Three Sisters

Old photos arranged on my desk. Everyone pictured is long dead. Some of them dead twenty years before I was born. Grandparents? Great-grandparents perhaps? Yet they are not. These are photos of my aunts, uncles-by-marriage, first cousins.

On the left two of my Aunt Josefine. Then two of Aunt Anna and her husband on their wedding day. Above that Anna with her children, and Aunt Sofie (in black) and her two daughters. On the right Sofie’s husband in naval uniform.

Jonassen was their name—Anna and Josefine and Sofie—derived from their father’s patronymic. All of the children of Johannes Jonassen Hjelte and Siri Johnsdatter were surnamed Jonassen except for my father, the youngest, who was baptised Olav Johannesen.

All of these women emigrated. All of them married Scandinavian men in America. It all ended badly.


Anna Kristine, the oldest of the sisters, passed through Ellis Island in 1909 and married Nils Nordhus in Philadelphia in 1912. They returned to Norway to the Nordhus family farm on Fjellberg, an island in the West. Anna raised a family, while Nils commuted to New York to earn money, working eventually as a carpenter on the new Triborough Bridge. He died in an automobile accident in Long Island City in 1936. Anna, alone on the farm in Norway, died in 1938.

Sofie, the youngest of the three, followed Anna to America in 1910. In 1913 she married Thomas Jensen, a Norwegian who had become a naturalised American citizen through enlistment in the US Navy. They lived in Camden, New Jersey, and had two daughters. Less than three weeks after the birth of Sofie’s second daughter in 1918, Jensen died, likely in the influenza epidemic of those years, and was buried in Camden. Sofie and her daughters returned to Norway the following year.

I was well acquainted with the names of these sisters when I was a child, and also later, as I came to know their children—my cousins—and their children and grand-children, both in Norway and America.

Not so for Josefine, who had no children and left no living memory. My mother said once she thought Josefine had been my father’s favourite sister. One of Sofie’s daughters told me she thought Josefine had married a Danish man.  My father noted in his Bible that she died in Brooklyn in 1919. The photographs of her came into my possession from other relations. That was it.

Through the marvels of the internet, however, it has been possible to reconstruct some details of her story.


Josefine Jonassen, 22 years old, arrived in New York in steerage on the Frederik VIII from Kristiania (Oslo) on April 8, 1914. The ship manifest shows that her contact in America was a friend, Marie Sörensen, of 146 Sterling Place, Brooklyn. Marie otherwise disappears from this story.

A studio portrait of Josefine I have is dated on the back 1916, taken likely in Philadelphia or Camden, when it is possible the three sisters were all together for the last time.

A notice in the Brooklyn Eagle of September 14, 1918. The issuing of a marriage licence to Josephine Johnson (sic), 28, and Knud Hansen, 26. They are listed as living at 360 53rd Street in Brooklyn—less than a block from my later childhood home in Sunset Park. They married five days later.

Five months later, Josefine is dead. The Brooklyn Standard Union of February 15, 1919.

Josephine Hansen, who died yesterday in St. Peter’s Hospital, was born in Norway twenty-eight years ago, and had been a resident of Brooklyn for two years. She was formerly a resident of Camden, N.J. She is survived by her husband Knut [sic], and one sister, Mrs. Sophie Jensen, of Philadelphia. The funeral will be held to-morrow at 12:30 o’clock from her late home, 332 Fifty-fourth street, thence to the Danish Lutheran Church, Ninth Street, near Third avenue, where the Rev. R. Anderson will conduct services. Interment at Evergreen Cemetery under direction of Louis W. Thorgesen, of 300 Court street.

From which we learn that Josefine and Knud had, since their marriage, moved house, an apartment in a nearly identical walk-up tenement one block over, still in Sunset Park.

And that Josefine had no family in New York. At the time of her death my father was a seaman on Pestalozzi, a three-masted barque then in Norwegian ownership, arriving in Baltimore only on March 3rd, the first time at which Olav could have heard the news. He continued at sea and did not settle in New York until 1922.

The church of Josefine’s funeral service was the Danish Seaman’s church, Vor Frelsers, Our Saviour, the officiant the venerable founder Rasmus Andersen, designated in the church history as Emigrant– og Sømandspræst. Emigrant and seaman’s priest.

St. Peter’s was run by the Sisters of the Poor. A Catholic charity hospital that treated mostly TB patients. The snapshot of Josefine in a garden chair, from just before her death, is taken perhaps on the grounds of this hospital.


