13 March 2014

Finding My Kofoed Roots on a Small Island in Denmark

(By Danny)

Mara and I write and speak a lot about the concept of Identity. For both of us, understanding Identity is the starting point for applying and embodying any of the other principles we try to elaborate on.  Perhaps the shortest quote that explains why we think it’s so important to begin with Identity is this: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

There are many things that influence our concept of ourselves and the thoughts that run through our heads, which then shape the kinds of decisions we make and how we respond to all of life (both the good and the bad) that comes our way.  One of those influences that was on my mind as we traveled through Denmark was family legacies and heritage.  

The Kofoed name is Danish (meaning “cow-foot”, and almost pronounced the same way over there “ko-foot”, with the “t” in foot sounding like an “l” and soft “t” combined…at least that’s what it sounded like to me). The name originates from a small Danish island off the coast of Sweden called Bornholm, and the name became prominent in part because of Jens Kofoed, the “Liberator of Bornholm” who defended the island against Swedish control in 1658.  Apparently he had quite a few children.  The name Kofoed is somewhat unique in that normally Danes would use as their surname a version of their father’s name (Jensen/Jensdatter). Kofoed’s, however, retained their last name, seemingly due in part to claims of nobility made in early and subsequent generations.


To give you an idea of the island, Bornholm is to the Danes what Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are to New England. It is an incredibly charming island, but mostly shut down in the winter time.  In the summer, it's reported that it only gets 4 hours of darkness, leading it to have a very "pure light", and has long been an attraction for artists. 


After a few days of wandering the streets of Copenhagen and the surrounding area, we decided to take the bus/ferry to Bornholm.  The trip proved to be more magical then I could have imagined.  Honestly, it was one of those moments where you felt the invisible hand of fate pressing upon and directing you.

We arrived early on a Tuesday morning, made our way to the Visitors' Center to secure a private room in a home (since most hotels are closed during the winter season), and picked up this cheap-to-rent little Fiat 500 rental car that we had fun driving around the island.  We came to this island knowing next to nothing about where we should go or what we should do to explore my family history.  I knew only that I should begin the journey in the city of Rønne.   


We decided to spend the first day driving around the island and getting to know the feel of the place.  It was incredibly foggy, and I worried we wouldn’t see much of anything other than what was 100 yards off of the road.  Part of me felt terribly disappointed that this homeland would remain hidden under a veil of clouds and grey on what would likely be my one and only visit.  



We drove along the main road heading east and passed a village called Lobbæk.  I thought I remembered reading something about a meeting of 17 freemen on the island (2 of whom were Kofoeds) occurring in that village when I was trying to understand some old records regarding Kofoed history on the island.  It turns out I was wrong about the location, but my mistake proved fortunate, and offered the first sense of that invisible hand. 

We decided to turn around and drive through a few streets out of curiosity.  I guess I hoped I’d see something really old that looked like it came from the time of that meeting.  To our surprise, after taking a couple of random turns, Mara screamed with delight when she saw a street called Kofoedsvej (or Kofoeds Road). My first thought was “How lucky that the very first town we decided to investigate had a street that carried my family name!”  My second thought was “perhaps my family name is more common here than I’d supposed and this won’t be the last Kofoed Road I see.”  

I guess I was right on both counts.  It was lucky, and it wasn’t the only one we came across.  It turns out there are two streets on all of the island of Bornholm that carry that name…we found them both by accident, only 2 hours apart as we drove through streets and wandered these little towns.  It wasn’t until we returned to our room that night and I had a computer available and did a Google search that I realized we had stumbled upon the ONLY two Kofoed streets that exist (on an island with thousands of little streets and over 200 square miles of area). As an example of how confident I became that spotting that second sign with my name on it probably wasn’t a rarity, I didn’t even bother photographing this second and only other street sign.  Too bad. 

It gets even better than that though. As Mara and I left that little village area and continued our trek east, the fog persisted, making it so you could only see another car a few seconds before it passed you.  We constantly kept our eyes peeled for something interesting to reveal itself suddenly through the fog, something beautiful, or old, something to take a picture of and remember the place by.  Well, it was only a few minutes of driving when I happened to see a road off to the side that caught my eye. It was lined with trees, with a big stone in front and a bicycle resting on the stone.  It was interesting enough to want to get a picture….so yet again I turned around and pulled over to get out and breathe the air and see if I could get a decent shot.  




