Editor’s Note: Friends and members of The Atlas Society are among our greatest resources. Their energy, ideas, and support actively shape our work. Niko Gjaja is a physical chemist, entrepreneur, husband, father, and grandfather. Senior Editor Marilyn Moore, Ph.D recently interviewed Niko about his childhood in Yugoslavia during the 1940s and 1950s, about the day-to-day realities of collectivism, about immigrating to the United States to work at General Electric during its heyday in the 1960s, and about the ways he has been influenced by The Atlas Society and Ayn Rand.
MM: Where were you born?
NG: I was born in Belgrade, in August 1935, to a Ph.D mechanical engineer father and a conservatory-trained pianist mother.
My father had a business, a railroad equipment repair shop in Sarajevo, but the Depression caused it to close. He then went to work in the Transportation Ministry and gradually became an expert on high speed passenger train car designs. He was fluent in German, French, and Italian, and for a few years before the war, he became a Yugoslav representative in the European Railroads Union.
MM: What was Belgrade like when you lived there?
NG: There are a lot of atrocities associated with that city. Yet, the people there have a sense of humor and a spirit I have never seen anywhere else. Their informal motto is “Lako ćemo!” Loosely translated: “We’ll get this done easily!”
On March 27, 1941, Hitler ordered an invasion of Yugoslavia. The German occupation that ensued was very hard. On some days, dinner for my younger brother, my parents, and me was a single potato, cooked using pieces of kitchen furniture for fire.
Then, in 1944 on Orthodox Easter Sunday and Monday, at Tito’s request, the British and the Americans started bombing Belgrade. Well over 10,000 people died. That Monday afternoon, we escaped from our home in the center of the city and walked about six miles to a suburban summer house my maternal grandfather had built after WWI. He was a prominent civil engineer in the pre-WWI Serbia. It was on that walk that I for the first time saw dead human bodies lying where they had fallen on the sidewalk.
In October 1944, after a week of street fighting, the Russians expelled the Germans from Belgrade and installed Tito and his Communists to power. In their initial takeover, they summarily executed about twenty thousand “enemies of the people” i.e., people who opposed Communism. And they put many more in prisons.
After the war ended in 1945, the staff of the Yugoslav Railroads proposed to sever the relationship with the Union of European Railroads. My father had the temerity to say that it would be a mistake, because the experience and knowledge received through those contacts and working groups was beneficial. The reaction was swift. My parents were ordered to empty our home within 24 hours. My father was transferred to a railroad office in Nov Sad, where we were assigned an apartment.
That pattern of upheaval continued for years. The authorities would make an apartment available to my parents, and shortly afterwards transfer my father to another job, where we were assigned an apartment only months later, and then soon afterwards he would be transferred to a position somewhere else. Housing was in very short supply because of massive destruction during the war and also, because all housing was expropriated by the State. Many people had to accommodate one or two additional families into their apartments, even though the apartments had been built to accommodate a single family. We moved from Belgrade to Novi Sad to Sarajevo to Pula and finally back to Belgrade, where, in 1956, they finally assigned to my father a permanent apartment.
MM: You lived under collectivism, then. Can you give me some examples of how collectivism worked in day-to-day life?
NG: Socialism is propagated as equality, but, there are huge differences in capabilities, both physical and mental, among individual people. We know now that each one of us is an unprecedented and unrepeatable individual. We know from genetics that we are all individuals and different from anybody before and after us. Even so-called identical twins are not truly identical. So, when we talk about equality, if we want to talk about equality of outcomes, we cannot guarantee it by law on people who are all different.
Socialism is when the means of production are owned by the state. And we know how that ends.
The Communists suppressed those people who were successful. They mistreated my father, even though several years later they had to reinstate him because they were failing and needed badly to reestablish connections with the western European railroads.
A distant relative owned a small factory in a small town in northern Yugoslavia. When the Communists came and took over the factory, they threw him into the boiler fire. They wanted to deny that he was better than the others, that he was necessary to run the factory, that there was anything special about being able to create and support and run a productive business. To the Communists, it is a sin if you are better than others, and they punished his accomplishments as if they were sinful.
But since they also needed such people, they tried to corrupt them. They fabricated explanations for why they still needed the best scientists and athletes and managers, and so forth. And that's the root of many many people professing to be members of the Party in order to advance their careers. It was a fundamentally corrupt arrangement.
Real equality is impossible, and imposing an ideological equality by the force of social and government power is tyranny.
You hear stories from Russia and China and other places. They persecute people who could contribute to their societies. All I can say is that there have always been in humanity misguided ideologies and tyrannies. People like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were powerful tyrants who deceived millions of people.
Let me finish by saying that collectivism is a Utopia, and as such, in reality, a pipe dream. Wherever it was tried it failed because it could not produce the goods necessary for sustenance of all the people.
MM: Eventually you immigrate to the United States.
NG: This is another long story. In 1958, I spent July and August in Italy visiting a number of family friends, a time that coincided with the “Italian miracle,” the unusually rapid economic growth in that country. It was an eye opener for me. Something that Italians call “vivere civile” became a value in my mind. It means a prosperous, civilized, and free way of living and implies a respect for individual choice.
When I was about to graduate as a physical chemist from the University, an Italian company that was producing electric locomotives for the Yugoslav railroad offered six-month internships to a few of the engineers involved. I was one of the engineers who got an offer, but I deferred going until after my graduation.
The Yugoslav passports at the time were issued on a per-trip basis and expired automatically upon return into the country. Students could receive the passports, but graduates had to perform obligatory military service before they could be issued a passport. At the time, college graduates served one year in the military, high school graduates served 18 months, and those with less or no education served two years. Upon graduating, I decided to complete my military requirement as soon as possible.
