Reykjavík
5°C
E

The Immigrants Who Disappeared

Magazine

The Immigrants Who Disappeared

By: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

The farm Grjótnes on Melrakkaslétta, Northeast Iceland, where Hildur spent most of her adult life.

Published in the 2014 January-March issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica — IR 01.15. Words by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, Photos by Páll Stefánsson.

In 1949, Iceland saw its first and only group immigration organized and paid for by the government when 314 Germans, mostly between 20 and 30 years old, among them 139 refugees, were hired to work on farms across the country. Icelanders were increasingly moving from the countryside to towns and villages, and as a result, farmhands were needed. as part of the initiative, 284 farmers requested 316 laborers, 231 women and 85 men.

Bombings and Blessings

In the wake of World War II, poverty was widespread in Germany, food was rationed, unemployment was rife and millions of refugees from the eastern territories were spilling across the new borders into Poland.

With a promise of a monthly income and all expenses paid, approximately 2,000 men applied, but considerable effort had to be made to find the required number of female applicants.

“Germany was in ruins. There was nothing to miss,” says Gisela Schulze when I ask if she never got homesick after the move to Iceland. at 18, she was one of the youngest immigrants.

“I was born in Stettin.” located on the Oder river, the now-polish port city is known as Szczecin. “While the war was still ongoing, our house was bombarded by the Russians, and so I left for Stolp [Słupsk] near Danzig.” as the polish border was shifted west, ethnic Germans were forced to move.

“So you escaped,” interjects Gisela’s husband Árni Jónsson. “I didn’t escape. I left!” she snaps. “I walked. By myself—part of the time there was a girl with me—and with a goose.”

Separated from her family, Gisela ended up in the town of Eisenach in the Soviet-occupied territory in the center of Germany.

I try to see the young refugee Gisela in the stylish old lady sitting before me in her upscale living room on Laufásvegur in central Reykjavík. With her husband, a retired bank manager, by her side, Gisela seems keener on bashing today’s politicians in her flawless Icelandic than talking about the past. She has come a long way in 65 years, but her strong spirit and unbreakable determination are still apparent.

Upon learning that her family was in Lübeck in the British-occupied territory in the north, Gisela went there next.

From Ruins To Riches

In Iceland, World War II was sometimes called “the blessed war” because of the boom in employment, improved infrastructure and technological development brought on by the allied occupation.

But social development resulted in depopulation of the countryside. To address the problem, a resolution was submitted at the 1947 agricultural Congress (Búnaðarþing) to “import foreigners” to work on farms. Two years later the resolution was put into effect and German newspapers advertised for farmhands in Iceland.

The Icelandic Consulate in Lübeck was responsible for the hiring and Gisela applied along with a friend. “I didn’t make any plans. My friend was going, so I just followed her.”

From City Life to Countryside

Not every applicant was escaping a hopeless situation. “I had work. I worked in a drugstore in Lübeck,” stresses Hildur Björnsson, then Hilde Raabe. “But after five years in an office, I wanted to be in the country.”

By far the youngest of her siblings, she lived alone with her mother, as her father had passed in 1945. When Hildur saw the ad in the paper, the 21-year-old jumped at the opportunity. The destination seemed unimportant. “The only thing I knew about Iceland was that the capital was called Reykjavík,” she smiles.

If distancing herself from city life was what she wanted, Hildur’s wish was certainly granted. She was placed at the farm Grjótnes (‘Rocky Cape’) on Melrakkaslétta, a vast tundra just below the arctic Circle in Northeast Iceland.

The journey was long and complicated. “I traveled by train to Hamburg, by ship to Reykjavík, by bus to Akureyri, by plane to Raufarhöfn and by motor boat to Grjótnes.” When I ask whether it was a shock to arrive in such a remote loca-tion, Hildur simply says, “When you’re young, everything’s exciting. Everyone was friendly to me.”