Again, as I got out of the car I had the inner turmoil of realizing this place was going to remain hidden from me, and I wondered how I would find anything important or significant to my family history.  We enjoyed the scene for a moment, took it in along with the smell of the farms, enjoyed this quaint little spot, and eventually decided we should move on and head to the east side of the island.  I would learn the next day, when I visited the Genealogical Society of Bornholm, and obtained assistance from a kind resident and expert there in the library, that Mara and I had pulled over on the road that served as a dividing line between two farmlands.  On one side was born and raised a man named Hans Ancher Kofoed.  On the other was born and raised Thora Marie Jensen.  These are my great great grandparents, who left the island of Bornholm in 1857 when they and their families joined the Mormon Church and immigrated to the United States.  (Here's a link to a map with key locations)

Imagine that…stopping by chance on land filled with the history of my blood, of who I am.  I try to be cautious about casual uses of the word miracle.  But when I learned how fortunate we'd been, that’s exactly what this felt like.  I’ll get to some of that a little bit later though. 

Not knowing that we’d been unwittingly standing on “holy ground”, we continued our trek east, found some lunch, and eventually made it to the east side of the island as the fog lifted and the sun began to shine.  It was a joy, because for the first time all day, we got to see just how charming this island is and how beautiful the homes and villages are.  


When were were in Copenhagen, we met a Bornholmer in a shop who told us we should take a walk along the coast from Svaneke and go north west as long as we cared to.  So we went for a 2 hour walk along the coast.



Those who loved last years “Yellow Happiness” posts will appreciate a consistent theme in many of the homes we saw.  They really were beautiful.







I loved this sign near the harbor where we parked.  Apparently people need to be warned every now and then about driving their car into the water.


We continued our loop around the entire island and realized by the end of the day that though we’d seen much of the island, we hadn’t experienced much “heritage” yet (or at least we hadn’t realized that we had). We originally thought that we’d only spend a day and a half on the island, but decided to extend it to two full days.  

The next morning I did a little research and got in touch with a genealogist specialist on the Island (someone at the Mormon church in Copenhagen had told us to reach out to this man). He was unable to meet with us personally, but gave me a recommendation to visit the Island's library in Rønne and meet with someone in the Historical Society.

So I trekked over to the library with my laptop, made my way to the historical society room, and started asking for help.  They started by directing me to some old books with family names, and as I saw multiple volumes dedicated to the various spellings of my family name, I was a little overwhelmed.  Fortunately, within 5 minutes a kind man named Lass arrived.  He was an expert at looking everything up and just so happened to have an ancestor who left Bornholm on the same boat as my ancestors because she had also joined the Mormon church.  He knew all about the villages and records we needed to look through and we spent the next two hours pouring over archives of parish baptismal records, censuses, farmland ownership, etc.  He helped me pinpoint the very farms that my ancestors were born and raised in and he helped me find the general location of the last farm they owned before leaving the island.    






Armed with farm addresses and villages and churches to visit and a camera in hand, I picked up Mara and we started our search.


Our first visit was to the fishing village of Arnager.  Though records show Hans Kofoed owned a parcel of farmland in the village, we weren’t able to figure out which plot it was, nor where the house would have been.  Most of the farmland is gone in that area and taken over by Bornholm’s airport.  However, the long pier that stands there now hearkens back to the time of my ancestors.  And who knows, since at least one document we found indicated Hans Ancher Kofoed was a seaman, that pier just may have been a vital part of his life and livelihood.  



Since I couldn't find actual farmland, I asked around to see if anyone knew of some of the older houses in the area and found this one that dated back to the same time frame.  I know it probably has very little connection to my family, but there was still something otherworldly about looking at a building that may not have changed all that much from the time that my ancestors would walk by it.  Who knows, maybe a friend lived there, or someone they visited with.  



