A journey up the family tree

Travel | How one man from New York discovered his roots in Argentina and traced his Baptist ancestors to the Arctic Circle

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Nyköping, Sweden- Paddling a yellow kayak past hundreds of green islands and through the dark, choppy waters of the Baltic Sea south of Stockholm, the mind wanders: How did this trip begin?

The travel industry calls this a heritage trip-genealogical tourism. A scientist would call it a DNA vacation. An anthropologist might call it a journey into the family tree.

My guide, Elisabeth Nilsson, sparked my visit to Sweden when we met randomly at a conference in Argentina on the global steel industry. Nilsson is executive director of Jernkontoret, the Swedish steel producers association, and I was at the conference as a Wall Street Journal reporter also covering steel.

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She looked familiar but I could not place her. At a reception we started talking and, 20 minutes into the conversation, she asked the names of my great-grandparents who left Sweden for America. When I said, "Sven and Emmy Eklund," she laughed.

"I can't believe it," she exclaimed. "We're relatives!" Her grandmother Elin was a sister of my great-grandmother, Emmy. It's clear why her features reminded me of my late great-grandmother as well as my lovely grandmother, aunts, and sisters. In fact, she had met my grandmother and some aunts and uncles who live in the United States.

A chance encounter with a blood relative from Europe half a world away in the Southern Hemisphere rekindled my desire to visit Sweden, a place where my late great-grandparents Sven and Emmy grew up in a small fishing village named Påläng, 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, before they immigrated to Chicago and later to Minnesota.

So as Elisabeth and I paddle through the beautiful archipelago, I think about our ancestors. Were they on fearsome Viking ships or part of the national Lutheran movement that swept Sweden in the 1500s? How hard was it for Sven and Emmy to immigrate in the 1920s?

I am not alone in my quest. Overnight stays by foreigners in Sweden are growing nearly 9 percent a year, compared to 4 percent in the rest of Europe, and government officials say heritage tourism drives much of that growth. To assist the descendants of immigrants to the United States, the Swedish consulate in New York has published a popular, free guide to "Tracing Your Swedish Ancestry," and a cottage industry is springing up to serve the demand for cross-country genealogical tourism and language links.

"Find out as much as you can and even locate living relatives before you go on your trip," says Jill Seaholm, a genealogy specialist at the Swenson Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. "Spend your time with your relatives rather than looking for them." The center has a genealogical library and extensive web links to help Swedes in the United States track down their ancestors. It's easier for Americans to find Swedish relatives than Swedes to find relatives in America because Swedes kept careful track of genealogies through Lutheran church registries and other methods. In the United States immigrants essentially lose themselves, changing their last names and moving frequently.

My grandmother, Gladys Ohnstein, often traveled to Sweden, maintaining close ties with her uncles, aunts, first cousins, and great nephews and nieces. She proved to be an invaluable resource for my trip, providing names, phone numbers, and addresses. She even mailed me a packet with family tree and biographical information for relatives. Her excitement and tales of her visits to Sweden also inspired me-as a child and an adult. I listened to a Swedish language CD and managed to learn a few simple words, like hej! "hey" (hello) and "hay-doe" (good bye).

There were so many things I didn't know well enough as a child, namely my great-grandparents, and so I write out questions. Why did Sven and Emmy leave Sweden? What were their lives like growing up? What kind of Christian heritage (or other religious heritage) did our Swedish family have? What other life lessons do our relatives in Sweden offer to my larger family and future family? What would life be like had I been born in Sweden?

When I land in Stockholm for a short tour of the capital, I stay with relatives, Maria and Joakim Soderberg (both government economists) and their son Elvin.

As we tour Stockholm, we discuss the difficulties the Swedish government is having with its welfare-state policies and open-ended immigration policies. These have created ethnic pockets in the city that many Swedes blame for increases in crime and a less helpful welfare system. The issues are different in Sweden and in the United States, but the tension is the same.


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