declaration of Independence. Usually about eighty people from my community association show up to hear me read the Declaration, after which together we discuss its meaning and its worldwide impact to this day. The crowd ranges from school age children to The Greatest Generation, and the event has about a 50% annual turnover rate, so that new people hear Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin’s words being passed through my lips each year. Also discussed and quoted are great Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., so as to impart the truth that our nation’s great founding document has been a beacon of hope through the ages. Its central premise–that we all are born free with the same human nature, which can never be taken away from us by a government–has been a guiding light for those who have been oppressed in the United States, despite its historic imperfect application, and throughout the world. Freedom is a work in progress. Many never heard these things–especially the younger attendees. They simply are not taught these concepts in school. I usually get many ‘thanks’ from those who attend, and many more animated questions. Freedom is exciting, too.
But for the first time in seven years, this year I will not be reading the Declaration of Independence to a room full of people. It is bittersweet to contemplate missing the event. You see, I have a wedding to attend in Croatia, which is the birthplace of my mother, and the place from which the greatest hero of my life–my grandfather, Victor Sherko–launched his improbable journey to freedom to our nation of laws. It is because of Victor Sherko that I read the Declaration of Independence. His flight to freedom, and the life he was able to make for himself and his family in the United States of America, inspires me every day. Being at the place where he risked everything precious to him in the world so that it ultimately would be possible for me to be born, and to live in freedom in this country, will certainly be emotional.
Although he was an avid reader, my grandfather probably never contemplated that without the Declaration of Independence, the freedom that he ultimately experienced likely never would have happened. My grandparents, mother, and uncle lived in a small town called Malinska, on Island Krk (try pronouncing that without a vowel sound, as my mother so adeptly does!) in what was then Yugoslavia. During World War II, the island was occupied by the Nazis. My grandfather had to outsmart the S.S. when they came, to avoid capture and interment into a work camp like most of the men on the island. Those other men were unable to outwit the S.S., and most never came home. The story of how he avoided capture is amazing, but too long to tell here. Suffice it to say, my grandfather thought quickly. It helped that he also was able to speak German, since he was raised in a city then known as Fiume, which once was part of Austria-Hungary.
I do not know how he eventually managed to get off the island after avoiding capture, but my grandfather made his way to mainland Yugoslavia, where he connected with Yugoslav Partisans who were fighting the Nazis. My grandfather was a hotelier before the war. He was a master chef and pastry chef, and mainly cooked for the troops. But he quickly learned that the harsh and inflexible ways of the Partisans–who were Communists–was as unappealing to him as the Nazis. When the Nazis surrendered, the Communists took control of Yugoslavia. They nationalized my grandparents’ hotel (which had been closed during the war, of course); and when my grandfather refused to join the Communist Party, he was marked for ‘eviction’ from his home. He and his family were going to be left on the street.
Running out of options in a country which imprisoned its citizens within its borders, and whose style of Communism at the time was very harsh (it later would soften a bit, as Yugoslav leader Josef Tito broke ranks with Russia’s Josef Stalin), my grandfather secretly devised a manner of escape. He convinced authorities that he had to take his family by boat to the mainland for a piano recital in which my mother was going to be playing. The family was given a pass, but had to be back by sundown. My grandfather had charted the tides, and learned that on Sundays, the sea was not heavily patrolled by the Communist coast guard, as the sailors often spent the day on land, drinking in the taverns. On Sunday, August 1, 1948, the family set off. The few valuables they had were secretly smuggled onto the boat the day before. Once out of sight of the island, my grandfather changed course and headed toward a deserted island which provided cover for him. At sundown, he lit off in his 10-horsepower boat across the Adriatic Sea, toward Italy. The evening was not shy of adventure as a storm tossed the boat in the middle of the sea, and water got into the compass so that it became impossible for my grandfather to navigate. He either was headed toward Italy, or back toward Yugoslavia and likely execution. Such was the price of wanting to be free. Either way, he had to keep going. As sunlight came, so too did the shores of Italy. My family had found its way to freedom. The Italian authorities were expecting them. During the night, they had monitored radio communications of the Yugoslav Coast Guard which, unbeknownst to my grandfather, had been in pursuit of his boat until it reached Italian waters.
Within a year, the family was granted a visa by the United States to enter the country, and was able to leave their squalid Italian refugee camp. Soon they would see the Statue of Liberty, and my grandparents would be able to work, raise their family, and build a better future without interference from Nazis, Communists, or any government official who wanted to oppress their human nature–that is, deprive them of their freedom. Upon their arrival, in contrast to the place from which they fled, they were free to speak, free to worship (or not worship), free to assemble with friends and those with whom they shared common interests, and free to defend themselves; they were the kings of their castle into which government could not enter without a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate on probable cause; and when they became citizens, they were free to participate in the process of electing representatives to government, who they hoped would support their interests in keeping themselves, and all Americans, free. All of these individual human rights are outlined in the United States Constitution, which was designed to create a government that would best be able to guarantee to the people the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
So this July 4, 2019, I am returning to the roots of my freedom. With me will be my mother –who on July 11th is celebrating seventy years in the United States–my two daughters, two of my siblings, and some of my nieces and nephews. On July 4, 1776–243 years earlier–the United States of America, and its system of laws designed to protect the individual’s right to be free from government oppression, was born. Thank you to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the great American patriots and leaders who have followed the beacon of light called the Declaration of Independence, so that others may be free.
And most of all, thank you Victor Sherko, who took incredible risks–under penalty of death–so that one day he may be able to have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who enjoy the blessings of liberty he provided for us by coming to the United States of America, after undertaking the heavy burden of leaving the place that we will be visiting this July 4th.
About the Author
Ron Berutti, Esq. is a Partner at Weiner Law Group LLP in the Litigation Group. In addition to his love of the law, he has loved American history since the third grade, when he was taught about the American Revolution and the then-upcoming Bicentennial. He is most interested in the nation’s founding, and in 19th Century American history. Ron has read widely on the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, and has been published on the topic of Abraham Lincoln’s advice for lawyers. Not only is Ron interested in the history, for history’s sake, but he believes that the issues faced by the nation before the 20th Century still remain vital in many ways, and continue to impact our lives every day.