Our next stop was just a mile or two away to go visit the farmland where Thora Marie Jensen (my great-great-grandmother) was born.  In fact, current census records showed that a house still stands today that was built at the same time she was born.  We hoped to see if anyone was home at the farm to ask permission to look around.  When no one answered we just stayed in the courtyard area to take some pictures. They eventually came home and invited us to look around at our pleasure.








Off to the side of one of the structures was a very old water barrel, covered in moss and falling apart.  The current owners didn’t know how old it was, but thought it might have been from the same time period, given that it’s been a while since anyone had to haul water in a wheeled barrel.  


They invited us into the home to take a look at a document that previous owners had prepared, detailing the names of all the former farm owners.  Since the records didn’t show Thora's family ever owned the land, I wasn’t looking for their name to be on the document.  But it was nice to see that the home she was raised in still had roots and still looked back to those who had once lived and worked the land.  



We left that farm and made the short drive to the other farm, where Hans Ancher Kofoed was born and raised.  The owner wasn’t quite as excited to tell any stories (apparently I’m not the only Kofoed who has gone to the island searching out his roots and come upon the farm), but graciously allowed us to spend as much time as we needed to walk around the property and take pictures.  





We left there as dusk was settling in and made it to the Nylars Kirke, their place of worship and baptism and confirmation before they joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Nylars Kirke is the oldest of the four round churches on the island, being built in 1165.  Each of these churches has very thick walls and towers with little windows.  They were both a house of worship and a place of defense in medieval times.  This church stored and provided most of the records that Lass helped me uncover in our archive digging.  It was too late to actually go inside the church, so we were forced to enjoy it as it was illuminated by the headlights of our Fiat 500.  



And so, at least for that trip, the journey into understanding my roots had come to an end.  We retreated back to the city center to share a meal and then prepare for our early departure the following morning - which would begin 24 hours of traveling from Bornholm to the south tip of Sweden to the fjords of Norway by ferry, bus, and train.  

--------------------------------------------

Last week in response to a comment on Mara’s “Written Two Weeks After Our Failed IVF” post, I admitted that digging into my heritage was a very positive and amazing experience, which also carried with it a sort of reminder about the influence a physical legacy/heritage can have.  And although the following thought didn’t come with terrible remorse or sadness, the thought was still somewhere in the background.  It was that without children of our own, there will not be some great great grandson that will come and find the land that I was born on, or wander in the city where I met my wife and where we fell in love. It is not a thought that I fear or worry about.  It’s just there.  Impermanence.    

As important as the physical legacy of family and heritage and history can be, I have been equally shaped and molded by those I'm not related to at all.  Many in my own faith tradition have played an influential role, in large part because we share a similar language of describing the growth process.  We can understand each other.  But as I continue to grow and learn and look into the human experience, I find mentors and inspiration in all faith traditions, in authors living and dead, in philosophy and in art, and in the quiet lives led by people that most of the world will never see or know about.  There are people imparting their heritage and legacy to me on a daily basis.  And for that, I am a better man.

I truly do not know what the future will bring, nor what our desire to pursue adoption will be in a year from now, or more.  I do know that then, and now, I will be focused on making a difference with the world in front of me, with the life that is mine to live.  And that is what we must all do.  

What about you?  Where do your ancestors come from?  Have you ever visited their homeland?  If not, do you dream of visiting?

30 comments:

  1. I loved travel writing so I really liked your post today. I did some family history retracing when I was England and I found it quite humbling to spend that day thinking about the people that came before me and their lives in those small villages. I think we get moving on with life and forget that our thoughts and words, if not important to us right now, will be to someone someday and so all the pictures, instagrams, and blog posts are helping keep that narrative and record of our identities alive.

    I once visited my great great great great grandmother's house (it's been restored as a historic site) and she had the funkiest design and colors in her house and it was awesome how connected I felt to her and so glad I could know that about her.

    Your trip has gotten me all into the daydream of heading to Sweden one day to drink up the motherland of my ancestors.

    Here, here for more travel stories! Love 'em.

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    1. So now I know where you get your design and color cues from! She would be proud. And seriously what a great experience to have.

