A Puzzle That Keeps On Growing

How I love research! It’s something about finding those connections throughout time that fascinates me. When you make that discovery you didn’t expect to – even if it’s a tiny one. It’s like laying a puzzle where you don’t have all the pieces when you start and you never know how big that puzzle is going to get.

A good while ago I went to a meeting with the old missionary society my great grandparents used to be engaged in. It still exists, if even in a smaller version than at the beginning of the 20th century. It was very interesting to take part in this meeting – I felt both at home and at loss simultaneously. At home, because I realised that I was amongst people who knew about my family from back then – there were actually two women present who had met my great grandparents! And at loss because I felt like an outsider, not really belonging there, as my father kept a great distance to all things connected to this part of family history throughout his life.

At the meeting, there was also a table filled with different books, written by missionaries or relatives to missionaries. Browsing through, a book about a woman called ”Elna Lenell” caught my eye. She was this society’s martyr – that is, she met a brutal ending in China, being beaten to death while trying to flee the war zones around the country in 1943. It turns out, Elna fled together with my great grandmother Olga and some other missionaries.

In 1943, Olga was recently widowed, as my great grandfather Nils had passed in 1942. Olga and Nils had come out to China in 1939, after having been on leave in Sweden. I remember my grandmother used to tell me about this last journey with a mournful voice. She knew her father was not thoroughly healthy. He had some stomach pains and was not on top of his game. My grandmother knew it would be difficult to get medical help in China as Japan and China was at war, and begged her father to stay home this time. But he was sure he would be protected by God and so they left anyway, leaving their daughters behind in Sweden.

In 1937, Japan had gone into China, and the Chinese fled by the millions. The missionarie’s work became very difficult and dangerous and by 1945 most missionaries tried to leave China for their home countries. Some stayed on though, trying to find a safe refuge and keep working while waiting it out. Elna Lenell was one of those.

In the book, written by Elna’s relative Bo Lenells, I found out that Elna and Olga kept company part of the way.  At some point Olga started off to India in order to later get back to Sweden, but Elna remained in China until she was killed in 1947 after having refused to renounce her faith in a people’s court.

I wanted to find out more about my great grandfather’s last journey and started to look at passenger lists for ships arriving to Ellis Island, New York, in 1939. When travelling to China back then, it was common to go by boat to America and then take another ship to Shanghai in China. My grandfather also had friends in America since his time as an emigrant and I know he tried to meet up with them on his journeys back and forth to China.

This is where another piece of the puzzle materialised. In the Ellis Island records, I found my great grandfather’s name alongside my great grandmother’s and in addition to that – Elna Lenell. They had thus travelled together on what would be the last trip to China for two of them. Only Olga would return to Sweden many years later.

Elna is on row 21, while Nils and Olga are on rows 24 and 25 in the Ellis Island log.

Then I found a letter from Olga to her daughters in Sweden. It is written in 1943, only a few months after Nils had passed. Olga too, felt that this could be the last time she and her husband would see their children. Still she left.

”When we left you both and Stockholm the last time, I felt as if we would not meet down here again. And I feel so sorry for you. Now, you both have your own homes, husband and children, so it might not be so hard for you any longer if I too should pass. I thank God for that. But if I should not have the hope that I once would meet you in a better world, I would not have endured the parting from you. If that was the case, it would not have been easy to be together either. Life after this is what is the most important.”

Olga writes in a state of deep grief. She is satisfied that her husband doesn’t feel pain any longer, that he has been brought “home” and that he was the one who passed first. She writes that she was begging for him to go first so that he would not have to endure the pain to be left alone.

”It will be so wonderful when the Lord comes and we get our holy bodies…What an indescribable joy and blessing. I long for that day. More than I long for coming back to Sweden and to meet you, even if it would be very nice to visit your homes. If that is to be, I would stay some time with you, Edna, to rest. Let you tend to me, be of great trouble to you – yes I feel the need to rest. I would also ”haunt” Linnéa, but maybe she would not have time for me, so I would stay a little shorter time with her.”

I like how Olga still has a bit of humour in her writing, even if she is overcome by grief. It seems to me, she is joking a bit with her girls – they lead busy lives and Olga knows she will be in the way. She writes about “haunting” them 🙂

But it is obvious Olga longs to pass as well. Even more than she longs to see her daughters. I wonder how my grandmother Edna felt when she received this letter. It must have been quite hurtful.

Olga is caught up in her grief over her husband. It seems she is just going through the motions, trusting she will either go home to God or go home to Sweden. And if she had a choice, she would have chosen the former.

After having waited for eight months in western China, she finally gets on a plane to India in February 1945. From there, she hoped to get on a boat to Sweden, but as the WWII was raging, it was not possible to get back. Now she had to wait there for 5 months until she manages to get on a boat from Bombay to New York. From another letter I gather she spent a lot of time trying to find room on a boat, but she still went with other missionaries up in the mountains and helped out with children in a school there. She kept busy.

Travelling certainly has picked up pace since then… In New York she stayed for half a year before she got a ride with a freight boat in 1946 and finally reached Sweden in February of that year. She didn’t get home til’ Christmas, as she had wished for in one of her letters, but she finally set foot on Swedish ground. That was her last journey. After that, she stayed in Sweden, lived in a missionary home and started writing a small book about her most defining memories from China.

11 thoughts on “A Puzzle That Keeps On Growing

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    1. I think so too, Liz. I know my grandmother spent many years longing to be with her parents. She loved them very much, but always felt she came in second. To her parents, God was always more important and meeting up in the after life was more interesting than seeing each other in this life. Myself, I could not imagine spending years without seeing my children…

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              1. Yes, it was an important milestone in the Civil Rights Movement in the US. I think I was about six years old at the time, and what I remember him telling us about the trip was how welcoming the people he helped were and how much he disliked grits.

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