The Most Cherished Strangers : My Life on a Danish Farm

Me (left) with the Christiansen Family on my last night on the farm.

Me (left) with the Christiansen Family on my last night on the farm.

"My Dear Daddy,
You can not imagine how important is place, where people live, how much influence it gives, how is it transforming. Here I am walking every day and singing and I do not miss anything. Of course it is not perfect, but when I came here I felt like “home“. It is so fine like “at home,“ so fine, so trustful and open. I don’t have any other word than “home."
Hana by Jensine & Arne's home in 1941.

Hana by Jensine & Arne's home in 1941.

I prefer physical work then psychical. If I work physically I can immediately see, what I did: I baked this bread, I did this work in garden, but of course I want to continue my education, I want to develop my education until fourth grade of high school. It is not only I want to know more and more, as mummy wrote me, but it is also for another reason: a clever person needs education, the basic education. With this new place I became New Hanka, I decided to fight for life, to be stronger. I am not so much unhappy as before, for so many months. Now I am completely different, happy, full of life. I love all, I salute all people which I meet, I smile at them and I like very much that two month-old baby. I am so happy, daddy, that you agree with my decision that I moved from the old place, where I really didn’t like it. I am so happy you are not as other parents, who say we (children) have to be grateful to these foster families. I know very good, what I can do, how I can work and I am sure I deserve to be rewarded for my work. Now, in this new place, I will earn money and also they will pay for my health insurance. Jensine says I am girl Nr. 1 and Lýdia is Nr. 2. I don’t need to wash dishes so I don’t need to run from one task to another one. That’s very fine. I also feed that lovely boy. He gets – daily – 5 times bottle, 180 grams of milk and 160 grams of porridge, also he got Danish crackers with sugar, melted in hot water. I feed him with a small spoon. I wash him and also dress him up. I really like this, this might be good work for me. Not those professions, which mummy wrote me. Please, mummy, don’t be angry for it. I am very happy that I can talk to you so open, that I can tell you such things. During those months in Denmark I learned so much about work. In Gorlose I learned how to work and I learned knitting. In Sondergaarden I learned how to work with chicken and hens. At Larsen´s farm I learned how to cook and how to be independent. Now, in this place I am completely independent worker. I can cook, I can take care about children, which I really like. I am happy, really, trust me, mummy.”
– A letter from Hana to her Parents / July 19, 1941

Strangers can become the most cherished people.

Just over one month ago, I journeyed to the countryside of Denmark to spend a month living with the Christiansen family. I knew when I started this project that I wanted to live on a farm during my time in Denmark; that life is what saved my grandmother and in the spirit of following in her footprints, it only made sense that I did the same.

In 1941, after working for three foster families around Denmark, Hana moved to the home of Jensine and Arne Nygaard, a young couple who lived in Holme-Olstrup, less than 10 kilometers away from Næstved on the island of Zealand. For the first time in two years, Hana was happy and she felt at home, a hard task for a teenager who has been separated from her family and sent from the urban streets of Prague to rural Denmark.

This new family gave her independence, respect and love. That was nearly 75 years ago, but the story that seemed to have ended a year after it began, when Hana moved on to the next phase of her adolescent life, reemerged in the most meaningful of ways this past month.

I lived with the family of one of Jensine and Arne’s granddaughters. I spent time working on their farm, helping with the animals in the morning and cooking dinner in the evening. I ran errands with them, partook in family gatherings, and spent my days building a relationship that I will forever hold dear.

Every morning I would venture to the barn which was just a couple of steps away from where I slept. The horses would greet me hello and the morning light would shine in. When Sine and Torsten (the parents of my "foster family") bought their farmhouse, it was just the two of them. They bought five hectares of land from relatives in 1998. Now, 17 years later, they have 20 hectares, three children, and plenty of animals including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens, pigeons, and cats.

Some of my favorite experiences over the past month included going to school with the kids. Liva and Lauge, the two oldest children, attend a private school up the street from their house. I went with them on a couple of mornings to help in their English classes. I also went to a ninth grade class (students around the age of 15) and answered questions about traveling, photography and serious issues regarding the United States such as race relations and gun violence.

I also went to an 80s themed dance party at school with Liva. Like in most places in the world, at that age, the boys and girls stick to their own side of the dance floor.

I didn't leave the farm so often, but when I did it was either to go grocery shopping or to a gymnastics meet (a popular sport within their family). In the picture below, Silje, the youngest in the family, sits inside the shopping cart, holding tightly onto her mother's purse and happily eating a piece of bread which the store gives away for free to all children. She had just been picked up from her preschool where the kids spend all day running outside, no matter the weather and no matter the season.

Like any mother of three, Sine has become a professional at multitasking. I was always in awe of how she balances taking care of the farm and raising three children. She started off her professional life as a physical therapist, but quickly found that an office was not right for her and that she is happiest working with her hands and on her own schedule.

Every Tuesday, Liva, gets to groom her 17-year old pony, Ringo, and take him for a ride. She carefully brushes his thick mane, braiding it and adding a bit of glitter just for fun. Having a horse or a pony is quite normal for kids who live in the countryside and it can easily become an obsession for many young girls.

Silje joins her sister, Liva, for the first time on Ringo. Silje is still far too young and small to ride on her own, but was very excited to finally have the chance to join her big sister.

And on some days, Liva will just take Ringo to the land beside the barn and let him gallop in circles.

I was on the farm from the middle of February through the middle of March which means that I got to see the season begin to change. With the warming weather, some of the animals who are kept in the barn all winter are taken outside. Their pig, known as Ms. Pig, is one of those animals. Due to her size, it is quite a challenge to convince her to get into the trailer and if she doesn't want to go, there is no way to force her. It took Sine and Torsten a couple days to get her to walk inside, but eventually was able to lure her in with food.

The oncoming spring weather also means the days are getting warmer, the sky is getting brighter and many of the animals are giving birth. They currently have a herd of about 20 sheep, but by the time that the summer comes, that number will likely double or even triple.

The evenings are a chance for the family to spend time together. Having me around to cook dinner meant they were gifted extra quality time. Sometimes that meant they would watch tv, engage with the animals or go over homework.

All of the siblings played very well together and it was obvious that Silje admires her big sister. In the photograph below, the two girls play in Liva's bedroom. Silje would make faces into the mirror and then giggle uncontrollably. Her laugh was contagious. 

Liva and Lauge have a great time on a Sunday afternoon jumping on the trampoline together. It is very popular for families to have these in their backyards. As Sine once told me, "many people have swimming pools, but the Danes have trampolines."

Throughout my month living with the Christiansen Family, I also got to spend quality time with the other children and grandchildren of Jensine and Arne. In the photograph below, Jensine's oldest child, Mogen (the one who is mentioned in Hana's letter to her parents), and her youngest child, Knud-Arne (who connected me with Sine and Torsten), stand on Mogen's farm. All of their family lives relatively close to each other which helps them keep in touch and stay in each other's lives.

On a sunny Sunday morning after joining Sine's mother's walking group, the Christiansen family soaks in the end of winter warmth.

I have nothing but love and admiration for this family. They are warm and welcoming and treated me as much more than a stranger from across the big blue pond. They appreciated me being there and I appreciated them having me. I can wholeheartedly say that if nothing else comes out of this project, meeting these wonderful people made all of this worth it.