Normally, college graduates were sent to officers’ school. Because there were no openings at that time, I volunteered to serve as a simple soldier in order to begin right away. So, on my birthday in August of 1961, my head shaved and wearing a new uniform, I was deployed to a military camp near a village in the northwest corner of Bosnia, where I served as personal secretary to a Major.
After I was discharged, I found that there were no jobs anywhere. The two leaders of the physical chemistry department offered me a job as an assistant, a first step in an academic career, which was my father’s ambition for me. But, Tito had forbidden any new hires, and the all-powerful and pervasive Communist party cells made sure that nobody hired anybody.
Eventually I found an internship at the Italian company, Ansaldo - San Giorgio in Genova. So, late in November 1962, I went to Milan, borrowing from a friend 50,000 lire to buy an inexpensive suit. In the initial interviews with the general manager and others, I said that I was looking for a permanent job, and after six months, in June 1963, they offered me one in their laboratory. The Yugoslavs refused to extend my passport, but I refused to return. The residency permit was secured and extended indefinitely by the company, which, by the way, was a General Electric (GE) licensee for power generators.
At that time, I was aiming to go and live in the UK (war memories, when they were alone fighting Germans). And then, the lucky strike! In August of 1963, the largest power generator in the first GE-built Italian nuclear power plant failed on start up. Ansaldo-San Giorgio immediately switched to a modern epoxy resin-based insulation system and replaced the old asphalt-based system they had been using. Because I was fluent in English, I became a translator for GE engineers who were coming to teach the new technology, helping to set up the lab and test and evaluate the new materials we were learning to use, and finding, when possible, Italian and European sources for them. In the process, I befriended a number of Americans from Schenectady, New York.
One of my American friends offered me a job at GE in Schenectady, in the Materials and Processes Laboratory. In a matter of days, my life changed completely!
I had just gotten married. My wife and I arrived in New York, on the ocean liner Raffaello, on January 12, 1967. I was on the payroll the next day.
I wanted to be where things are invented. I really looked for work that would produce something that is new and better. I realized that the United States was where innovation was happening, where better technology was being developed.
I had a very, very good, interesting job. About 200 people were working in the Materials and Processes Laboratory division when I started, and there were probably close to 400 people working there at its peak a few years later. It was the envy of the world! A fabulous facility for developing power generation systems. GE still has that facility in Schenectady. Unfortunately, it has gone downhill over the years because of mismanagement.
MM: How did you first hear about The Atlas Society? How long have you been involved with us?
NG: I am now 84 years old, and I only retired on March 31, 2007. While I was working, I was too busy to do much reading of anything not work-related.
Since then, I have read a couple of books by David Kelley. I find him reasonable and even- tempered. Several years ago, I subscribed to The Atlas Society online newsletter to follow the organization.
MM: When did you first read Ayn Rand? How has Ayn Rand influenced you?
NG: I first became aware of Ayn Rand from my two sons, who had read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I then heard about the movie We the Living that the Italians made during the war. They thought that it would be good propaganda against Communism, but it turned out to be very good propaganda against Fascism also. Eventually the Italian government banned it. When I learned that the movie was based on a novel by Ayn Rand, I bought the book.
Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. Her account of St. Petersburg, Russia in the early years of the Communist rule there was by far the best description of what my family went through under the Yugoslav version of Communism in the 1940s and ‘50s. We the Living is just a perfect description. Honestly, I cried when I read about Irina and Sasha, how those two youngsters were sent off on two different trains to separate prison camps and also when I read about Kira’s fate.
I found that book to be the best-ever description of collectivist oppression. Call it Communist or Socialist – it makes no difference. My family suffered a lot during the Yugoslav version of the hell that Lenin and Stalin created. Ayn Rand’s novel is the best description of that hell that I ever found.
Reading We the Living was a huge awakening, and I wanted to read more by Ayn Rand. I think I own and have read everything of hers published in book form. I use the Lexicon almost as a self-help manual. When something comes up that I don't know how to think about, I see what she says about the subject.
MM: What is your favorite Ayn Rand book?
NG: It is difficult for me to choose a single book. I can honestly say that all of her books are worthwhile reading. I like both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I very much like The Romantic Manifesto. If you love art, Italy is paradise, and I was fortunate to live there for four years. From Napoli to Milano to Roma to Firenze, I visited all the museums I could. I think Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto is the best guide to understanding art. I now believe that when I look or listen, I have a one-on-one conversation with the artist about values, expression, and about criteria for beauty.
The Romantic Manifesto is a guide to looking at art in the proper way. I think that Picasso and subsequent modern artists are lost souls. They don't know what they're thinking about.
MM: Besides art, how else has Ayn Rand influenced you?
NG: Ayn Rand is a major influence on my thinking.
If you lead a purposeful life, always looking for the best way to do anything and everything, then you inevitably have philosophical questions popping up in your mind quite frequently.
I think that each one of us has the responsibility to build our own personal philosophy. It need not necessarily be an exact copy of anybody else’s. But it is absolutely beneficial to find, among the many, those who teach us some part of that philosophy that fits perfectly into our way of thinking.
Ancient Greeks, some 25 centuries ago, understood that philosophy – the love and the search for wisdom – is something that all people should pursue in search of a better and more productive and more fulfilling life.
Ayn Rand has provided a complete philosophical guide for modern people. She has left us a thorough, thoughtful, unmistakable guide to how to think about reality. I’m a physical chemist by training, and I worked all my life in development engineering. Ayn Rand explained to me human nature and philosophy of life, and physical chemistry taught me how to understand the material world. I don't need anything else.
MM: Thank you, Niko.
NG: I am glad to help you. If you need anything else, please ask.