      We've still got a few more travel posts coming :)

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  2. Danny--what a lovely, moving post. I do believe that heavenly hands guide us and miracles attend when searching out our roots. In high school, I traveled to tiny villages in the highlands of Scotland with my parents, and we were able (without maps, street names, anything) to find my great-great grandfather's farm, and the churches where he and his sons (one of whom was Richard Ballantyne, the originator of the LDS Sunday School) were baptized. It was one of the most moving experiences of my whole life. I'm so glad you both were fortunate enough to have a similar experience. And what a GORGEOUS place Bornholm is! Sending love to you.

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    1. It's kind of funny, you always hear of these stories that other people experience in their searches, but until you have those stars align for you personally, it's just a nice story.

      It almost feels like those who have gone before us want us to connect and to know them in some way.

      It doesn't surprise me that cultures and religions all over the world have a profound respect for those who have gone before, and that they believe that those who have gone before play a role in directing the lives of those who remain.

      Reverence for our ancestors and their "spirit" is near universal....and it is moments like this that help me understand why.

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  3. I really, really loved this post. It gave me chills and almost brought tears to my eyes! We are in England now, and we've loved visiting areas and cemeteries where ancestors lived and were buried. The feeling from those that have gone before is almost tangible. Your pictures are absolutely gorgeous and this really makes me want to travel to Denmark! I have ancestors from there, too. Thanks for sharing this awesome experience!

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  4. Thank you so very much for sharing this experience with us Danny! I absolutely love thinking about where my ancestors came from, and doing something like this would make my heart so happy. What a lovely experience to share wit Mara. Bornholm is beautiful, even with the fog!

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  5. Great post, Danny! Thank you! I'm in a junior in college and last semester I studied abroad in Austria. We had lots of time to travel independently and for three days I went to Malta, a very small island country in the Mediterranean. My paternal grandmother is Maltese and it was very important to me to see where my roots are from. To my surprise, I saw the family names "Mifsud" and "Calleja" all over the place! Everyone looked like my family does and I felt very at home there. It was an amazing experience and it got my dad and his brothers and sisters to plan their own trip to Malta in October!

    Next up on my travel list: Scandinavia for sure! Yours and Mara's pictures are so beautiful and your experiences have touched me deeply because I can relate to finding my roots. Thank you again for sharing such a personal trip with us, your readers.

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    1. I had the same notion walking around in Copenhagen. I couldn't be entirely certain if I was just seeing what I wanted to see, or if there really was some strong cultural resemblances in the faces that were surrounding me.

      It's funny, because of course it is my name that is Danish, but I have roots from Italy, England, Germany, and all sorts of other places from that same time period as they made the journey to America. And I've been to those other places as well. But it was among the Danes that I looked around and thought "They look like me!"

      Maybe it was a trick of the mind, or maybe there was something to it. Either way, it was fun.

      Cool that you had a similar experience and could relate to the post!

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  6. Danny, I loved your post on your travels in Denmark. My Dad and I took a similar trip to Sweden last fall, and like you, we were lucky enough to find the farms where our ancestors were raised and the churches where they were baptized. The gentleman who runs the historical society in that area was kind enough to drive us around to all the spots, showing us the right places to visit and telling us about the history of the buildings. Most special of all, we connected with a cousin who we had never met before. He graciously hosted us in his home and traveled around Sweden with us as we learned about our shared family. It was an amazing experience, I'm so glad that you and Mara had the same!

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    1. Wow! That really is amazing. I was actually kind of excited at the prospect of running into some more Kofoeds on the island, perhaps finding some long lost relatives...but unfortunately so much of the island was closed down in the winter that many residents just weren't around.

      We were totally going to go to the "best restaurant" on the island, that happens to also bare my family name, and is run by an up and coming chef who is a Kofoed. Would have been fun.

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  7. I'm so happy you got to have this experience, Danny.

    This blog entry mainly made me sad, however. Sad that women still mostly give up their last names in marriage and often so much of their identity along with that. And many people act like it's no big deal, but it's in fact such a huge deal that men typically aren't willing to change the tradition.

