The Mylio Grant: Memories and Stories

Past Winner

Elsa Johanna

Laura J. Bennett - CA, USA

Elsa Johanna is a project based on the life of my grandmother. She emigrated from Finland in 1929 through Ellis Island, living out her life as a poor domestic worker in New York City. She left behind a five year diary, which documents historic events such as the burning of the U.S.S. Normandie and Finland's fall to Russia. More importantly, she was a TB survivor who mourned having to spend years in a hospital bed away from her only son, my father - a child born out of wedlock.

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Elsa Johanna is a project I have been working on for several years. My grandmother emigrated from Finland in 1929 through Ellis Island, living the rest of her life as an impoverished maid in New York City. She gave birth to my father out of wedlock at a time in our culture when such a thing was looked down upon. She never revealed who the father of her son was. We guessed that perhaps she may have been raped, or taken advantage of, but she refused to speak of it. After she passed away I found a diary, written in Finnish. It spanned the years 1938 through 1942. I had no means of translating it, so it stayed for quite some time in my possession. It wasn't until I was in graduate school (2004-2007) that one of my professors had a colleague at the University of Helsinki. I sent a small portion of the diary to her for translation. Needless to say, it was a heartbreaking thing to read. It revealed the discrimination of doctors towards her, because she was an emigrant, as well as her struggle with tuberculosis.

My project involves completing the translation of the diary and putting forth a visual exhibition of the life of Elsa Johanna. I have already begun photographing her few belongings, naturalization documents, passport and diary entries. I would like to have the translation of the diary beside the original text, as it's quite revealing and sheds light on the plight of the emigrant.

An uplifting twist to this story is that my grandmother never revealed much of her life in Finland, but I was contacted by someone on an ancestry site that seemed to believe we were related. It turns out that my grandmother was one of eleven children, and none of them knew Elsa had a son, or that my brother and I even existed. I have been offered a place to stay and translation of the diary through this family in Finland. I feel by traveling there I will learn much about Elsa and her family, and will be able to take photographs of her home in the county of Tuusniemi. I have been corresponding with the Savikko family, of which the following is an excerpt:

"You wrote that You dont`t know why Elsa went to United States. She of course had no parents, and the family was poor...Finland was then a very poor country and 20th century wasn´t easy here. Our civil war in 1918 was one of the most violent in history of the world, and was a national trauma many decades afterwards. Then was a second world war and hard work after it. During 20th century In finnish popular culture was theme about rich American relatives, because so many people immigarted to United States in the end on 19th century. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside a golden door!"

It's interesting how relevant the subject of immigration is even today. I believe the life of Elsa Johanna is symbolic of a more universal struggle to be free of suffering and to be successful in life.

Another correspondence from the Savikko family reads:

"It`s too bad that Elsa dind`t meet her sister Maria, who was only relative she had in America. Perhaps she really was so shamed of being single mother. When she was born and raised in finnish contryside, it was a shameful thing to have a child out of wedlock. In finnish agricultural society, it was accepted that couple had sexual relationship after engagement, and many brides were pregnanat in their wedings. But a single motherhood was a shame. It seems that Elsa have loved a wrong man, who the left her alone with a child. Another possibility is that Elsa was a victim of sexual abuse/violence, she was a servant and all alone in a new country. Relatives in Finland didn`t know that Your father was born, they believed that Maria and Elsa lived iand diedn America and never married or had children."

I hope to honor the life and sacrifice of Elsa Johanna through an exhibition that not only honors her life, but the struggle of all who leave their homelands with nothing but perhaps a suitcase and a dream. I have an extensive exhibition record and have received numerous awards for my work involving the female experience and life as a mother. I hope the Luminous Endowment organization will consider my project, Elsa Johanna for the Mylio Grant.



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