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As secrets go, it was a whopper.
Berta Olivia Nilsson was living quietly in Chicago in the late 1950s when her daughter Dorothy came for a visit. The two passed the time watching "A Night to Remember," a movie about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Before the film was over, Nilsson was in tears. She then made an astonishing disclosure: As an 18-year-old Swedish immigrant, she had been a passenger on the ill-fated ship. And, as it turns out, that was only half the story.
"Up to that point, I never knew," said Dorothy Christensen Cherry, of Salt Lake City, who was in her 30s at the time. "She had never mentioned it."
Photographs and text recounting Berta Nilsson's ordeal were added Tuesday to "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," the touring show on display at the ZCMI Center in Salt Lake City through Jan. 8, 2005. Nilsson's tale, with its parallels to the 1997 "Titanic" movie, adds yet another tragic subplot to the enduring legend of the doomed voyage.
As almost every moviegoer knows, the central characters in "Titanic" were Rose, a young woman who survived the sinking, and her gallant lover Jack, who guided her to safety before perishing in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.
Well, Berta Nilsson had her own "Jack." His name was Edvard Larsson-Rondberg, and he was her fiancé. Nilsson kept this hidden from her children and grandchildren, even when they pestered her with questions about her Titanic days.
"You could tell in her eyes that it brought back a lot of grief," granddaughter Jan Steinbach, of Park City, said of Nilsson after Tuesday's brief ceremony in the exhibition lobby. Secretive to the end, Nilsson died in 1976 at age 82.
Then came the summer of 2000, when Cherry, Steinbach and other relatives took a family trip to Sweden. There they encountered cousins who told them the stunning news about Edvard.
"We were blown away. All these years, and we never knew," Jan Steinbach said. She and Nilsson's other descendants sat riveted as their Swedish relatives told them the following account, as described by Berta in her letters:
Nilsson was asleep in her third-class cabin on the night of April 14 when she was shaken awake by her fiancé, who told her to get dressed and don her life preserver. Although the ship's officers barricaded the third-class passengers from reaching the lifeboats, Edvard somehow broke through and ushered Berta to the rail.
She boarded Boat D - the third-to-last lifeboat to launch - with Edvard at her side. But the ship's officers, who gave preference to women and children, ordered him out of the boat. When Edvard refused to leave his fiancé's side, they shot him and pushed his body into the ocean.
No other evidence has been found to corroborate the shooting. A first-class passenger testified at a U.S. Senate hearing that he saw an officer fire a warning shot at "steerage" passengers to keep them from boarding Boat D. The officer, Charles Lightoller, wrote in his 1935 autobiography that he only brandished his revolver.
In any case, Edvard Larsson-Rondberg did not survive the ship's sinking. He was 22. Berta Nilsson arrived alone at Ellis Island with no money and no knowledge of English.
She somehow found her way to Missoula, Mont., where she married a man from her Swedish hometown. He died several years later of influenza, and she eventually remarried.
Her mother's story brings tears to the eyes of Dorothy Christensen Cherry each time she tours the Titanic exhibition.
"I can visualize her being on that boat," she says. And the Kate Winslet-Leonardo DiCaprio movie is hard to watch, too, she says, "especially at the end."