The Search for Thor
By Randi Millman-Brown
Thor Jensen, 36, moves from Oslo to Hammerfest. He is promoted to bank manager, becomes engaged, and takes a one-month hiking trip through occupied Finnmark in 1941. By the end of the year, he is dead, leaving behind a mystery, a diary, and many questions. This column chronicles his great niece’s attempt to solve that mystery.
Growing up with a Norwegian mother and a father from Brooklyn of Eastern European/Lithuanian descent, I had an interesting mixture of cultural heritage influences. To be honest, they were mostly Norwegian. My parents met when my dad was in the middle of a solo trip to Europe in 1958. He was planning to visit a girl in Finland. He didn’t make it that far. While on a stopover in Oslo, he went to the University of Oslo bookshop and saw my mom working there, and the girl from Finland was forgotten. She was a student there and they fell in love. In 1959, he traveled back to Norway and married my mother in Drammen. Via ocean liner, after their honeymoon throughout Norway, they moved to Brooklyn.
When I was one and a half years old, my mother took me to Norway for an extended visit. I learned to speak there, and when we came back to Brooklyn, I could only speak Norwegian. We went to Norway as a family in 1968, and I went by myself when I was 11 and 14. At home, we celebrated Syttende Mai (I had my own bunad handmade by my mother), and of course, put up the Norwegian flag. We ate gjetost, fiskeboller, lapskaus, and vaffler with cloudberry jam (when we could get it). My mother was an expert knitter, and I have at least three Norwegian sweaters she made for me, and my daughter now has the one my mother knitted for my Dad. My parents’ house was full of mid-century Scandinavian furniture—I didn’t realize how unusual that was for a middle-class Long Island suburban house.
As a teenager, I became interested in my family history, and one summer when my grandmother and her sister Randi were visiting, I wrote out a list of questions about their lives. I still have that list, with their comments and handwritten answers. I manage an Ancestry.com genealogy chart and it currently has over 900 names, many of which are from my mother’s side of the family (it currently goes back to circa 1750).
When I was in graduate school for art history at the University of Oregon, I wrote my master’s thesis on the Norwegian artist Harriet Backer. I traveled to Norway to do research at the Nasjonalgaleriet in Oslo, and was able to stay with my grandmother in Drammen.
Sometime in my 40s, I was given a large batch of family history material—including the original typed travelogue written by great-uncle Thor. This started my journey into researching his untimely and unsolved death. A search on which I’ll write more after more research this summer!
Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.