As the rumble of World War II draws closer, a young boy leaves behind his once-comfortable life in Split, Yugoslavia, to embark on a turbulent adventure.
This debut memoir opens in July 1943, with the 11-year-old Novakovic in flight from his hometown, where “the Axis Powers made life impossible for us.” He recalls street executions and even recounts a time when he was shot at on the way home from school. This new existence, lived in perpetual fear, stands in stark contrast to his past, when he would explore the catacombs beneath the Diocletian Palace, a part of which was owned by his wealthy family. He describes his father possessing three automobiles “when simply owning one was a novelty” and, while dining, how his grandparents would place a gold ducat under the children’s plates as a reward for finishing the meal. Leaving almost everything behind, the family begins an odyssey that first takes it westward to Italy. Suffering with a toothache on the road to Maggio, young Novakovic is unaware that his own personal journey will lead to Buenos Aires and New York. The memoir is divided into four parts, determined by a key moment in the author’s life: “From Split to Milano,” “Becoming an American,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and “From an Officer to a Businessman.” Each section remains engaging in its own right. Many passages are so vivid that they startle the reader. At one point, the author describes a fighter plane bearing down on him: “He was also shooting in my direction. I could have decided, like Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest, to run and try to find cover….But I did not choose to use my speed. Instead I stood, looked up, and waved at the pilot.” Yet, beyond war’s chaos, this work examines a life punctuated by achievement, as the author reflects on a dazzling career in the military and as a successful entrepreneur. Written with humility and elegance, Novakovic displays a solid command of transnational history, which he wraps effortlessly around his own story, giving the memoir a greater cachet. This book should appeal to readers manifesting an interest in World War II or anyone searching for inspiration in the tenacity of others.
A remarkable and gripping account of a boy fleeing a war-torn nation and eventually flourishing in America.
– Kirkus Reviews
A comfortable and beautiful life by the Adriatic Sea is disrupted by armed conflict forcing young Michael and his family to flee from Split, Yugoslavia. Escaping into the mountains of northern Italy, they begin a long and difficult journey through war-torn Europe in search of normalcy and a home. Surrounded by violence, gunfire, bombs, and famine, Michael relies on smarts and creativity for survival. Then a chance encounter with an American fighter pilot that inadvertently saves his life instills in him a lifelong admiration for the United States military.
Arriving to Ellis Island on Christmas Eve, 1949, Michael faces a new life and new prospects in America. On his path to becoming a citizen, he finds work, finishes high school, and soon attends Syracuse University where he meets his future wife, Phebe. He joins and is welcomed into the United States Air Force, swearing by oath to serve with pride and honor. Throughout his military career, he dedicates himself to the continuing fight against communism before finally transitioning from military to civilian life and newfound success as a businessman.
In this timely memoir, Novakovic blends together a deep and richly layered narrative of political and familial history. Through Novakovic’s firsthand experience we are guided on an arduous pilgrimage demonstrating the sacrifices made by refugees and immigrants seeking freedom. Detailing key moments of his career and life, Novakovic is clearly humbled by and appreciates the opportunities he’s been given and feels indebted to America. The fondness for his country and love for his family is evident through his memories as he examines and juxtaposes his new and past identities. His tale will certainly inspire and appeal to fans of historical autobiographies.
– Dylan Ward, for theusreview.com
A Pilgrim for Freedom is a heartfelt letter to the author’s family and the United States. Michael Novakovic writes a lucid account of his and his family’s trials during World War II from his home country of Croatia to building a new home and new country in the United States. It is the gratitude only an immigrant can have because of the contrast with where they came from and where they were going. However, the author, has a significant challenge, that primary skill which helped him succeed in the military is antithetical to success as an audiobook author of a memoir meant for the general public. A military officer, especially an intelligence officer, must report events truthfully and without embellishment and Novakovic has done this for an entire career and throughout the book.
That, unfortunately, is what might leave many audiobook listeners hoping for two biographies to come from this book, one from his years in Croatia to the United States that could clearly be made into a feature film and the other for his entrepreneurial success which could inform the non-fiction circle of business hopefuls. I know many of those returning from service would want to know more about the Catholic University curriculum that led to so much success in business after the war, the freedom to be their own boss and to give orders rather than take them as the head of a successful company.
