During the first half of the 20th century, the Swedish born – in combination with other Scandinavians – made up the largest group of Oregon’s foreign-born population. But as the Great Depression set in, Swedish emigration turned into re-migration and ten times the number of Swedes returned home than came to the United States. World War II made civilian travel almost impossible and people on both sides of the Atlantic stayed put. Following the war, as conditions in Sweden rapidly improved, no new wave of emigrants ever developed. Compared to the earlier figures, postwar emigration was reduced to a trickle. This historical development had important consequences for the community of Swedes in Oregon.
Without the influx of new speakers, the use of the Swedish language began to decline in churches, organizations and family life. Portland’s Swedish stores, restaurants and services started disappearing as the older generation began dying off. Without the ability to speak Swedish it was not as easy to pass on customs and traditions to the next generation. It also became much more difficult to keep in touch with relatives in Sweden and to stay informed about the great changes that characterized postwar Sweden. The immigrant’s memory of Sweden and the actual postwar Swedish society often became two completely different worlds. What happened to the Swedish community also happened to the other Scandinavian groups, and one could say that the second half of the 20th century was characterized by a move from a Swedish to a Swedish-American to a Scandinavian-American community. This kind of consolidation has been the only way to maintain a sense of ethnic cohesiveness and unity as new and much larger ethnic groups increasingly have found their way to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Where will this development lead? In his interesting postscript, “Changing Perspectives,” Barry Peterson gives us few hints of what the future may hold for the Swedish-American community.
Lars Nordström, Ph. D.