Seated in her wheelchair, sipping coffee in the communal kitchen of the retirement home Hvammur in Húsavík, where Hildur now lives, her positive attitude obviously hasn’t faded. “I’m happy here. life couldn’t be better.”

Both Hildur and Gisela arrived in Reykjavík along with 183 other Germans on the passenger ship Esja on June 8, 1949.

“I don’t remember much about that day apart from that the sun was shining,” recalls Gisela. “And it was windy. All the time it was windy.” Walking through the capital, Gisela was surprised at how small the buildings were. “I thought Austurvöllur was rather strange,” she says of the city’s central square by which the Reykjavík cathedral—tiny in comparison with German cathedrals—and Alþingi Parliament stand. “Pósthússtræti was the only street where there were tall buildings, Hótel Borg and Reykjavíkurapótek.”

Gisela was placed at Vífilsstaðir, a tuberculosis hospital ten kilometers (6.4 miles) outside Reykjavík. To begin with, she worked at the on-site farm but didn’t feel she was of much use. “The housekeeper gave me a leg of lamb to cook. I had no idea what to do with it. When it came to gutting a huge haddock, I was also at a loss.”

Gisela felt more comfortable at the hospital. “I enjoyed helping the patients.” Five other German women lived and worked at Vífilsstaðir. “So we had a little community there. We all came to Iceland in 1949 but none of us arrived at the same time. The others came with trawlers.”

The friends used their spare time to explore the city’s cultural life. “There wasn’t much happening at the time but we went to art exhibitions.” Their Icelandic friends were eager to teach them the language. “Anna Guðmundsdóttir, the actress, took us to the National Theater. We saw Íslandsklukkan and Fjalla-Eyvindur [classic plays] and I didn’t understand a thing,” laughs Gisela.

“‘It’s good for you,’ Anna insisted, and so we went again. The second time, I understood a little more and the third time, I was starting to get the hang of it. It helped listening to the language being spoken.”

In the middle of summer, the friends bought bus tickets to travel the country. “In the highlands, there weren’t any roads, just rocks, mountains and wastelands. It was so alien. I don’t remember our destinations, only Ásbyrgi. It was the strangest place I’d ever been to. an enclave of cliffs,” Gisela says of the famous horseshoe-shaped nature reserve in Northeast Iceland, only 40 km south of Grjótnes.

Gisela Schulze (left) and Hildur Björnsson (right).

Successful Integration

Meanwhile, Hildur kept herself busy. “I helped out with the housework, haymaking and milking.” The houses at Grjótnes, where two families lived, were unusually tall and stately for the Icelandic countryside. In the farm’s heyday, it had 40 residents and people came there from neighboring farms and villages to dance. “That was before my time. Many people had moved to Reykjavík,” says Hildur.

The language wasn’t a problem. “I was quick to learn Icelandic. My brother had given me a book before I left [Schatten über der Marshalde, originally I Marsfjällets Skugga (1937) by Swedish author Bernhard Nordh] and when I came to Grjótnes I noticed that the same story was being published as a serial in newspaper Tíminn. So I compared the two.”

She never got homesick, she states. “I didn’t have many relatives in Germany.” She and her mother sent letters and Hildur visited her two times but she was never tempted to leave Grjótnes for good. Soon after she arrived, Hildur and the farmer’s son Björn Björnsson got engaged. “It happened very quickly. They were all waiting for the German girls,” she smiles. By 1952, they were married.

Farm life suited Hildur well. “We had 300 sheep and two cows. I made butter, which we sold, and I picked berries and made juice.” The farm had some income from picking eider down and collecting eggs from seabirds.

Food was never scarce; the farmers caught fish in the spring. “We had fish to last us the whole year,” says Hildur. “We had two or three horses for gathering the sheep in the autumn. We were also responsible for the lighthouse Rauðanúpsviti and had to ride the ten kilometers on horseback.”

A good athlete, Hildur competed in sport. “It was a bit primitive,” she laughs. “We were running on a field and I stepped in a hole. It was no smooth track.”