In this book, Novakovic reports life and death events without the drama many audiobook listeners expect. The events he endured were dramatic, but his reporting of them factual. There is little buildup to the most harrowing events and a bit too much reporting on the pedantic ones like his school grades versus his brother’s. I believe a good editor would have been able to identify those parts that might have been interesting and relevant to the author, but not necessarily so for the audience.
I don’t know that the author could write a drama if asked. I believe it would be against the type of person he is, a no-nonsense, honest, appreciative husband, parent, and decorated Air Force veteran. It would take a biographer or screenwriter to get the details, the moments of greatest concern, and build the tension and pacing necessary to satisfy expecting a drama within early part of the memoir.
The other issue is one of privilege. It is incredibly difficult for a person who is wealthy, in two lives in this case, to write about strife without coming off as, well, affluent. Through the four jobs he worked at college and the continuous sacrifice he made, it’s clear privileged circumstances are not Michael Novakovic’s personality, but coming from a wealthy family, succeeding so readily in business, and then going home as royalty lends to a story that will distance rather than attract listeners. The more stories he told of difficulties, the more a listener could engage with the “I know what you mean.” My favorite part is when he earned money as a college student from vending machines and that when he went on dates, he paid with coins, that image of nickels and dimes in front of a woman he was trying to impress immediately let me connect to him as a person.
As an audiobook reviewer I commit to listening to the entire book, but I believe in wanting to tell the whole story, the second half received short shrift. I believe this book would have benefitted from being split up into two volumes, the story of successfully leaving Croatia and getting to America for the history buff and the story of immigrant and entrepreneurial success expanded to help those who serve make it in the United States after the military. I hope the author finds the biographers to create these additional volumes, I would be certain to read them.
About the Narrator
John David Farrell, as some may know from The Survivalist series by Arthur T. Bradley, presents a rich and fitting voice to a tale that may lack some of the dramatic elements and multiple characters present in the fictional series. The narrator provides an expert performance, a true professional making the seven hour listen easy. I finished the book effortlessly in under a week. Each sentence has just enough pause to get the image, each paragraph with enough energy to bring life to it, John David Farrell’s pacing is spot on in this book.
– Tony Guerra, for audiobookreviewer.com
Manhattan Book Review: Star Rating: 4 / 5
Michael Novakovic does not have to prove his patriotism. It is manifested by his pilgrimage to America, his service to his beloved adopted country, the life-threatening risks he took, and the numerous medals he earned–including the Bronze Star medal and the South Vietnamese Medal of Honor–in his quest for the fulfillment of the American dream, making him a source of inspiration for all future immigrants.
A Pilgrim For Freedom chronicles the life of Michael Novakovic, from fleeing Croatia during World War II at age eleven to crossing Europe into Italy and then traveling on to Argentina and Central America. I am not usually a reader of history books, but there is always something astounding and humbling about reading the obstacles that people go through to escape terror.
Like all memoirs, this shares the author’s perspective, which other refugees making the same journey may disagree with in part, but every reader must appreciate that these experiences are unique to him. The majority of this book explains how Michael and his family arrived in America and became US citizens, emphasizing their riches-to-rags story while showing how the traumas that he went through as a child have influenced his adult life, which is only to be expected. The rest of the book shows his military experiences, from the erection of the Berlin Wall to the horrors of Vietnam and beyond. In truth, Michael has written a profoundly moving story that brings the terror of World War II to life as a reminder to those too young to have experienced it of the courage required and the dehumanization those other than the soldiers had to endure in order to find their freedom. No memoir is complete without the telling of how courage and resilience can bring fortune and a happy life, and this one is certainly true to form.
Reviewed by Michelle Baker
So much has been written about WWII and the refugees who fled its terrors, it’s hard to imagine any author adding significantly to the picture. But Michael Novakovic’s memoir, A Pilgrim For Freedom, offers a child’s unique perspective on the lesser-known conflicts of Eastern Europe, with its many warring regional factions.
The book covers Novakovic’s life to the present, but it’s the first section, about his wartime childhood, that’s the most compelling. Here, Novakovic recounts how his family’s privileged lifestyle in Croatia—his father was director of the Serbian National Bank— was upended in 1941 when the Axis powers invaded the country. Shifting political currents made life untenable in his hometown, and in 1942 the family fled to (then) Yugoslavia and on to Italy. They spent four years running from fascists, Croatian revolutionaries, and Nazis, never losing hope of settling in America.
