Old Family Photos Sparked Questions. The Answers Brought Them All the Way to Denmark
When you lose an ø, does it make a sound? Distanced from their history in Denmark, a family road-trips through Jutland to find their home, their family, and the proper pronunciation of their name.
I can’t think of a better way to introduce two rural Danish citizens to the American way of being than showing up at a stranger’s house and asking them if a pair of 10 year olds can come inside and use their bathroom. Like, now. This National Lampoon’s European Vacation moment—excruciating for everyone involved, including said 10 year olds who had to navigate the prewar plumbing—was brought to you by the very American desire to trace our family history and follow our roots.
Our (mis)adventure to that house near Lintrup in Jutland, Denmark’s rural mainland that shares a border with Germany, started with a folder of family history. My husband Nick’s great-grandfather Nis Sønderup immigrated to Minnesota from Denmark around the turn of the 20th century. Nick had visited Denmark once, at age 14 for a soccer tournament, but he’d never been curious about his roots until we started looking through the folder together.
Nick’s parents had handed it over casually a few years ago, not knowing what it would prompt. About 25 years ago, a couple of Nick’s older family members had connected with a cousin in Denmark, Brigit, and her husband Leif, and one even went to visit them and took some photos outside the ancestral Sønderup farmhouse in Jutland, aka Little Fuglbaekgaard. Leif was a dedicated family historian who communicated with different Sonderups in the United States (where they’d all lost the ø), from Nebraska to Texas, and we read a long letter from him detailing the Sonderup diaspora.
In one generation, five out of eight Sonderup siblings emigrated to the USA in the late 18th century; and in the next one, Nis’s generation, at least another six or eight cousins went as well. Turns out, Nis was one of at least a dozen people in the family to leave Denmark for what they hoped were greener pastures in farming communities in Minnesota and Nebraska. But interestingly, they can all trace various branches back to this one farmhouse. We paged through the history, our interest piqued by old photos of the house, dating to 1906, and the relatively recent color ones as well. It’s a solid two-story stone building with white-washed walls and a low roof sweeping down; an attached barn forms an L-shape around the front drive.
The photos got me thinking: Why don’t we plan a trip to Lintrup? We could piece together the story of Nick’s family and also explore Denmark on a road trip, giving my kids a sense of their Danish history and how Danish culture is already a part of their lives, from The Little Mermaid to LEGO. What’s more, Nick has never heard his last name pronounced correctly and therefore neither have my kids. Wouldn’t it be grand to hear it as the Danes actually say it?
Nick was already connected on Facebook with Brigit and Leif’s son, Thomas, but they had never messaged before, so we got in touch and planned to meet at Little Fuglbaekgaard, some 165 miles west of Copenhagen. Then I started to prepare for the trip by taking out picture books on the Vikings for the girls (“boooooring, Mom”) and reading them Hans Christian Andersen’s original, not-so-happy “The Little Mermaid” (“wait, she dies?”).
We planned to road trip through the countryside for four days, first stopping in Funen, the third largest island in Denmark, and Andersen’s hometown of Odense, the third largest city, and then in Ribe and LEGOLAND Billund before heading to Copenhagen for a few days of urban adventures. If the girls found the family-heritage sleuthing not their cup of tea, we knew that LEGOLAND visit and Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens would not disappoint.
First stop: vikings and fairy tales
Denmark is tidy, we find. The main highway is never more than two lanes in each direction, and it’s accompanied by an equally smooth bike lane that’s more of a cyclist freeway, separated by a healthy amount of flower-filled green verge. Once we pick up the rental car, our first stop is the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, about 45 minutes west of Copenhagen. The girls clamber over the indoor and outdoor replicas of ancient Viking ships (finally I get a “cool, Mom!”), before we drive on to Odense on Funen, the hometown of Hans Christen Andersen. It’s a very green little city—even the tram lines run through grass-covered lanes and wildflowers are planted along the sidewalks.
Despite the girls’ initial skepticism about the stories, the next morning when we arrive at the H C Andersen Hus, a new experiential museum that also includes Andersen’s childhood home, they’re entranced. Inside the museum’s green-roofed, circular silos—set partially into the ground and linked by rings of intertwined garden paths and hedges—puppet makers, papercut artists, and videographers have collaborated on oversized works that bring the famous tales (“The Snow Queen,” “The Tin Soldier,” etc.) to life. An audio track automatically starts playing on our headsets when we walk up to an exhibit, and the girls are wide-eyed—as are we. I realize why we are so spellbound once I learn the author of the English script is none other than Lemony Snicket (author Daniel Handler).
