A Boy in Brooklyn
One man’s memory of a childhood in the Norwegian colony
The Norwegian colony in Brooklyn hugs the southwest waterfront of the borough. It started in Red Hook and kept moving farther south to Bay Ridge/Sunset Park, bringing its churches, organizations and, of course, people along. It served as a haven for Norwegians suffering from poverty and as a home for displaced Norwegian war sailors and others simply looking for adventure.
It looms large in people’s memories and has been immortalized in books, paintings, music, films, and Norwegian towns, such as Kvinesdal and Vanse.
One of those Norwegian Americans who grew up in that colony, Adolf Hansen, has written a book about his experiences during the 1940s and 1950s. I read his book and interviewed him about it, and his responses follow.
Victoria Hofmo: Can you speak a little about your family and where they come from?
Adolf Hansen: My father, Adolf Hansen Sr., was born in Flekkefjord, Norway, in 1906, and died in 1980 in New Fairfield, Conn. He was one of eight children. His family was active in the Metodistkirken in the town of his birth. My mother, Martha Gundersen, was born in Arendal, Norway, in 1898 and died in 1991 at the Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center in Brooklyn. She was also one of eight children, and her family was a part of the Metodistkirken in the community where she was born. My wife, Naomi, and I have visited those locations, as well as the homesteads of my parents and the cemetery gravesites of their parents.
VH: Why and when did they come to America?
AH: My father emigrated to the United States in 1923. Friends met him when he arrived with his two suitcases in New York City and provided lodging and meals. They took him to their church, where the service was in Norwegian and then helped him find a job in construction. My mother came to the United States in 1925. Friends met her, helped her find a place to live, took her to the same church my father attended, and assisted her in locating homes where she carried out housekeeping, cooking, and caring for children. Both of them were a part of the immigrant movement from Norway to the United States in the early 20th century. They were not only seeking a better life economically, but were also pursuing a future filled with hope, opportunity, and promise.
VH: Can you share one or two of your favorite memories from your book?
AH: There were numerous events that took place in the 17 years I lived in Brooklyn. One that was most significant occurred at the end of World War II when I was 7 years old, on Sunday, Oct. 28, 1945. When the war was over, the U.S. Navy ships had come into the New York City harbor and were open for boarding by people who had a special pass. My father, a master carpenter, was part of a highly skilled team that built the cabinets in the officers’ quarters of the Missouri, a battleship known as “Mighty Mo”—887 feet long (almost the length of three football fields).
After a long wait in the VIP line, my parents, my sister, and I boarded. Toward the bow at the far end was the big brass plate with the wording of the Japanese surrender to the Allied Powers, an event that had occurred only eight weeks before I was looking at it! What an incredible experience, especially as I learned more fully in the following years the meaning of what I had seen!
VH: Your dedication page states, “To Martha Gundersen Hansen [mother] and Adolf Hansen [father], who provided a home where I could develop,” and then below, in the shape of a cross, you write, “TRUST in them, others in the colony, myself and God.” Can you speak about what this quote means to you and the core values in the Norwegian Colony that made growing up in this Norwegian colony so special?
AH: I dedicated the book to my parents, since they provided a home where I could develop trust, first in them (and their trust in me)—Chapter 1; then, in others in the colony (and their trust in me)—Chapter 2; and before long, trust in myself—Chapter 3; and soon after, trust in God (and God’s trust in me)—Chapter 4. Throughout these chapters, I also grew in my understanding of social trust in the entire Norwegian colony of which I was a part, and in numerous other Norwegian colonies in this country, as well as in the more homogeneous parts of Norway where Naomi and I have visited. As a result, trust has become the central value of my entire life. My relationships with people in each of these settings—many of which go back to the years I lived in Brooklyn—still makes the Norwegian Colony in Brooklyn so significant!
VH: Your first name is Adolf, and you were a child during the Nazi Occupation of Norway and when Germany was an American enemy. Did you get ribbed for having the same first name as the enemy’s leader?
AH: I had already been born and named when World War II started on Sept. 1, 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. My parents and their friends knew my father’s name was Adolf, and he wanted a son named after him. When I shared this data with my friends, they seemed to understand, and rarely raised the issue.