In this part, the author demonstrates a rare ability to recall a child’s feelings. With a boy’s uncontainable glee, he tells how he and his younger brother, Paul, let the air out of enemy vehicle tires, then set fire to a fuel tank, blowing up a truck. At the same time, the author faced hard truths. He witnessed horrific war crimes, including the torture and bayonetting of a friend’s mother, and Novakovic never stoops to inflated prose as he describes the monstrosities committed around him.
The book’s second section recalls the Novakovic family’s eventual arrival in America, the author’s much-awarded military career and successful civilian business, and admirable family life. While this immigrant story is uplifting, the author’s no-nonsense writing style is less engaging here than in earlier passages. This part is also hampered by the fact that much of his military career was in intelligence, which he can’t discuss.
The book’s real power lies in Novakovic’s stories of a childhood on the run. His dramatic boyhood will stay with you, making this a worthy addition to the literature of WWII.
Our two World Wars traced their beginnings to Eastern Europe. The first World War was triggered by the assassination of an Archduke of Austria. The second World War was ignited by Nazis staging a shooting of a German at the Polish border.
Yet compared to Italy and Russia, central Europe from Budapest south to the Balkans, little is known to Americans. Eastern Europe is a welter of ethnic nationalities each competing for their own political identity and religion. Croatians identify with Rome and Catholicism; to the west, Serbs assert their Eastern Orthodox heritage and look east- ward. Both rebel against the Muslim sect which was taking orders from Istanbul.
Three alphabets compete: Roman, Cyrillic and Turkish — not to mention the languages of the German, Italian and Russian occupiers of these eastern European territories.
Michael Novakovic, in his personal account of his family’s pilgrim- age to America, brings light to this conflicted area in a way profes- sional historians have not. It is not an account of the maneuverings of prime ministers, presidents, diplomats and generals, but the gripping account of one family’s trials and travels from what was then Yugoslavia to Trieste, Italy, to Argentina and finally the ultimate objective of their odyssey: The United States of America.
We know of the writings of Count de Toqueville to Lord Bryce that some of the most insightful analysis of American democracy came from foreign observers. Similarly, the most keen observations of America and its politics are often from outsiders. The majority of newly arrived visitors are often the most fervent converts to the American dream. The native-born American usually takes the freedom and opportunities America offers for granted. Not so the immigrant who contrasts it to his birth country.
(Lt.) Colonel Novakovic is not blind to the flaws of American soci- ety — the slums of the city, the prejudice against race, religion or an unfamiliar accent. He himself has occasionally experienced some of them. But he is also aware of the long waiting lists of immigrants for visas of passage to New York. He remembers that, before the Iron Cur- tain collapsed in 1989, there were no West Germans trying to climb the wall to escape to East Berlin. There were no lines of Austrians hoping to find asylum in neighboring then Communist Czechoslovakia. Or across the ocean, how many South Koreans were not trying to immigrate to North Korea. America, as Lincoln proclaimed, is “the last best hope of the world.” The Statue of Liberty’s torch is still the beacon of the world for the oppressed and the downtrodden.
The Novakovic family’s trek to America is not unique. It replicates the accounts of millions before them. If Michael Novakovic can assert his claim to a Yugoslav dukedom now that his right of descent has been recognized, he did suffer the privations of the dispossessed like so many of the immigrants to our shores.
No Mayflower descendant, no Son of the American Revolution and no descendant of a Founding Father is prouder of his American heri- tage than Michael Novakovic. If he still speaks with an accent, so did the ancestors of virtually all Americans when they first arrived on our shores.
Michael Novakovic does not have to prove his patriotism. It is mani- fest by his pilgrimage to America, his service to his adopted beloved country, the life threatening risks he took, and the numerous medals he earned — including the Bronze Star Medal and the South Vietnam- ese Medal of Honor while in its service and his own fulfillment of the American dream — a source of inspiration for all future immigrants.
—James Humes is a former White House speechwriter who drafted texts for four Chief Executives. A one-time Woodrow Wilson Scholar at the Smithsonian, he has authored over 35 books on Presidents and numerous speeches and is an authority on Winston Churchill.