April 23, 2021
You never know when a genealogical clue will pop up, often in the most surprising places. I’ve been absorbed by the new PBS Masterpiece series “Atlantic Crossing.” It is the story of the Norwegian royal family during WWII, and I’ve found it engrossing. Like most folks, I’ve seen what seems like hundreds of movies and television programs about WWII. Many of them focus on England’s role as a plucky underdog standing against the evil Nazis.
“Atlantic Crossing” is a bit different because it focuses on Norway’s role in WWII. Norway was occupied by the Germans from 1940 through 1945, and the royal family was forced to flee. The crown princess and her children, including the child who would become Norway’s present King Harald, spent the war in the United States. I’ve watched the first three episodes so far, and I highly recommend them for great acting and beautiful scenery in both Norway and the U.S. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the story, but it certainly is gripping. I can’t wait for the next five episodes to become available.
For me, though, there is a genealogical hook to the story. My paternal grandmother left Norway in 1914, but two of her siblings stayed behind. Since her parents died when she was just a child, her older sister Johanna became Grandma’s parental figure. They were always very close, and my grandmother had lived with Johanna and her family until she left Norway at the age of 32. Grandma’s only surviving brother Kristen was the baby of the family, and Grandma and her sisters doted on him. Johanna and Kristen were also very close and spent their entire lives living in the same apartment building in Oslo.
By the time that World War II arrived, both Johanna and Kristen had spouses and adult children. I know that I have cousins still living in Norway, but we have no contact. My grandmother kept in contact with her siblings and her nieces and nephews, but once she was gone, my father’s generation lost touch with them. Although my sister and I found and reached out to some of the extended family in Norway, they were not particularly interested. After returning an email or two, they quit writing us. I’ve put the family on a back burner and moved on to other family lines.
Watching “Atlantic Crossing” has gotten me interested in my lost Norwegian family again. I wondered what my great aunts and their families endured during WWII. They all lived in the country’s largest city, Oslo, and city dwellers suffered more during the war. Norway was not self-sufficient when it came to growing food, and German and allied blockades stopped the import of nearly all foodstuffs. Rural and suburban people could access plots of land to grow potatoes and carrots to supplement their diet, but this was not an option for apartment dwellers like my family.
Although Norwegians mostly managed to survive, shortages in food and heating supplies such as coal were acute, particularly towards the end of the war when Germany itself was experiencing shortages and stripped whatever they could from Norway. I don’t have any first-hand descriptions of my Norwegian family’s struggle, but my father remembered his mother packing boxes with non-perishable food and clothes and making him take it to the post office to mail to the Norwegian relatives.
Because of the blockades, I’m assuming that these boxes were mailed before the U.S. entered the war and after the end of the war, not during the time the U.S. was fighting Germany. In the first email my sister sent to the woman she thought was our cousin in Norway, she identified herself by naming our grandmother, Thea Rustad Fernelius, and asking the potential cousin if she’d ever heard of Thea. In the only email we ever got in return, the cousin responded with “Of course, I remember Aunt Thea. She sent us gum and candy right after the war. I was a child and so thrilled because those sorst of things had not been available in Norway for so long.”
My grandmother never spoke of WWII and what her relatives went through during it. I can only imagine that she spent those five years worrying about her family and hoping that they were okay. Fortunately, they all survived, and in 1951 my great uncle, “Onkel Kristen” visited the U.S. I was less than four years old, but I can still remember my grandmother’s joy in seeing him after over thirty years. A couple of years later my grandmother was able to spend a summer in Norway visiting both of her siblings and their families, most of whom she’d sent gifts and cards to for their whole lives but had never seen before. She wrote in a postcard home that it was all a “beautiful dream.”
I still don’t know as much as I’d like about what my relatives did during WWII, but the series “Atlantic Crossing” has whetted my appetite to know more about how Norway fared during the war and how my relatives would have been impacted. I’ve been checking what records I can access and have ordered some books about the period. You just never know what will spark a genealogy quest and where it might lead you. I’m off to find out.
Researcher/Director at Large