Escape to America

by Larry Chabot
“I still think of my homeland, but I’m as American as I can be.” So says Maria Sossi of Marquette, whose life began 5,700 miles away in Slovenia and who survived two repressive dictatorships before finding refuge in the United States. Maria was one of untold millions uprooted in Europe by World War II. With cities and farms destroyed, they were homeless; many gathered in sad refugee camps until placed by a United Nations agency set up by the Allied countries.
Three years after war’s end, there were still 515 camps in Europe, and America had not yet taken any of the stateless. In 1948, Congress voted to accept 200,000 refugees if sponsors would guarantee jobs and housing (the quota later was increased). President Harry Truman reluctantly signed the bill, claiming it was “flagrantly discriminatory” in favor of some ethnic groups over others.
By early 1953, America had welcomed 136,300 displaced persons (DPs)—three-quarters of them sponsored by Catholic dioceses. The U.P. program directed by Monsignor David Spelgatti had found homes and jobs for 148 people, but there were more to come, including Maria Sossi and her husband Victor.
Maria and her eight siblings were born in Slovenia, across the border from Trieste in northeast Italy. Freed from Nazi occupation after the war, unlucky Slovenia fell under communist control. Maria fled to Trieste, where she applied for displaced person status in 1951. During her five-year wait for approval, she met and married Italian citizen Victor Sossi. When permission was granted in 1956, he came too.
The trek began by train from Trieste to Rome, then a Trans World Airlines flight to New York, where they transferred to a train for Chicago and then Negaunee. Knowing no English and wearing DP tags, they were lost in a sea of signs and public address announcements. The train conductor used gestures to determine whether they were hungry and to point them to the dining car.
“We were met at Negaunee at 2:00 in the morning by my aunt and uncle, Josephine and Joe Stupar of Marquette, who had come to America many years before,” she said, recalling how fitting it was that they arrived on June 14, Flag Day.
“It was so beautiful here in the summer, but then winter came—so much snow,” she said with a laugh. “Then more snow, and more snow, and I liked it less and less. Now I can’t stand it.”
She and Victor, at the urging of teacher Mickey Johnson, learned English at Marquette Senior High School. Maria continued adult classes until she got her coveted high school diploma. In 1961, she and Victor became naturalized citizens.
Victor found work at Cliffs Dow and then Lake Shore Engineering in Marquette. Maria was a seamstress in local shops, worked part-time for Monsignor Louis Cappo at St. Peter Cathedral before serving as Bishop Mark Schmitt’s housekeeper for twenty years. When the bishop retired, she worked eight more years for Monsignor Cappo before retiring. She volunteered at the Bishop Baraga Association, translating title information on Slovenian documents (Bishop Baraga was a fellow Slovenian), and now helps at Jacobetti Veterans Home.
“We owe these veterans so much for defeating Hitler,” she said.

The First Immigrants
The first DPs arrived several years before the Sossis. On January 29, 1949, the Mining Journal reported seven Polish immigrants settled in Marquette and Alger counties. Mr. and Mrs. Michael Holowaty with their children Christine and Martha moved in with Anthony Kownaki, owner of Tony’s Upholstery Shop at 535 West Washington Street in Marquette.
Mr. and Mrs. Paul Holowaty and Marie Hoyhorciev (Michael Holowaty’s mother-in-law), stayed with Stella Maciejeweski of Shingleton. Some of their relatives died in Nazi death camps.
Michael Holowaty, from the first DP group, began enlightening Mining Journal readers about Communist Russia. In a July 1949 article, he described Soviet suppression of religion. As the assault became more aggressive, clergy began disappearing. All but one of Moscow’s 200 churches were turned into theaters, museums or warehouses. In 1941, communists tried to fool their American allies about religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Church buildings were reopened, the theaters were removed, and services were staged with “priests” recruited from the ranks of the secret police. When the sham ended, all evidence of religious freedom vanished.
Small batches of immigrants filtered in. In September 1949, Monsignor Spelgatti’s group welcomed another thirty-one, placing them in jobs ranging from medical specialist to housekeeper. A contingent of families with children ended up on farms, and one orphan was available for adoption. Within days, the U.P. had forty-five families spread across the peninsula, including fifteen in Marquette County. As the refugees met their hosts, began new jobs and struggled with the language and customs, the call went out for sponsors.
Another 1949 arrival in Marquette was only twenty-four years old, but already well-known in his field. Boris Manjasek and his wife were sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. A.K. Bennett, whose son George, a Marine pilot, lost his life in the war. The young Manjasek, a Yugoslavian forced into a German labor camp, had entertained U.S. troops after the war with horsemanship and show horses.
Boris spoke eight languages, but English wasn’t one of them. His Estonian wife also was multilingual, but since he didn’t know Estonian, and she didn’t know Yugoslavian, they conversed in other languages. Attendance at the English classes at Marquette High would allow them to chat in their new country’s language.
Although Boris was working at Tonella & Rupp Furniture Store, he longed to return to showcasing his horsemanship. When he learned that some of his original show troupe had escaped Europe and settled in New York and Los Angeles, he had hopes of bringing them together again.
The DP program was a life-changing experience for everyone involved. For Maria, it released her from dictatorships and secured her freedom. Only two sisters remain in the old country. Maria and Victor visited Slovenia four times, and she returned three more times after Victor died in 1996. She’s also been to Australia to visit four siblings who landed there.
Maria has been asked to speak to school groups about her odyssey, and is thinking it over.
“I know what I would tell them,” she said with the same strong determination, which got her to America fifty-three years ago.
“I will say: get down on your knees and thank God you live in this country.”

— Larry Chabot

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