The story of Arne and Ingrid Pettersen, told by their son Erik Pettersen, proves love can conquer both war and distance
A Swedish woman. A Norwegian man.
Already, it seems like you’ve got a problem. A Swede and a Norwegian? Romance? Impossible!
Now add the fact that the man lived in New York.
The woman lived in Sweden.
They’d met only twice before.
And war was breaking out in Europe.
This highly unlikely scenario is the basis of Erik Pettersen’s book, “Leap of Faith: A Trans-Atlantic Wartime Love Story.” In it, he reveals the details of his parents’ unique romance, and the considerable roadblocks they had to navigate to be together.
“It was really an effort to preserve some of my family history for my kids and grandkids,” says Pettersen, of his motivation behind penning the tale.
He’d also heard the story many times throughout his life. One year, for Christmas, he’d asked his mother for a recording of her memories from her childhood and youth. After she died, he found her diaries and even more of the story was revealed. Pettersen also has dozens of first cousins in Norway and Sweden, and when he spoke to them he noticed a pattern: “They always talk about this incredible romance between my mother and father,” he says.
So, when Pettersen stopped working full-time and had some time to write, he put pen to paper. Writing came naturally to him from his work as a consultant. “You have to layout a timeline for your clients; it’s like laying out the plotline of a book,” he says. With the information he had, he was able to see where the holes in the story were.
Then came the research. His family in Norway was invaluable to this process. “My cousins Inger and Carl-Erik were incredibly helpful,” he says. “Everything they had, they saved.” This included photographs, newspaper clippings and letters originally sent home by his parents.
The story developed into “Leap of Faith,” an incredibly thorough, well-researched account of the lives of his parents, Arne and Ingrid Pettersen. As far as family histories go, this one can’t be beaten for its detail, heart and unsurpassed uniqueness.
It all started because Arne Pettersen himself was interested in genealogy. His family had moved from Sweden to Norway in the 1800s, and in those days the churches were the bearers of family history. Arne ended up traveling to Sweden in order to research his family’s story.
“The book never would have happened without my father,” says Erik Pettersen, who had an incredible head start with genealogical research because of his father’s efforts.
While in Sweden doing research, Arne Pettersen met the pastor of a small country church, Reverend Daniel Sillén. And he was introduced to Pastor Sillén’s youngest daughter, Ingrid, a nursing student who happened to be home at the time.
Arne was working for a shipping company, and in 1937they sent him overseas to establish a New York office. While in New York, he leased an apartment in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, where many other Norwegian immigrants had settled.
Meanwhile, Ingrid Sillén had completed nursing school in Sweden in 1939, and had been working in a hospital.
April 9, 1940 was a life-changing day for Ingrid. She received a letter from Arne Pettersen in the U.S. “While reading this letter, in which he proposed to me, I got news over the radio that Germany had invaded Norway. I sure had mixed emotions! I knew the answer would be ‘yes.’ We had only met twice, but I guess there was a spark,” said Ingrid of the day on her recording.
The rest truly was a “leap of faith.”
“Her mother said, ‘follow your heart,’” says Erik Pettersen. “But her father said, ‘Isn’t there anyone in Sweden good enough for you? Do you have to go all the way to America and marry a Norwegian?’”
In the midst of everything, there was a war on. Passage to America seemed almost out of the question. “They had been exploring the possibility of overland routes through Siberia,” says Erik Pettersen. “My mother was a very spiritual person…she had been praying about this.”
Finally, her prayers were answered. Arne’s connections in the shipping industry had connected Ingrid with a cargo ship that had had a cancelled passage. Ingrid booked hers right away, sharing space on the ship with several Jewish refugees escaping Europe just in time.
“They were dodging mines, and they were stopped by a British warship,” says Erik Pettersen of his mother’s amazing journey. “But there were no incidents, they made it all the way to New York.”
The wedding was scheduled for 17 days later, and Arne and Ingrid were married at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Their wedding, and the amazing story behind it, made newspaper headlines.
“It really happened, as incredible and inspiring a story as it is,” says Pettersen. “It shows the strength of faith and love in overcoming the terrors of war.”
“Leap of Faith” is a fascinating read, and as meaningful a tribute from a son to his parents as can be found.
Erik Pettersen lives in Annapolis, Maryland with his wife, Linda. Signed copies of his book “Leap of Faith: A Trans-Atlantic Wartime Love Story” can be purchased online at www.erikgpettersen.com. Kindle and Nook versions are also available on www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com, respectively, are also available.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.