NUTLEY, NJ — Ron Negra was cleaning out a closet at his mother’s house in Lacey Township in 2019 when he found a sealed box filled with decades-old letters from people located all around the country. They were responses to letters his mother, Agnes Negra, had written during World War II to families of soldiers, telling them that their soldier relative was still alive. Living in Nutley at the time, Agnes Negra listened via short-wave radio to Radio Berlin, a German broadcast station, on which the Red Cross would broadcast five names of prisoners of war nightly, along with their family’s contact information. Agnes Negra took it upon herself to write to each of those families with the good news.
To celebrate his mother’s 100th birthday in 2019, Ron Negra, a Nutley native, decided to compile a portion of the 200 letters his mother had received in response to the more than 300 she sent and turn it into a book, which he titled “Waves of Hope.” He interviewed his mother throughout the year, asking her about her life during that time. She told him that she had been listening for specific names; her husband and brother-in-law were both overseas serving in the military while she was home with Ron Negra’s older sister, who was an infant at the time.
“I interviewed her every two days and didn’t tell her what I was doing,” Ron Negra said at a March 16 event hosted by the Nutley Historical Society at the Nutley Museum. “I asked about her life and what Nutley was like at that time. Then I said, ‘Let me put all of this together and have a book printed.’”
Ron Negra gave the book to his mother at her 100th birthday party, where he discovered that his mother had never told anyone what she had done during the war. She was one of 11 siblings and part of a large extended family; those at the celebration couldn’t believe what she had done.
“They were all in amazement, and my mother was saying, ‘This is not a big deal,’” Ron Negra said.
Never intending to print more than one copy of the book, Negra eventually met a publisher and decided to circulate the story. The first half of the book contains the stories that came from his interviews with his mother, and the second half features about 75 of the 200 response letters. While writing the book, Ron Negra researched the families his mother wrote to in an attempt to determine whether their soldiers ever made it home.
“She had addresses from the people who wrote back to her but didn’t want to open wounds,” Ron Negra said, saying his mother didn’t want to take the chance that a soldier never made it home and remind their family. “So she never knew. I’ve done some research, and about half of them made it back. I’m still investigating the other 50 percent.”
Ron Negra’s uncle, Sgt. John Negra, was taken as a prisoner of war in Yugoslavia and did eventually make it back to Nutley. So did Ron Negra’s father, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was rescued by Belgian soldiers. His father did know about the letters his wife wrote, but he never read the responses. Neither of his parents ever discussed the war after it was over.
But after the book was published, it connected with a large audience. People wrote to the Negras from all over: small towns and large cities, familiar places and places they had no idea existed. Readers shared their own family stories from the World War II time period, some similar to Agnes Negra’s radio listening story. For his mother’s 101st birthday in 2020, Ron Negra put photos of readers with the book into an album.
The Daughters of the American Revolution selected “Waves of Hope” to be included in the organization’s national library and named Agnes Negra a “Woman in American History.” Agnes Negra was also honored as a Hometown Hero at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The recognition is overdue by about 75 years. Ron Negra said there are probably thousands of women who heroically helped the war effort that no one knows about, because at the time women rarely got credit for the work they did. Even his mother signed the letters she wrote with her husband’s name.
“She signed my father’s name because it had credibility,” Ron Negra said. “When I asked her why, she said, ‘I wanted that letter to have meaning, and if signing his name gave it meaning, then that’s the way it was.’”
Ron Negra is still researching some of the families who wrote back to his mother in an attempt to find out if the soldiers came home. The project will go on for as long as he and his family enjoy it.
“It became emotional for us, and it’s been fun,” Ron Negra said. “We’re going to keep doing it as long as it’s fun.”
“Waves of Hope” can be purchased at www.ronaldedwardnegra.com. Ron Negra will be at the Nutley Public Library to discuss the book and sign copies on June 4 at 2 p.m.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic