The Emigrants' Story: Where It Began

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 2 12:10:11 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,  September 2, 2005

The Emigrants' Story: Where It Began

BREMERHAVEN, Germany - The slogan at the entrance to the new museum of
emigration says it all: "Over seven million people departed from here to
an unknown world." Well, maybe not completely unknown, at least probably
not for those among the seven million who departed in the 20th century and
had some inkling of where they were going. Still, here in the age of
discount air fares and Hotmail and 24-hour news channels, the motto serves
as a reminder just how wrenching, how much of a risk, a break from a
familiar life, emigration was for earlier generations, and how much grit
and stamina were required to undertake it.

Why so many did undertake it is one of the questions that the museum,
known in German as Auswanderer Haus, or Emigration House, which opened in
this busy port city a few weeks ago, is intended to answer. The spacious,
modern building, framed in latticed wood, overlooks Bremerhaven's Old
Port, created in 1837 in large part to take advantage of the wave of
emigration to America that began around then. "We want young people to
know about people who took this step, to leave their homes for the unknown
world," said Andreas Heller, the architect who designed the Bremerhaven
museum, describing emigration as "a long journey, and maybe a journey with
no coming back."

If the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbor tells the story
of arrivals, the museum in Bremerhaven tells the story at the opposite end
of the experience: the departure, not just to the United States but to
Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia as well. But why a museum just
now, so many years after large-scale European emigration to North America
stopped? The question is all the more pertinent because Bremerhaven is not
the only German city to have the idea of an emigration museum, though it
is the first in Germany, and in Europe as a whole, to open one. In Hamburg
also, two hours by train from here and the other major German point of
departure for the "unknown world," another emigration museum is planned
for 2007.

"In our global village, people are looking for their roots," said Lisa
Kosok, the museum director in Hamburg. While people look for roots - not a
simple matter in Germany, where the search for roots, at least until
recently, meant almost exclusively the roots of the country's Hitlerian
disaster - cities look for identities. So for Bremerhaven and Hamburg, the
emigration theme provides a catalyst to revitalize run-down districts and
lends to the quest for something normative in the German past, something
not associated with aggression and genocide. The brochure for the Hamburg
museum has a picture of a man on horseback, wearing a 10-gallon hat and
jeans, with the caption, "Perhaps it is also his history, or the history
of his parents or grandparents."

A couple of pages later comes a sepia-toned photograph of people in long
coats and felt hats getting ready to board the ship that will take them,
unexpectedly, toward cowboyhood. The contrast between the worlds, and the
transition from one to the other, are what the German emigration museums
aim to illustrate. In all, some 12 million people departed from
Bremerhaven and Hamburg for the Western Hemisphere between the mid-19th
century and 1974, when seaports as points of departure were entirely
replaced by airports. Many of them were Germans, motivated by poverty,
ambition, adventure, family quarrels and, especially after the Nazis came
to power in 1933, by persecution. But many millions more were from the
East - Russia, Poland, and the Baltic States - lured to Germany by what
could be called entrepreneurs of emigration.

Bremerhaven in this sense largely came into existence as a major port to
satisfy the emigration demand. Hamburg, a far more ancient city, was
already Germany's major port in the 19th century, but the emigration
business resulted in a major expansion there, too, largely because of the
activities of one man. He was Albert Ballin, almost unknown in the United
States, but a major figure in the peopling of North America. Mr. Ballin
was a Jew who took over his father's ticket-booking business and built up
an island in the middle of the Elbe River intended to provide transit
services to emigrants, especially those from the East.

Eventually, Mr. Ballin became the general director of HAPAG, now called
Hapag-Lloyd, which remains one of Europe's biggest shipping companies. The
complex Mr. Ballin built on Veddel Island in Hamburg, now an area of
warehouses and itself a neighborhood for recent Turkish and other
immigrants to Germany, once contained some 30 buildings, including
dormitories, a hospital, a bathhouse, churches and a synagogue, most of
which have been demolished. But parts of one building, a one-story former
sleeping barracks, remain, and it is there that the future BallinStadt, or
Ballin City, Museum, will be built.

Old photographs, which are available at the planned museum's Web site,, show a kind of self-contained village, where thousands
of people could stay for a few days waiting for their ships to leave.
Hamburg is behind Bremerhaven in the emigration museum race because, as
Ms. Kosok explained, something in the neighborhood of 9 million euros, or
$11 million, out of a total of about 18 million euros for the whole
project, has not yet been raised.

Meanwhile, Bremerhaven's Auswanderer Haus is already taking visitors
through a sort of reproduction of the emigration experience - waiting on
the quay on a cold November morning, climbing up the gangway, settling
into a third-class cabin - and introducing them to a specific immigrant.
Each visitor gets a magnetic card with the story of one of 15 such people
- from Johann Nikalaus, an 18-year-old farmer who left from Bremerhaven in
1848, to Hertha Nathorff, the niece of Albert Einstein, who fled the Nazis
in 1939.

The idea is to remove the emigration experience from the abstract, to make
it as tangible as the collection of old suitcases that passengers took
with them containing the few items from the old world that they took with
them to the new.

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