During World War II, the Nazis had their eyes on Norway, and on April 9, 1940, they invaded the neutral country. This land was valuable to Germany because it allowed for easier access to Swedish iron ore, it opened a larger naval front and it created a battlefield away from France.
The day before the Germans invaded, Ruth Wiese Engelsen Gundersen left her home in Bergen, Norway.
Ruth was born Sept. 17, 1917, in Bergen, a large, coastal city along the country’s southwestern coast that was at the center of trade and commerce. Although much of Ruth’s childhood was spent in Norway, she attended schools in England and Switzerland.
The 1940 Nazi invasion occurred after the United Kingdom and France mined Norwegian waters to halt German trade and shipping. On the first day of the German invasion, the Nazis took control of Bergen. Had Ruth waited even a day longer to leave her hometown, she likely would have been forced to remain there until after the war’s end because Germans controlled Norway until May 8, 1945.
Ruth was crossing the Atlantic Ocean when she first heard of the Nazi invasion of her home country. Throughout the war, she was unable to freely communicate with loved ones back home, and she only received occasional family letters through the Red Cross.
After arriving to the U.S., she met Thorolf Gundersen in New York City, a man who would become her husband after just a few months together. Thorolf was the seventh son of Adolf Gundersen, the founder of the Gundersen Health System.
The couple relocated many times during the war, but they eventually settled in the La Crosse area. Once here, Ruth became an important member of the community, where she was involved in the Lutheran Hospital Guild, the Investment Club and the League of Women Voters.
Ruth’s beaded bags were most likely acquired during her travels throughout Europe or during her years attending schools in foreign cities. Beaded bags were popular for centuries, but they were most famous during the 1920s. The popularity bled into the 1930s, when Ruth most likely bought hers. Her purses were purchased in Europe, most likely Germany or France.
The sheer number of beads creates a tapestry-like image. One of the beaded purses has a black-and-white beaded design that forms multiple animals, including a deer, a fox, a squirrel and a peacock. The beads also form flowers and geometric designs. The silver frame attached to the purse is decorated with corn, among other vegetables and fruit.
Gundersen’s other purse has a beaded, multicolored floral design with a crocheted drawstring. The flowers are on an ecru background, with a beige silk crepe lining. The center of the purse has a black tassel with gold accents.
Later in her life, Ruth saw the historical significance of these purses, and she donated them to the La Crosse Historical Society. These beaded purses and others items can be found in the society’s online collections database.