Karin Kossman (Jorgensen) emigrated from Denmark to Canada when she was eight years old. Here, she shares part two of her story about life on the ship as they leave Copenhagen for North America. These are Karin’s own words, but they have been mildly edited for clarity. Part One can be viewed here.
LIFE ON THE SHIP
The loud horn sounds and I hear a man, later known as the ship’s mate, shout into the microphone with a booming voice, ” LAST CALL: ALL ABOARD.” I’m baffled, as baffled as an eight year old can be. What happens next? The huge vessel moves slowly away from the dock. Thousands of people, or so it seems, are on board. Leaning over the edge of the ship, most of the passengers wave their small flags frantically as a symbol of farewell and respect for their country and the people of origin they leave behind. As our friends and relatives fade, till only small dots of people are seen back at the Copenhagen harbour, they finally disappear in the distance. People are wiping tears from their eyes. I don’t understand that many of these good byes are final.
We settle in somewhere down below, way below, in the two preordered tiny, dingy, dark cabins, which is all my mom can afford. I’m not impressed, in fact it is a little scary down here. I helplessly think about our last home in Denmark, which I always thought was quite tiny, but a mansion compared to this. I can’t wait to get back up on deck, where at least I’m not feeling choked by the stale air down in what is now our new home for a while—a very long while. Once on deck, despite the hoards of people, at least the sun is still shining, and I can easily wiggle my way through the crowds. I will never complain about space again. Wow! There’s lot’s of space to wiggle in and out of, up here. Maybe it’s not so bad after all. I spend little time down below, except to sleep, during the total sailing time.
I smell something good. My tummy’s telling me it’s time to eat. I’m ready for a fantastic meal at the huge wooden table, covered with a lovely pale blue tablecloth, in the ship’s enormous dining room. It’s filled with brightly shining colours and a warming atmosphere, like I have never before experienced.This particular table is reserved for us, till we see glorious land on the other side of the mighty Atlantic ocean. Dinner is served. The beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, right above our table, catches my eyes. I stare upwards, not able to take my eyes off that beautiful fixture. As I hold my spoonful of delicious smelling stew in my hand, half way between my plate and my mouth, I forget to eat—until I get a wake up call. Do I hear someone calling my name? I guess I do—I’d better eat and stop day dreaming. As it comes to pass, this is the only meal during our new adventure that me and my family will all eat together in the dining room, as sea sickess takes it’s toll from here on in.
After I stop day dreaming, my tired body almost joins the stew from time to time, as I try to eat—spoonful by spoonful. After a few pokes in the ribs by those who are still awake, I do manage to finish it all. Our dad, who is always our disciplinarian, instilled in us, ” eat up or else.” As my mind flashes back to past discipline, I feel shivers down my spine, even if he is waiting on the other side of the Atlantic right now. He makes sure that no one leaves the table till every morsel on our plates are gone, whether you like it or not. I think that mom, alone with her busy family, will be more lenient. My mom is definitely much softer and gentler and she never booms out demands.
I have no understanding of how much she has on her mind, getting her six children safely through our passage to the other side, into an unknown world, with only pennies to spend, and not knowing a word of English. My elder siblings, Lis and Leif, can help a little with their English lessons behind them from high school, however, their British language is quite different from the American and Canadian English. The next thing I know, I am slumped in my oldest sisters’ arms, who carries me down the steep steps to our cabin. She is very mature, almost an adult, and very helpful to all of us at only sixteen years of age. She places my limp body on the hard, skinny, lumpy mattress on the top of the iron-framed bunk bed, in the tiny room and I immediately I fall into dreamland. Morning comes early, leaving much to explore in the coming days.
Niels, 7, and Poul, only 2 years of age, plus my mother and I had claimed the first bunk. Lis, Leif, and Rita—the older ones—settled into the second crowded space next door. Our cabins can compare to the size of one of the three bedrooms where we lived in my grandfathers home back in Denmark ( Danmark.) They lived in a little apartment. I can still hear the huge town tower bells next door, as they clang loudly, every hour on the hour.
As we lived on a small island back there, I am used to lots of water, but this is out of my world. Waves as high as a two to three story building, crashing so loud against the ship, that at first I hold my little hands over my ears to block out the sound, similar to a helicopter whirling above ready to land, but I did get used to it. The seas are stormy all the way across the humongous ocean in the middle of winter. I feel so bad for my little brother, Niels 7 yrs. old, throwing up frequently and very sick, the duration of our journey. My stomach is a little queasy off and on, but not so bad for me, as I am always too busy to get very ill.
There are lots of Danish folks to chat with, who understand what I am saying. Others do not, but I chatter with them too, barely slowing down to take a breath in between words. I think they know what I am saying, even if they don’t respond. No matter, it is all exciting that people pay so much attention to me, and all of my mom’s large family.
Sea sickness takes it’s toll on my mom and most of my siblings. When my stomach turns a little, the captain takes me under his wing to join the others on the top deck, where the air is cleaner and fresher, next to the captain steering our ship. It is pretty neat, even if all I can see is water, bouncing our ship up and down like a yo yo. It’s time to join the other passengers back down in the dining room. It’s my buisness to keep track of what’s going on at all times. At supper there are less and less people sitting at the tables as the meals begin, most suffering in their bunks below from the awful ongoing illness, not able to keep any food down in their tummies. I feel so bad for everyone, who is so terribly ill, while I am having fun.
I don’t miss any meals. It is always exciting to see what food is served, with American, Norwegian or Danish, cuisine. I’m loving it all, tasting very delicious. There is so much I’ve never tasted in my entire eight years of my life. As long as it is food, it is o.k., but I am so glad to escape my mom’s weekly “Skov sovs”, a white gravy with bits of bacon and onions served weekly in my home back in Denmark. To my Danish readers, you will know what I am talking about. It’s one of those things that either you love or hate. For me it is definately the latter. My dad always gives me a hard time, angrily, telling me every week, over and over again, “There’s nothing wrong with the food your mom cooks, eat it.” Although I usually have a good appetite, my mom always puts just a little dab on my plate because she knows and understands how hard that particular dish is for me to slide down my throat and actually swallow. Otherwise, I am never a picky eater.
Getting back to life on the ship with me and my family: My mom is the only lady travelling alone with so many children, therefore we have many privileges on board. There is a huge playroom, with so many toys like I’ve never seen before. However, I find it more fun sliding down the banisters, outside that room. It is usually banned for all the little ones on the ship , but we are the exception, allowed to do almost anything. The crew, and other adults travelling with us, make my moms trip with her children as easy as possible. Entertaining us little ones on our ship is definitely very helpful, even though, at eight years old, I’m very independent and take good care of myself. I’m not always easily found when needed because I move pretty quickly, wanting to explore everything there is to explore.
The two oldest children enjoy their trip when they are able to play ping pong on the deck. I try too. Even when they help me, I’m not so good at it. Mostly I like watching them, especially when the little plastic balls fly overboard. They must’ve have a huge supply. I always laugh as they bobble up and down on the horrendous white caps, till suddenly sea gulls snap them up and fly away. I wonder what they do with them? I don’t think they’re good to eat, not even for the birds.
Believe me though, we are pretty good kids, very capable of doing our own thing—except, of course, for Poul, who’s only two years old. I have the luxury of taking him off my mom’s hands whenever I have the opportunity. I play and play with him, as well as most of the other wee ones on board. We pretend, being whoever or whatever we want to be. I believe I must’ve been born with a marvelous sense of imagination. I can imagine anything anywhere, even if it is just in my mind.
Part three coming soon…
Karin Kossman (Jorgensen)