NUTLEY, NJ — Ron Negra was cleaning out a closet at his mother’s home in Lacey Township in 2019 when he found a sealed box filled with decades-old letters from people located across the country. They were responses to letters his mother, Agnès Negra, had written during World War II to the families of soldiers, telling them that their soldier relative was still alive. Living in Nutley at the time, Agnes Negra listened via shortwave radio Radio Berlin, a German broadcast station, on which the Red Cross broadcast five names of POWs, along with their family contact details, each night. Agnès Negra took it upon herself to write to each of these families with the good news.
To celebrate his mother’s 100th birthday in 2019, Nutley native Ron Negra decided to compile some of the 200 letters his mother received in response to the more than 300 she sent and make a book out of them. , which he titled “Waves of Hope.” He interviewed his mother throughout the year, asking her about her life during this time. She told him that she had listened to specific names; her husband and brother-in-law were both serving overseas in the military while she was home with Ron Negra’s older sister, who was a baby at the time.
“I interviewed her every other day 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 his life and what Nutley was like at that time. Then I said, ‘Let me put this all together and get 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 could not believe what she had done.
“They were all amazed and my mom was like, ‘It’s okay,'” Ron Negra said.
Never intending to print more than one copy of the book, Negra eventually met with a publisher and decided to spread the story. The first half of the book contains the stories that came from his interviews with his mother, and the second half features approximately 75 of the 200 response letters. While writing the book, Ron Negra researched the families his mother wrote to in an attempt to determine if their soldiers ever returned home.
“She had addresses of people who answered her but didn’t want to open any wounds,” said Ron Negra, saying his mother didn’t want to risk a soldier ever coming home and calling his family back. “So she never knew. I did some research, and about half of them came back. I’m still investigating the remaining 50%.
Ron Negra’s uncle, Sergeant. John Negra, was taken prisoner of war in Yugoslavia and eventually returned to Nutley. Just like Ron Negra’s father, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was rescued by Belgian soldiers. His father knew about the letters his wife had written, but he never read the replies. Neither of his parents ever talked about the war after it was over.
But after the publication of the book, it reached a wide audience. People wrote to Negras from everywhere: small towns and big cities, familiar places and places they didn’t know existed. Readers shared their own family stories from the World War II 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 in an album.
The Daughters of the American Revolution selected “Waves of Hope” for inclusion 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.
Recognition is about 75 years behind. Ron Negra said that there are probably thousands of women who heroically helped the war effort that no one knows anything about because at the time women were rarely recognized for the work they did. Even his mother signed the letters she wrote with her husband’s name.
“She signed my dad’s name because he had credibility,” Ron Negra said. “When I asked her why, she said, ‘I wanted this letter to have meaning, and if signing her name gave it meaning, then that was it. “”
Ron Negra is still researching some of the families who responded to his mother to try to find out if the soldiers made it home. The project will continue as long as he and his family enjoy it.
“It got emotional for us, and it was fun,” Ron Negra said. “We’ll 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