Images of an immigrant life

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., a neighborhood settled by Finnish and Norwegian immigrants during the 19th century. Looking east today along 62nd Street from 5th Avenue at rowhouses on a residential block of Sunset Park.

By Ragnhild Synnøve Risholt Kleppe, former Editor-in-Chief, Norway Times

“It’s all coming back to me now. Reading these stories of Norwegian emigrants to the U.S. has brought back so many memories of my childhood growing up in Brooklyn. I remember the taste of lefse and the smell of the accompanying coffee that was served in our house when my parents had their neighbor or friends over. They used to chat in their native tongue until late night and I fell asleep.”

This testimony was a typical reflection, when I as editor of the Norway Times, formerly known as Nordisk Tidende, started publishing a weekly column in 1999 entitled “Images of an Immigrant Life.” The column was a joint project between our paper and the Norwegian Immigration Association (NIA) as a part of the 175th anniversary in commemoration of the Norwegian immigration to the U.S.

Our readers were invited to submit entries to a contest, “Images of an Immigrant Life.” They were asked to share their own or a relatives’ experiences as immigrants from Norway to the U.S. To encourage entries, SAS contributed a round-trip ticket to Norway to the winner of the contest. But people didn’t need encouragement. The invitation alone was enough; the amount of touching everyday stories reflecting immigrant lives overwhelmed me. The details, the glimpses of past times and life experiences have followed me since I read their stories. They were perhaps the most important stories I published as editor for Norway Times.

Presently, the NIA is going to digitalize the Nordisk Tidende and Norway Times back issues and make them available to the public. What a wonderful idea and what great effort. Many can then read their own parents or grandparents stories, if not directly – then echoed by the stories of fellow Norwegian-Americans. These stories are important for several reasons. The obvious is the historical documentation of the past; for instance the tone and color of Brooklyn a century ago. TheNorwegian-Americans’ contribution to their new society was impressive; they built schools, churches and hospitals. I remember that one of our contributors told me an important lesson about his heritage; how his parents had told him to learn American first and Norwegian second, because that was his duty to the country that was their new home.

Many times my thoughts wander to these early “settlers.” I believe they can teach us something about immigration today. Roles are now reversed and changed, many times over; both for me on a personal level and when it comes to where people immigrate. I was once an immigrant to the U.S. myself. More than ten years ago I moved back to Norway, together with my American husband – now he’s the immigrant – just like his Norwegian grandfather was in Brooklyn almost a hundred years ago. Today few Norwegians are leaving the country to seek better opportunities elsewhere; the roles are reversed, in many countries Norway is today an attractive country to immigrate to.

The contributors to the column “Images of an Immigrant Life,” remind us of the complexity and the nuances that are special for immigrants. The duality of keeping one’s culture at the same time as one assimilates and adjusts to the culture of one’s new home country are essential aspects. I enjoyed so many of the stories of how essential part of one’s language or dialect was kept, how holidays were a special occasion when it came to bringing in one’s native culture, how food – special dishes such as lefse, brunost and lutefisk – can bring families together and be an important ritual in keeping traditions.

I wish the NIA the best of luck in their efforts to making Nordisk Tidende / Norway Times permanently available on the Internet and accessible to everyone. They deserve an honorable thank you from all of us who are interested in glimpses of Norwegian-American immigrants’ life.

This article originally appeared in the April 12, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.