A dreamer named Mike

By Bill Miller

There is a lot of talk these days about “the Dreamers,” the children of parents who left their homelands to build a new life in America. Every family tree is filled with such dreamers. We can only imagine the depth and intensity of their immigrant dreams. The new wave of American immigrants probably has the same dreams our ancestors had, and share the fears they felt. As they got on crowded sailing vessels to come to America, to start a new life from scratch, what did it feel like? How much suffering did they endure to establish our roots in this country? That is always in my mind as I search for my family story. What did it cost our ancestors for us to grow up in the USA?

For example, I think of my wife’s Uncle Mike, who is the most recent immigrant in either of our families. Mitchel Kris Nickolich was born in 1895 in Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia. In 1913, at the age of 18, he came to America by himself to start a new life. Why? Nobody knows for sure because, like many immigrants, he did not talk about it.

His untold story is that he left Serbia in the middle of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. For decades the Serbs had been fighting to free themselves from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Balkan Wars terminated the Turkish domination in the Balkans. Turkey was pushed back across the channel and national Balkan states were created in the territories it withdrew from. The Second Balkan War began when Serbia, Greece, and Romania quarreled with Bulgaria over the division of their joint conquests in Macedonia. On June 1, 1913, Serbia and Greece formed an alliance against Bulgaria, and the war began on the night of June 29/30, 1913, when King Ferdinand of Bulgaria ordered his troops to attack Serbian and Greek forces in Macedonia. Is this the reason he left? Shortly after Mitchel left, the Austrian Crown Prince Franc Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. That assassination served as a pretext for the Austrian attack on Serbia that marked the beginning of World War I. In World War I Serbia had 1,264,000 casualties – 28% of its population. Somehow Mike escaped that carnage and found a ship to America. He never talked to his family about Serbia or his journey, except to say that he had one sister in Belgrade.

Fortunately, he had a cousin in Morgantown, West Virginia, who owned a small business. Cousin Sam Nickolich, who had changed his name to Nichols, gave “Mike” (as he chose to be called) a place to stay and a job. He only had a 3rd grade education but he learned English quickly and never again spoke in Serbian. In 1922 he met a young nurse student named Virginia Linger and they got married. She was my wife’s aunt, so Mike became an uncle. They had six children. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, they lost their home. Mike loved to garden, so his family had food. For many years later he made his living at Domestic Coke Company. In 1940 he applied for US Citizenship, 27 years after his arrival in the United States.

During those years he established himself as a hard worker. Their six children, four sons and two daughters, were also expected to work hard. His son says, “He was a hard guy at home. His ethic was to work until you can’t! It was expected of all of us. “Daylight to dark!” As a result, the children grew up to be successful men and women, and two brothers were owners of a very successful construction company. Eventually his work at Domestic Coke caused serious lung problems, so he took a job at the local hospital, where he became their first ambulance driver and a well-loved employee.

Mike Nickolich died in 1959, but this young Serbian dreamer got to see his dreams fulfilled. He became an American citizen, and was proud of it. Mike and Virginia made a great contribution to their community, as did their children, and now their grandchildren. That is the way America has been built. The joy of genealogy is getting to know the stories of the dreamers who helped get us to where we are. It is a great time to remember and give thanks for our immigrant dreamers. If you need help finding yours, go to a library or genealogy club near you.