Monthly Archives: March 2014

My Norwegian roots

May 17 parade

May 17 parade

I have booked a flight to Oslo, Norway, where on May 17 I will join my cousins in celebrating the country’s national day, the 200th anniversary of its Constitution. I’m excited!

My father, Wenzel Habel [HAH-bel], was born in Lindås, Norway, north of Bergen, in 1886. He had five older sisters, and when he finally made his appearance his parents were overjoyed to have a son. His father, Alfred Habel, was a district doctor—in other words, a country doctor in the national rural health system. At the time Daddy was born the family lived in a pretty white frame house overlooking a fjord, which I visited in 1979. There is a small pier at the foot of the property, and my grandfather made many house calls by boat. Daddy often accompanied him and learned seamanship as a small boy. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when Daddy was 12, and his mother had died a few years earlier.  That left him an orphan, and his dream of following in his father’s footsteps was not to be realized. Instead, he went to Norway’s Merchant Marine Academy and worked his way up to the rank of captain.

Wenzel Habel, sketch by Astrid Habel

Captain Wenzel Habel,
sketch by Astrid Habel

Years later, Daddy came to the United States and acquired citizenship here. He made sure that his English was perfect. By the time I came along, he was sailing for American Export Lines. He carried cargo and a complement of 100 to 500 passengers, depending on the ship, from New York to various ports in the Mediterranean and back. My mother met him as a passenger. His first wife had recently died in childbirth. They fell in love, and halfway through the trip he proposed to her in a horse-drawn carriage on the Amalfi Drive along the Italian Riviera.

SS Exochorda, one of my father's ships.

SS Exochorda, one of my father’s ships.

In April 1934, Daddy was assigned  to pick up Samuel Insull, a Bernie Madoff of the day who had fled to Greece and was being extradited on criminal charges. Their arrival in New York on May 7 made a big splash. Newspapers covered the event, and they mentioned the ship’s captain:

“[Consul] Berry alternate[d] in watching Insull with Captain Wenzel Habel, master of the Exilona, who was detailed as joint custodian.”

US Consul Burton Berry and Samuel Insull on arrival in New York harbor

US Consul Burton Berry and Samuel Insull on arrival in New York

In Chicago, a man named D. Richter saw Daddy’s name in the paper and recognized it instantly. He felt certain my father was the son of Dr. Alfred Habel, whom he had known more than half a century earlier in Norway. He wrote to Daddy, who confirmed that indeed he was. Richter replied with a long letter describing my grandfather’s life when he was a district doctor in the Arctic Circle. As a young volunteer, Richter had lived with the family and helped my grandfather with his work. He became the son that my grandfather wanted to have. When it came time for Richter to leave, my grandfather gave him his watch and a wallet, which Richter passed on my father along with his description of life at the top of the world in the late 1870s.

Last week when I was cleaning out old papers I came across the letter, which I had not seen in decades. I have always been moved by the story, and with my planned trip approaching, it felt like one of those coincidences that only the Universe could invent. I have been reading and re-reading it.

Richter writes:

Masoy in winter

Masoy in winter

“It is rather hard to find words to express my feelings and emotions when I received your kind letter of May 20 confirming my suspicion that you were the son of Dr. and Mrs. Alfred Habel whom more than 50 years ago I loved so well. Your letter brought tears to my eyes. A letter from a man I did not even know was born, but whose good father so often told me he longed so for ‘a son, a boy, who if he ever came, would be named Wenzel.’ I shall be glad indeed to ‘paint’ for you as good a word-picture of the home of your parents as I possibly can after a lapse of more than 50 years.”

They lived on the island of MåsØy slightly southwest of North Cape at the northernmost tip of Europe. There were few families in the kommune, and some were as far as 30 or 40 miles away “across ugly stretches of the Arctic Ocean, depending of course on the weather, and sometimes [your father] took his life in his hands when he was called for in rough weather, disliked even by the hardy and well-trained fishermen. On such occasions your mother spent many anxious hours, yes, days and nights, waiting for him to return.”

Masoy coastline

Masoy coastline

He goes on to describe my grandparents’ home and then says: “But the greatest attraction was always Fru Emilia Habel herself, with her constant cheerful disposition, her catching smile, her hearty laughter, and all of this accentuated by her good looks and charming personality. Your father was not only a physician, he was also a scholar, a scientist, and a musician.  . . .

He was exceptionally well-liked by all the people in his district not only as a doctor but as an otherwise very able man. It was said . . . that never before had MåsØy Herred been guided by a more able, unselfish, and impartial man than Doctor Alfred Habel.”

The letter is full of rich and fascinating detail.

Masoy in 1838

Masoy in 1838

I’m feeling that my trip to Norway is exactly the right and perfect adventure to be embarking on at this time.


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