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    1. If it makes you feel any better, I happen to know a lot more about the family line and history that comes through my grandmother. I was told those stories all from my childhood, there are multivolume encyclopedias dedicated to them, and I have learned a great deal about who I am and where I come from with all of that.

      This however, is one of the first times I've been able to dig into anything significant on my grandfather's name and line. That's one reason it was so exciting...it was all new to me.

      But I appreciate the concern you bring up. It is a shame that any of us would forget who and where we come from, and I think you are right that there is a greater likelihood that you might identify most with the last name you carry.

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  8. Danny, I will treasure this post forever. Luke and I read it together after school today. I got teary as the familiar names of our great great grandparents jumped off the page and wished I could have been there with you. We love the pictures. Luke thinks they should be on one of those planet earth sites and we both saw the hand of God in your experience. Thank you for recording it all. Other than paste and copy, is there a good way to print your post - I'd like to include it with my other family books and documents.

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  9. Oh my goodness! Have I got a story for you.... I'll send you guys an email and see if time permits you to correspond with a Danish journalist.

    What an amazing adventure you guys had!

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  10. What a fabulous experience for you, visiting the land of your great grandparents! And this place is so full of character! I used to visit my grandparent's hometowns every summer when I was a child, so, no big adventure like yours. Thank you for this post! Best regards from Barcelona,
    Marta

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  11. Loved this post! 2013 was a year of miracles for us as we helped my mother-in-law search for her any living cousins in Germany. We're living in Germany with the US military and her mother was born in Berlin in 1908. Her mother joined the church as a young woman and married an LDS young man who'd served his mission in her area and who stayed on after his mission to do his organic chemistry MA and PhD in Berlin. They emigrated to the US in 1930 and had 8 kids. When she died of a heart attack in 1955 when my MIL was 9yrs old, she was never spoken of again to her children and contact with the German grandparents, aunt and uncle stopped. After her father passed away in the 80s, she inherited two boxes filled with hundreds of pictures and papers and began piecing together who all these people could be whom she'd never heard of or met but could be her mother's family. My MIL always wondered about what part of her identity came from her mother and her side of the family. Our search began last March and by late April we found her only living cousin last year through a series of miracles, the greatest of which was me knocking at the gate of her uncle's East Berlin home to see if the current resident knew the people in a 1949 picture we had of him. In May when my MIL came to visit Germany, we were able to hop around Germany having some really wonderful visits with newly discovered relatives in Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and Bavaria! We are still unraveling family mysteries and hopefully healing old wounds. For instance, in January, as we sat and chatted with five 80 year old distant German cousins, we discovered the family farm in Bavaria where my MIL's aunt took her infant son in 1941 to leave her SS cheating husband. Her son is the only cousin on my MIL side and he is still alive. This summer we will visit that farm hopefully with him and meet the descendants of my MIL's grandfather's family. The timeline and sequence of events for the past year and a half are unmistakeable proof to us that there are interested individuals in heaven helping us discover and make connections with each other. What a ride!

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  12. YES, I absolutely dream of visiting my roots in Czech Republic and Slovakia. I can't explain it, but for years I have felt a connection with my great-great-grandmother. I think she's trying to get a message to me. My best guess is that she has many children that are currently unknown to us, and she'd like us to better acknowledge her entire family. We were blessed with a great miracle to find names of her parents so we could do some temple work for them. That was a great day!

    I met my grandfather when I was 18, and he showed us a folder full of old photos from his Czech family. Less than a year later he died, and I'm still trying to track down who ended up with those photos! I'm convinced they are priceless.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. As you said above, they are "nice stories," but encouraging ones to the rest of us!

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  13. Danny and Mara,

    My first thought reading this post was, "They left a legacy with ME." It seemed silly and not worth sharing before today...
    And while a stranger from Ohio is nothing like family lines, know that your sharing on this blog has changed my life. This blog entered my life at the exact time when finished grad school, job seeking, and a chronic illness were draining ever ounce of good from my life. I have found peace and I am able to seek health (and accept my illness) in a life-changing way. I love my husband in ways I failed to before. I know I will be a better mother if and when that time comes.

