Little did John A. Strom, a resident of Three Crowns Park, know that the story “WWII Vets Recall Honor Flights” in the Nov. 9, 2011, issue of the RoundTable in which he was featured would lead to a “reunion” with family he had left behind in Sweden when he emigrated from therewith his mother, Albertina Knutsson, in 1922.
For nine decades Mr. Strom’s whereabouts – and even his identity, since his last name had been changed from the original Knutsson – were unknown to his cousins in Sweden. The RoundTable article provided a vital clue in their extensive search to find him. And 21st-century technology facilitated a transcontinental reunion between the “lost” John Strom and his Swedish family, still living in the small fishing village of Hällevik he had left as an infant.
On a Skype call, one of Mr. Strom’s cousins, Lars-Inge Bergheim, recounted the journey that led the persistent Swedes to him. Mr. Bergheim’s mother, Anna Bergheim, and her brother, Henning Knutsson, were online for the call as well. Mr. Strom invited the RoundTable reporter to listen in.
It was a mysterious photograph that aroused the Swedish family’s curiosity about John. The picture, sent from the U.S. to Knut Bengtsson, John’s (Mr. Strom’s) paternal grandfather, shows John standing in front of a house none of them recognized. The name “Strom,” not John’s mother’s name of Knutsson, was written on the bottom of the photograph.
After beginning their research, they discovered that this was the Evanston address at which John Strom lived with his aunt and uncle, Hilda and James Strom, at the time of the 1930 and 1940 Censuses they consulted. Mr. Bergheim then compared the photo with today’s house using Google Street View. They found many details confirming that it was the same house at 2202 Ewing Ave. It was in connecting John with Evanston that they found the RoundTable and the Veterans’ Day article.
During the Skype interview with Mr. Bergheim on May 22 in the Stroms’ apartment, Mr. Bergheim said the family began looking for the name Strom in ship manifests, obituaries, school and war records.
Mr. Bergheim learned that Mr. Strom and his mother had traveled by ship to America. The RoundTable found in the Swedish ship Drottingholm’s manifest that Albertina Knutsson and her infant son, John Albert Knutsson, born Oct. 30, 1922, left the port of Göteborg, Sweden, and arrived on Ellis Island on June 4, 1923, along with her memories and losses.
Mrs. Knutsson and her infant son faced enormous social and physical challenges. In most of the emigrant ships, space was very restricted, as most ship owners wished to carry as many passengers as they possibly could. It was no different for infant John and his mother. After about two weeks in a completely packed ship under unbearable conditions, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were before them.
This was the beginning of a long and complicated journey for baby John Albert Knutsson. His father, John Albert, born in 1899 and a member of the Swedish Army, had died. Mrs. Knutsson’s mother had died in 1904 when Mrs. Knutsson was 5 years old. Her father died at 60, in 1921, her husband had died and all of her siblings had emigrated to the United States. In Mr. Bergheim’s words, “On her side of the family there was no one here. The times in Sweden were very poor. Hundreds of people left Hällevik at that time. Her siblings were already in the U.S. We are rather sure that she didn’t see any other possibilities than moving to them.”
The RoundTable found in Emigranten Populär (1783-1951) (Swedish Emigration Records), that the infant John and his mother arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and then traveled to Grand Portage, Minn., on the shores of Lake Superior to live with her bachelor brother, Sigfrid. This arrangement was challenging, as John’s birth mother had contracted tuberculosis and spent considerable time in and out of sanatoriums until she died.
His mother, unable to care for him, put young John on a train to Chicago to live with Mrs. Knutsson’s older sister, Hilda, and her husband, James L. Strom, residents of Evanston. Mrs. Knutsson died in 1933, so John was eventually adopted by them. They had immigrated to the U.S. much earlier.
Mr. Strom said he started kindergarten speaking only Swedish. His kindergarten teacher, Ms. Johnson, spoke Swedish, and this made the transition to school a bit easier.
As he was settling into his new life in Evanston, Mr. Strom said, a relative from Sweden traveled to the United States to petition the court to obtain custody of him and take him back to Sweden. John, 10 years old, was present at the court hearing, along with his Aunt Hilda and Uncle James. The judge, as Mr. Strom says he remembers it, turned to him and asked him with whom he would prefer to live. Mr. Strom said he turned to his aunt and uncle and told the judge he wanted to stay with “my mother and father.” The judge listened to young John’s wishes, and he remained with Hilda and James Strom in Evanston.
Studying war files, Mr. Bergheim found Mr. Strom’s name in a document showing which soldiers belonged to a specific infantry company. His Evanston address was there, so they were sure it was the right person. And since his name was not included in a list of killed soldiers, John’s family in Sweden were rather sure that John had survived World War II.
Mr. Bergheim wrote, “An important component to this mystery was the article published in the RoundTable in 2011. Among other details our family read in the article was that John had graduated from high school in 1941 and that he had participated in World War II in northern Italy, eastern France and Germany. The name of his company was also mentioned in the article. The information corresponded with the information we had obtained from the war files. In the Census of 1940, we found that John had passed two classes at Evanston Township High School, so we imagined that he had graduated in 1941.”
Later, Mr. Bergheim found a “voting document” from the presidential election of 1992. His final step was to search in the White Pages.
“There,” said Mr. Bergheim, “I found a person named John A. Strom.” Mr. Bergheim recently emailed this writer that he had Skyped with John and Doris Strom and their daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Dave, who were visiting from Florida.
Mr. Bergheim said he took them on a virtual tour through Hällevik with Google Street View. “So they saw exactly the same on their screen as I did on mine,” he said. “It’s amazing what we can do today. I could show them houses of relatives and places in Hällevik which are interesting and important to John. They liked the tour very much.”
So the picturesque little fishing village in southeast Sweden where John Strom was born became the focus of the Skype tour. Mr. Strom’s first cousin Anna Bergheim and her brother Henning Knutsson provided background, which Mr. Bergheim translated: The house is situated about 50 meters from the sea. The men in Hällevik fished for herring, which was the main catch. Sometimes in the spring they could catch salmon. Herring was fried, boiled, made into soup and also preserved with a variety of spices. A lot of herring was taken away from Hällevik by horse and wagon to other areas in the south of Sweden. Herring was transported by train to a city east of Hällevik named Karlshamn; this train was called “the herring train.”
A place of which Mr. Strom said he has no memory became vibrant and alive as he and his family were able to see and share their heritage with their cousin, Lars-Inge Bergheim. The technology available today brought together a family that lost contact decades ago and are a “family” once again.