Finding the farmhouse
After a walk around Odense’s compact pedestrianized center, we set off for the farmhouse near Lintrup. Thomas had told us to meet him and his girlfriend Trine on the side of the road in the tiny hamlet of Foldingbro. We’re as excited to meet him as we are to see the house finally but also nervous. He’s family but also a stranger! It was a little awkward, but we’re happy when they tell us they’ve already stopped at the house and asked the owners, who speak no English, if we can come by. While we have permission to see the house, the invitation doesn’t extend to coming inside their home, Thomas explains. But that changes when we arrive and a short person pipes up, “I really need the bathroom.”
It was a thrill to see the white house and the green lawn in real life and looking just like the photos. But of course we had pressing matters to deal with. After we get through that experience, the owners tell Thomas that we aren’t even the first Sonderups to show up that year! A few months earlier, some American Sonderups, unknown to Nick, had knocked on their door, and about a decade ago, three elderly sisters from Nebraska came to see the farmhouse as well. As we stand in the sun, I try to imagine it with its original thatched roof and as a working farm. I take some photos of Thomas, Nick, and the girls—a new generation to put into the folder.
Thomas tells us that after Denmark lost the Second Prussian War of 1864, the house fell behind the new German border marked by the Kongeåen River (it reverted south again after World War I), and the Sonderups were then in Germany. Thomas explains that Jens, his and Nick’s shared great-great-grandfather, left home and moved about 45 miles northwest to Stavsø to remain Danish.
We travel even deeper into history when we drive to the 1,300-year-old town of Ribe —the oldest town in Scandinavia—and check into the 16th-century Hotel Dagmar across the square from the Ribe Cathedral, built in 1150. Over dinner with Thomas and Trine, we look through a treasure trove of documents that his father had compiled, including a photograph of the farmhouse Jens bought in Stavsø where Nis had been born and raised. We record Thomas saying “Sonderup” in the Danish or “correct” way. We take turns trying to pronounce and cry laughing at our attempts: Soon errrrap with the r buried deep in the back of the throat.
Following the bread crumbs
The next morning we decide to follow the bread crumbs Thomas found and plug Stavsø into the GPS. We drive through the orderly fields of wheat and corn outside the coastal town of Esbjerg and cheer when we see the sign for Stavsø Restaurant. Inside, we show a smiling older woman the photo of Jens’s farmhouse, but she speaks only Danish and German. Despite my extremely rusty German, we figure out that the house might be across from the school up the road, but when we drive over nothing matches the photo. Happily, a neighbor recognizes the farmhouse, though he tells us it was torn down years ago and a new one built in its place. We’d driven by it twice—the right place, but the wrong time.
The house was gone, but I check the folder and see that Nis was baptized at Henne Kirke, a medieval church two miles away. The 12th-century church sits atop a low hill surrounded by a large, well-tended cemetery. We find exactly zero Sonderups there, but this is not surprising in Danish culture, as we learn from a worker outside. Here, they reuse plots every 20 years and remove the headstones of the former, uh, occupants, a factoid that impresses the girls to no end. But we’re pleased when we do find a number of Nissens buried there, which we deduce must be the family of Kirsten Nissen, Jens’s wife and Nis’s mother.
Inside the church, the color scheme is divine Scandi country chic: wooden floorboards, walls of white, the pews a flat deep blue, and the bas-relief saints picked out in red and gold leaf on the walls. The girls touch history, placing their hands on the font that gleams softly in front of the altar—the spot where their great-great-grandfather was baptized 150 years earlier. A little over an hour later we are screaming our heads off on the Flying Eagle roller coaster at LEGOLAND, all thoughts of family history flying right out of our minds. But that night after dinner, Nick plays the recording of Thomas saying Sonderup again—and again we kind of butcher it. We might not be able to ever say it right, but we’ve learned quite a tale along the way.
Know before you go
Major U.S. and foreign carriers have daily flights to Copenhagen from JFK and other major cities. SAS has launched a new direct route from EWR to Aalborg in North Jutland.
Where to stay
Things to do
- Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde
- H. C. Andersen’s Hus museum and childhood home, Odense
- Night Watchman tour, Ribe
- LEGOLAND, Billund