Hildur came first in women’s long jump at the national track and field championship in 1955 and was the highest-scoring female athlete. There were other Germans in the region, who Hildur met on occasion. “But ten kilometers away isn’t exactly in the neighborhood,” she points out.

Friends and relatives sometimes visited. “My niece’s son stayed with us twice; once for a whole month to help out with the lambing. My husband and I both had the flu.”

The couple had a car and could drive into town in Raufarhöfn, that is, as long as they weren’t snowed in. “There used to be much more snow here.” Long dark winter nights were ideal for reading. “There were many books at Grjótnes,” explains Hildur.

Before the national electricity grid reached Melrakkaslétta, the farm produced its own power with windmills and an oil stove was used for heating. “It was always warm,” she says. Gradually, farms in the vicinity were abandoned and eventually the other family at Grjótnes moved to the next village.

The childless couple were the only ones left, but it didn’t occur to them to move. “We didn’t want to leave.” In the end, though, Hildur had no other option. “My husband died in 2002 and I left the following year. First I moved to Raufarhöfn and then I came here,” she says of Hvammur.

I ask whether she never visits Grjótnes. “It’s too cumbersome with the wheelchair. The nurses planned a trip there and invited me to come along but I didn’t want to. That time is behind me now.”

Laufásvegur in Reykjavík, where Gisela and Árni live.

Amour and Adventures

“Gisela and I first met in 1950 or 1951,” says Árni.

“Yes, it was at an exhibition opening,” she adds.

“Wasn’t it at a dance?” he objects. “I happened to be in Selfoss with some friends when the bus arrived with the Germans destined for farms in South Iceland in 1949. Having just graduated from junior college, I knew some German and, even though it wasn’t particularly good, mine was the best so I was asked to be an interpreter,” Árni recalls.

“The experience made me interested in learning the language better.” Árni was therefore happy to make the acquaintance of Gisela and her friends.

The girls were adventurous and not set on staying in Iceland after their two- year contract was up. “Two of my friends had left for Africa and I and Lydia were planning to move to Canada. I was waiting for a transit visa—I had to travel through the United States.”

In the meantime, Árni returned from his studies abroad. “I got the visa, but I never left,” says Gisela. “After we started spending more time together— not to mention after we started living together—we were in constant struggle over which language to speak. I wanted to speak German and she Icelandic. She won,” laughs Árni.

He and Gisela went on to marry and have three children. They still live where they first started out, in the house on Laufásvegur where Árni grew up. They have traveled to Germany on many occasions, although Gisela lost touch with her family after moving to Iceland.

She hesitates when I ask if she’s more Icelandic or German. “At least I don’t agree when they talk about whaling—complain about hunting cute animals—then I’m not German,” she quips.

In his 2008 book, Þýska landnámið, historian and economist Pétur Eiríksson recounts the story of the German immigrants. Not all of them had as good an experience as Gisela and Hildur. Many of them were forced to work long hours, didn’t receive the pay they were promised, had problems integrating and suffered as a result of the harsh climate, isolation and often unsanitary and primitive conditions of Icelandic farms. Some were even bullied or subjected to sexual harassment.

Still, 146 of the immigrants stayed on, and their descendants now number around 2,000. While the agriculture authorities concluded that the immigration “experiment” had failed, as the hiring of the German laborers proved costly, Pétur points out their positive influence on Icelandic society and culture and that, “they integrated so perfectly ... that they disappeared among the Icelanders.”

Sources:

‘Í Grjótnesi’ (1996), an article in Morgunblaðið newspaper by Guðni Einarsson;

Þýska landnámið (2008) by Pétur Eiríksson.

Hildur Björnsson passed away peacefully in her sleep at retirement home Hvammur, Húsavík, on December 9, 2014.

Published five times a year, the print edition of Iceland Review & Atlantica brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson’s latest images of the country’s majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe.