Finding Family in Denmark

June 3, 1994
Snedsted, Denmark

God dag,

I just wrote you a postcard earlier today, but thought I would fire up the computer and tell a bit of our Danish relative story—before too many days fade and memory gets as murky as the weather surrounding us on the coastal steamer. My hope is that this will reach you before July 4, so if you attend the Horsted reunion in SoDak, you can pass on the story if you wish. For that matter, it’s fine with me if you copy or pass around this letter, which releases you from details! Our charming little story went something like this…..

Shortly after landing, we took an overnight cruise ship from Oslo, Norge to Hirtshals, Danmark. There, we picked up our rental car and headed into the country, with our ultimate goal for the day being to make it to Hundborg and Snedsted, which were the towns on two of the three addresses Dad had provided. That’s all we knew, but felt that a church or library might assist us, or that even finding a gravestone would be some success.

We took our time traveling, as the countryside was sparkling with mustard (and other) blooms, each village had its own appeal, the water was forever appearing and inviting, and simple things like a spontaneous stop at potter’s studio could lead to hours of sipping coffee and hearing stories. Nonetheless, we had only some 48 hours to dedicate to these two mysterious towns, so I pushed us on—resisting the temptation of getting a room in the nearby coastal town of Voruper.

We cruised into Hundborg. Our first stop was for a quick look at the church and populous cemetery, where we perused one of its two immense graveyards only to become completely flustered by the stones and names—all of which sounded vaguely like relatives to me—and most of which shared the familiar names of Christensen, Nielsen, and so forth. We didn’t spot any of the three names Dad provided, but that didn’t mean much since we’d seen such a small fraction. At any rate, Danish cemeteries are perhaps the most beautiful in the world—unlike any others. But we headed posthaste to the home of a nearby woman clergy member whose name and address appeared on a sign there. She wasn’t home, but her daughter told us we could stop back after 6:00.

We then moved on to nearby Snedsted. It was probably nothing particularly prescient; I just liked the sound of “Horsted from Snedsted,” so we made it there at about 5:00. At that point, we headed directly to Snedsted’s one and only sleepy little Kro (Inn) to find a room. And that was the end of our search.

Upon entering the Kro and speaking a few English words (after “Taler De Engelsk?”), the surly Krokeeper stated, “Are you looking for your family? I know someone looking for you.” My skin crawled—since we were feeling more hopeless and confused than at any point in our mission. But I sincerely responded, “Well yes, but you must be looking for someone else,” as we’d heard not one word from anyone in Danmark. He went into his kitchen, and came out with a piece of paper and announced: “Keerk…Horsted?”

Perplexed and spooked, we waited while he left to make a phone call. Following that, he told us to wait 20 minutes.

In less time than that, two people came through the door—a middle-aged woman and a bearded young man. Her English was rough but eager; his near-perfect, making him a valuable translator. They were delighted to see us, and the lady invited us to follow them to their nearby farm for dinner, and then to spend the night. Since some variation of this fantasy was, frankly, what had led me there in the first place, we quickly obliged. And thus began a long series of easy introductions, huge meals, and spirited gatherings.

The first was with Minna (who we’d just met) and Martin (her husband), and their son Alex and his girlfriend Hanne—who had driven back home (anticipating our arrival) from nearby Thisted where he is a first-grade teacher, and she a student in Psychology. The farm was a beautiful place, with nary a weed among the endless flowerbeds, friendly cats and dogs, and multi-colored cows staring from the fields. It was over dinner that we related our separate stories, and thus realized perhaps the most ironic part of all…..

As it turns out, my letter had just arrived the day before—despite that I had mailed it weeks earlier. For starters, I had no address—just a village name (which was not right, and neither was the spelling). And secondly, the name provided was actually none of the aforementioned persons, but rather, Minne’s mother, Hedewig, who Dad had identified as “Pat’s cousin.” (Hedewig’s mother was my great-grandmother’s sister, making Hedewig the cousin of my recently-deceased grandpa.) Indeed, the letter had eventually found Hedewig (via being addressed to her husband). But neither spoke English, so it had waited until late the night before—when a granddaughter was able to stop by and translate. Yet somehow, all this (mis)timing turned out to be perfect. “Det er en luftspejling!” Or, “It’s a miracle!” proclaimed Minne many times, in Danish, of course.

After supper, we all herded over to Bestemor and Bestefar’s (Grandma and Grandpa, Hedewig and Chresten, Minne’s parents) house, a few minutes away, where we quickly were joined by by Minne’s brother Tage, his wife (yet another) Hanne, and children Heidi, 19 (who had translated the letter), Jesper, 17, and Jane, 13. Old photo albums (going back to Christine’s mother, and featuring all my grandpa’s generation, and even one with Dad!) were spread out to make connections, conversation was everywhere, and then we ate again—around a long, festive table. Long past everyone’s bedtime, we finally got to bed—still less than 36 hours since our sleepless flight to Oslo, and still full of time-zone daze and jet lag.

The next day, in a nutshell, featured more of the same, and then some more again. We were toured around to see graves, find the farm site of Jens Ole & Hedewig (the first)—where Christine and family were born—and to meet more friends and family. Alex had to teach, but made it back to join us by midafternoon—so he led us around to see some intriguing coastal areas and sights. Twice this day we were fed by Hedewig who, despite her years (80), never tired of peeling potatoes and finding more to feed us. We began our sad goodbyes that evening, as the next day we needed to make it to Odense (on the other coast), where our rental car was due the morning after. Hedewig seemed saddest to see us go; indeed, we were told over breakfast with Minne the next morning that she had already called to say she missed her new American relatives.

We finally pulled out at about noon, stopping for a few photos at Hørsted—which was just the next (tiny) village over!—and then at another village where Alex was spending his Saturday reconstructing a camper-caravan with his biological father, who had put him up for adoption at the age of one when the mother/wife had died. Finally we hit the road, having already found a trip’s worth of happiness from a few fleeting days abroad.

We left with a good name to contact—possibly a relative (who a few only knew “of”), who lives outside of Copenhagen and is interested in researching the family. We intended to contact him during our time there. But unfortunately, the concussion that hit me within hours of reaching Copenhagen pre-empted that plan—no thanks to amnesia, pain, and four days of bed recovery; we simply ran out of time. But we’ll try later, perhaps from Oslo in July.

So the good news for all Horsteds is that there are some wonderful, almost-lost relatives still in Danmark. And while those of us in the U.S. have more or less decided we’re American (which, perhaps, we are), they still consider us to be Danish—and still family. It may be applying unnecessary guilt to suggest they’re hurt by the lack of contact, but in fact, they (at least the ones I had the good fortune of finding) still think of themselves as our family. Although Aunt Patrine visited only once (in 1955), and Hedewig was in the hospital at the time and didn’t even meet her, they still talk of her visit—and even pulled out the last Christmas letter she sent ten years ago. That was the last they heard from anyone. Little did any of us know that they were as curious about us as we were about them!

So if you’re feeling ambitious, a 4th of July family reunion group picture (or most any picture) with names scrawled on the back would make their day. I can assure you it would be the hit of a large family dinner, and pulled out again and again for years to come. A phrase or two in Dansk would be a thrill for them, but if not, there will always be a grandchild to translate the English.

Ha det godt, Kirk

Print Friendly, PDF & Email