However, there were a couple of times when I got ribbed by a few boys in my early grade school years. They would salute me with their hands raised in front of them and say “Heil.” Not sure how to respond, I simply took out a small black comb from my back pocket, placed it between my upper lip and my nostrils, and raised my right hand toward them. We looked at each other and laughed. I wasn’t old enough to know better. I didn’t know what it really meant.
VH: For some, Brooklyn has become mythological, but not everything could not have been perfect. Can you speak of any of the downsides or dark parts of your youth here?
AH: There were many incidents that were negative, such as the late afternoon when one guy tried to stab me with his switchblade; or the evening two guys pressed a revolver against my back, and even took a shot at me when I ran from them. However, these were events, and not ongoing patterns. In terms of downsides, one of the most impactful developments was the absence of a biological brother and the lack of a meaningful relationship with my biological sister. There were a number of factors that formed the basis for the latter—largely beyond my capacity to influence. This led to a degree of loneliness that on the one hand was a concern but was largely overcome by a myriad of meaningful relationships with functional brothers and sisters.
VH: Can you speak about when you left Brooklyn and why?
AH: Following graduation from high school in 1955, I moved away from Brooklyn to attend college. Going out of state had an appeal that was fostered by a sense of adventure and an eagerness to expand my horizons. This was not common for many in my peer group, but it was the experience of several persons who were influential in my life. Don, one of our youth leaders, was a graduate of Taylor University. He exemplified qualities that I deeply admired—both his exuberant personality, and his authentic Christian witness. And “the icing on the cake” was that Rolf, my closest friend, and Betty, another close friend, also decided to go to the same university.
VH: Can you speak a little about your adult life, where you lived and where you worked?
AH: Upon graduation on June 6, 1959, and a wedding a week later to Naomi Metzger, we moved to midtown Manhattan, where I spent the next four years earning two masters’ degrees, while my wife worked as a third-grade teacher. We then went to Fort Wayne, Ind., with a new daughter, where I was ordained in the Methodist church there and served as a pastor for two years.
Next, we journeyed to Evanston, lll., with another new daughter, for three years, where I earned a doctoral degree at Northwestern University. Then we moved to Indianapolis, where I served as a pastor for three years, and then as a member of the faculty at the University of Indianapolis for 12 years. Finally, I went to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where I was vice president and member of the faculty for 21 years. I retired in 2003, after which I have been serving (part time) as Theologian in Residence at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.
VH: You left Brooklyn a long time ago. Why does this place have such a hold on you?
AH: In my junior and senior high school years, I became part of a peer group that developed relationships that were more meaningful than I had ever experienced. It was the first time I felt like I really belonged. We trusted each other so fully and so deeply that a bond developed that continues even to this day.
Dozens of those who were in this group during the 1950s have maintained those relationships up until the present day. Many of them have met, and still meet, in the Boca Raton area of Florida during winter months, having invested in condos, trailers, and houses over the years. (I’ve stopped by for a brief visit a couple of times.) Nearly 40 of them reside at Willow Valley, a senior residential community in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. However, thousands of Norwegians in Brooklyn communicate via social media, particularly through Facebook, where one website named “Brooklyn Norwegians” has a membership numbering 6,200.
VH: What made you write this book now?
AH: Over the years, I have thought about writing a memoir of my entire life but have slowly come to the realization it would be too lengthy, take too many years to complete, and be incredibly difficult to organize in a coherent manner. Focusing on one period of my life, particularly the years that were most formative, least known, and largely unique, seemed like a realistic possibility. Therefore, I chose the years I lived in Brooklyn—before I met my wife, and before having children. With my life moving on in years, and time for clarity and creativity of thought still present, though limited in years, I decided it was time to formulate my recollections in as carefully and thoughtfully a manner as I could.
VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
AH: Whatever else I might add is included in my book, with one exception. I have lived for 67 years since I moved away from Brooklyn and have found TRUST to be the central core of my entire life, especially in my relationships with my dear wife of 63 years, my family, my close friends, and—most important—my relationship with God, who I trust with all my heart. And, since trust necessitates a two-way relationship, the trust that all of them have in me! Yes, even God’s trust in me!
A Boy in Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Norwegian Colony in the 1940s and ’50s (2022) by Adolf Hansen is available for purchase at amazon.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.