I had a candidate for Josefine’s husband. Hansen is a common name, but Knud spelt in the Danish way not so much, in this mostly Norwegian milieu.

A Knud Hansen in the 1930 census is living at 308 68th Street with a sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Niels Nielsen. All are from Denmark. An ‘m’ for married is entered for Knud, but no wife listed. He is said to be a stock clerk.

Exactly the same ménage—Elizabeth, Niels, Knud—appears in the 1940 census, this time at 433 57th Street. Still an ‘m’ for Knud, but no wife. Now he is an ‘oiler’ in a motor shop.

I pause over these addresses. As prosaic as these bald numberings must seem to anyone who grew up with named roads and crescents and closes and even named houses, it invokes for me, who grew up in Sunset Park, a geography of finely grained physical and social detail. The house number told you between what avenues it lay—433 57th Street was between Fourth and Fifth—and you knew instantly where, from there, you caught a bus or a subway, where you shopped, what parish or precinct or postal zone you belonged to, whether you were surrounded by Finns or Italians or Irish, precisely how rough or genteel you might expect the ambience to be, whether the lie was steep or flat, whether houses were terraced or detached, even what weather reached you, depending on whether you were on the harbour side of the ridge that peaked at 6th Avenue, or inland, toward Borough Park, Bensonhurst, Midwood. People moved frequently. It was a renter’s world.

More addresses. An obituary notice for Knud Hansen. The Brooklyn Eagle, February 8, 1942.

HANSEN – On February 7. KNUD, of 573 80th Street, brother of Elizabeth Nielson [sic]. Services at Schaefer’s Funeral Parlors, 4th Avenue at 42d Street, on Monday, February 9, at 8 p.m. Funeral Tuesday, February 10, at 2 p.m. Cremation at Fresh Pond.

His last address, 80th Street, above 5th Avenue, is out of Sunset Park altogether. In Bay Ridge, almost to Fort Hamilton. Then, as now, a leafier, quieter block than any place he had lived before. A streetcar ride, along 5th Avenue, from where we were then living at 728 51st Street.  I am about to turn three, my brother will be born in another ten days.


The only trouble with identifying this Knud firmly with Josefine’s husband of five months in 1918–1919 was that there was no family memory of him. Neither from any of my numerous cousins, nor, most tellingly, from my father, who made a virtue and practice of keeping up with family. His best friend from his bachelor days in New York in the 1920s and 30s was Sofie’s brother-in-law, Angel Jensen, a man whom I remember, and who got me one of my first jobs.

My father kept in close touch with his relations in Norway—with Sofie, and with a sister and brother who had never emigrated—and sponsored several nieces and a nephew to come to America, some of whom slept for a time on our sitting-room sofa. Had he known of the surviving husband, in Brooklyn, of a favourite sister, it is hard to believe he would not have been in contact.

It is possible that Knud Hansen is among the faded pictures of ancient outings in my father’s photo album, among which are many people I don’t recognise. It is also the case that my mother, born the year that Josefine and Knud married, and nearly twenty years younger than my father, would not have known many of Olav’s old friends. The ones she did know she frequently disapproved of, or was jealous of.

Olav kept much to himself, and who can say whom he might have visited, living or dead, on his frequent, lone peripatetic jaunts around the city. Maybe he knew perfectly well where Josefine was buried, and what had happened to her husband.


There it might have remained. The possible, the probable, the unknowable. Until just the other day.

It came to me to look into Josefine’s burial place. Evergreen cemetery, her obituary said. In Bushwick, on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. I sent an email asking if they had a record of Josephine Hansen. I got an immediate reply.

In response to your inquiry, Josephine Hansen is interred in the section of Nazareth #20664 on February 16, 1919.  Also buried in this grave is Knud Hansen buried on March 2, 1942.  Hope this information is helpful.  I am attaching a map of the cemetery.

Damaris Rodriguez, Evergreens Cemetery


Thanks to Ms. Rodriguez’s kindness, I now know for sure that Josefine’s Knud is the Knud of the census returns, the Knud Hansen who lived in Brooklyn with his older sister for the remainder of his life, for more than twenty years.

What sort of man was he? What did he think about his life? Why did he never marry again? Was he never reconciled to the death of his Norwegian bride? Or another lost soul among the many in that transient world of tenants and boarders, of alienation, of loneliness? Perhaps both. A love story. An emigrant story.