When I left for study abroad, I expected the big emotional moments. What I didn’t expect was to find my family.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to the Swedish city of Gothenburg (Göteborg, in Swedish) with my Public Health and Migration class. Gothenburg is situated on the West Coast of Sweden, and was once the gateway for Swedes leaving for America.
As part of our three-day excursion, we visited the Emigrants’ House, a museum situated by the port exploring the experiences of those leaving Sweden for a better life across the ocean.
When I told my parents that I would be going to Gothenburg, my mom told me about her great-grandmother, who had left from Sweden as a child, probably through Gothenburg. I promised to look for more information when I was there.
By far the most moving experience of the trip for me was the visit to the Emigrants’ House. The focus of their exhibits is to show the hardships that Swedes faced coming to the US, but also to draw parallels with the plight of migrants and refugees fleeing to Sweden today. Overall, their mission is to remind visitors to be compassionate.
At several moments during our visit, I was overwhelmed with the realization that my ancestors had been brave enough to come to the same place I was now standing, looking with uncertainty onto the water, filled with hope. Now, five generations later, I am privileged enough to be able to travel back here and stand where they stood.
After exploring the museum, I consulted with their archival services to try and learn more about my family. All I had was a last name: Tolf. For 30 minutes, our efforts proved useless. The dates and locations I had didn’t pan out. Then, a breakthrough.
In 1903, Robert Emmanuel Tolf , his wife Lena, and their children Elsa and Gustav Elvin left the small township of Svartvik to travel to Sundsvall. From there, they crossed the country to Gothenburg, leaving within a month for new opportunities. In 1908, my great-great-grandmother, Alice was born in Joliet, Illinois.
Over a century later, there I was. Full circle.