    Not only have you impacted me, but it goes on and on: I am an elementary school counselor. Just today I led a group with 4th grade students talking about jealousy. I used some of the things Mara wrote about in the post "How to Stop comparing Yourself to Others" and they took it in and left with eyes shinning with joy! I wanted to share my gratitude and joy that truths you so beautifully share here are absolutely being shared and passed down.

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    1. Awww...this totally just made us smile ear to ear! This is our very favorite thing to hear, that not only has what we've written caused a spark in someone's own life....but that they reach a place in their progression where they are out there igniting sparks in everybody else...because it just can't be contained any more.

      Seriously, we'll call you family any day of the week :)

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  14. I love this post! My husband and I travelled to Denmark last spring with our adult in-laws (24 of us), with the express purpose of visiting Bornholm, the place of their ancestry. I remember visiting the round churches and seeing "Kofoed" on many tombstones around the church grounds. Being familiar with your blog, I thought of your family name, and wondered if there was a Bornholm connection, or if that was common all over Denmark. Sounds like the former is true.
    We loved Bornholm! I haven't met anyone (American, at least) who has been to Bornholm. I would love to go back in the summer. We were there at the beginning of May, just as stores and restaurants were opening back up for summer, but not everything. Did you notice the stinky pig farm scent all over the island? I even loved that. Great post.

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  15. Hi, Danny,
    I loved your blog about Bornholm ! Hans Ancher Kofoed is also my great, great grandfather. I probably will not be able to physically visit Bornholm, but the photos in your blog take me there!
    Thank you for sharing your travels. -Kathy Lindsay

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  16. Hello from Australia, Danny. I am also a descendand of Hans Ancher Kofoed and his son, Hans Wolner Kofoed. Hans' son, John Michael (Johan) came to the goldfield in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia in the mid 1800's. Thank you for your wonderful web page. I visited Denmark (only Copenhagen) in October 2013 for one week only and hope to return one day to see more the that beautiful country, and hopefully do some of what you have been doing - tracing my Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic roots. Kirsten Lagoni, Melbourne

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    1. Hey cousin! Thanks for writing in and sharing the connection. I really do hope that you get to go back and experience more of that beautiful country....Bornholm is wonderful and I easily could have spent an extra day or two there (but preferably in the summer when more stuff is open)

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    2. I just checked some family tree stuff, and it might be a different Hans Ancher that you descend from. The Hans Ancher I come from had no children by the name of Hans Wolner.

      But, all Kofoed's on that island of Bornholm are connected, and most likely my Hans Ancher and your Hans Ancher were cousins or have some connected family.

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  17. I too am a Kofoid. My great grandfather was Otto Kofoid who did indeed have a brother named Hans, although I do not recall his middle name and I know there was more than one Hans Kofoed. The name spelling changed when they moved to the US from Denmark. Their father was Ole Kofoed Bech. Otto and 2 brothers moved here and married 3 sisters from Sweden. This article is interesting to say the least! I did genealogy for a project in high school and went back as far as I could without knowing any Danish or Swedish. I've often wondered what became of those family members that did not leave Denmark. Otto had 10 or 11 siblings in total, some of which passed away early in their childhood years so I am told. Thank you so much for sharing your adventure!

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    1. Chandra, thanks for sharing. I don't recall seeing any Otto's in my immediate line, nor a Ole Kofoed Bech...but Kofoed's are anything but rare on the island of Bornholm, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise. They are likely related some distance back in the family line.

      Glad you enjoyed the article cousin :)

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  18. I too go by the name Kofoed, and my family is from Bornholm aswell,- but moved from Bornholm to northen Sealand back around 1920. btw i hope you had a good trip (even though its years ago, wops) And you do look VERY danish!

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  19. Hi there! Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm doing the same trip in a couple of weeks. My great grandfather was Hans Christian Sinius Kofoed. Any suggestions before my trip? BTW, is it necessary to rent a car? I understand the island is pretty small and you can easy just travel by bike.

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    1. Shoot, I just saw this.

      Yes, I do recommend a car. You certainly could bike around (if it's more summerish), but it seems like you really wouldn't get to see a whole lot if you weren't able to whisk around at will.

      Just a thought.

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