“ Address: Columbusstrasse 65 / 27568 Bremerhaven / Germany „
The biggest German ports are Hamburg on the river Elbe and Bremen on the river Weser situated where the rivers flow into the North Sea. More than twelve million people, Germans, but also Scandinavians and people from Eastern Europe, emigrated to the Americas via these two cities between 1830 and 1974. About five million left from Hamburg, about seven from Bremerhaven. They left because of political or religious persecution or to escape poverty. Of course, adventurers were also among them as were criminals who knew that emigrating to America would mean they could never be found.
In 2005 Europe's largest theme museum on emigration opened in Bremerhaven. It's called Deutsches Auswandererhaus (German Emigration Centre). It's located on the waterfront in an area called Havenwelten (Harbour World), the address is Columbusstr. 65, 27568 Bremerhaven. The museum maintains that 'Visitors can experience the emigration process through interactive exhibits'. I'd say they can get an slight inkling on what it may have been like. No museum can convey the real thing. (No visitor to the Imperial War Museum in London knows what war is like after a visit). But a well made museum using modern media and technology can certainly stimulate the imagination in a way an old, dusty collection of untouchable exhibits can't.
After paying the entrance fee one gets a boarding card in lieu of a ticket. The envelope has the name of a real life emigrant on it, the electronic ticket inside can be used to activate information throughout the museum. 'My' emigrant was Hannah Levinsky-Koevary who left for New York with her parents in 1949 when she was only ten months old. Later I googled her and found out that she's made herself a name as an author of publications on Jewish subjects and a film script. I was surprised that I, an elderly lady, had got an infant. I asked a boy of about ten years who he was so-to-speak and he told me that he was a 27-year-old man. So the ticket person looked at the gender, but why didn't he find an appropriate age? Before I left the museum I asked how many different boarding pass personalities there were in total and learnt that there were only 16. Aha, that explains it. The museum was full of visitors meaning there were lots of clones walking around.
The museum has an entrance and an exit, visitors must follow a given route, it's not possible to pop in and out at random. One starts in a bleak waiting room for emigrants which sets the atmosphere. The walls are full of graffiti advising people to keep an eye on their belongings and warning them against pick pockets and con men. The door is closed and one hears a short introduction of about three minutes into the history of emigration through a loudspeaker. Then another door opens and, after moving up some stairs, one finds oneself on a wharf in front of a ship with water splashing against the quay. A group of life size dummies dressed as people were in 1888 with a lot of suitcases and chests around them are saying farewell to each other. The scene looks lively and one wants to talk to the people and ask them about their reasons for leaving their home country and their wishes for the future.
Next comes a long room looking a bit like an old pharmacy with walls full of narrow drawers. It's called the Gallery of seven million destinies. The drawers can be pulled out, each contains a short biography of an emigrant. Here the visitors can find 'their' emigrant and learn more about them. They can also lift receivers and listen to spoken biographies. Here I have to voice a complaint. The people in charge obviously didn't foresee how successful the museum would be (in 2007 it received the European Museum of the Year Award), there are too few receivers for too many visitors. I didn't want to queue in order to be able to hear something, so I only read the biographies. Even though not all seven million emigrants are listed here, of course, it's easy to forget time and lose oneself in the stories. The whole museum is bilingual. Everything can be heard and read in German and English.
A gangway leads up to the ship (disabled visitors can use a lift) which offers insights into the passage across the Atlantic on three different types of ships, namely on the tween deck of a sailing vessel, in third class accommodation on a steamship and on a more modern ocean liner . The conditions on the sailing vessel are the most striking. In 1850 the transatlantic passage could last up to three months. (from a leaflet of the museum) "Up to 250 passengers were crowded into cramped, filthy quarters where they ate and slept in dark bunks. The stench was awful, toilets were non-existent and the poor food soon put passengers off. Sanitary conditions worsened with each passing day. On average two to three percent of the passengers died on board the sailing ships. The death toll on English and Irish ships was considerably higher, which is why they were also referred to as 'sailing coffins'."
The realistic reconstruction of a bunk on a sailing vessel made me think that we can only get a slight inkling of what things were like. We get something for the eyes and for the ears - a 'man' sprawled on the bunk snoring loudly - but we get nothing for the nose. And even if it were possible to create artificially the stench which lingered on the ships, we'd only inhale it in passing, we wouldn't have to live in it for three months.
In a small room off the bunk a lidless toilet bowl invites the visitors to sit down. The moment one does so, a text appears on the opposite wall explaining the development of the sanitary facilities on ships. By and by things changed for the better, of course. How rich emigrants lived on the ships which offered luxurious cabins in later years isn't shown in detail, we can see it in photographs.
At last we reach Ellis Island where from 1892 and 1924 16.5 million immigrants were 'checked' in two to five minutes whether they were fit to get permission to enter the USA or not. The visitors can answer the questionnaire given to the immigrants in 1907 and find out about their chances. The reconstructed rooms are unfriendly and sterile, not welcoming at all. One question struck me as extremely odd: "Which colour are your eyes?" What has this got to do with anything? I peered over the shoulder of a woman who completed the questionnaire. She decided that she wanted to go to Canada and obviously answered all questions correctly because she was allowed the transitory passage through the USA.
The room dedicated to the descendants of the immigrants lets the visitors find out if there are people with their surnames living in the USA today. They can also check the passenger lists of ships on a computer and find out if a potential relative left Germany in a certain year. I don't know how many telephone directories there are, the shelves along the walls are full of them. I grabbed one, I think it was from Milwaukee, opened it and found my surname at once! Yet, there's a problem. My surname is written with an umlaut which doesn't exist in the English language. Someone with my surname would have been made an umlaut less US citizen at once. The person I found can be a descendant of this operation or belong to the tribe which has no umlaut even in its German name.
At the end of the tour we enter an elegant cinema in the style of the 1920s where two films are shown in alteration all day long. One is called Welcome Home (8 minutes) dealing with the further life of emigrants in the USA, the other (14 minutes) is about Germans and their descendants in Buenos Aires.
In case you're interested in the virtual tour through the museum, here is the link:
I've never been in a museum which gives precise times for the visit of its exhibits. The German Emigration Centre tells you that
the minimum length of stay is 90 minutes,
the average length of stay is 150 minutes,
and that the recommended length of stay is 120 minutes.
I couldn't find out what they feared would happen to visitors overstaying the recommended time. I stayed for 120 minutes and was then ripe for a meal in the restaurant beside the entrance with the name 'Speisesaal (Dining Hall) Steak&Fish'. It isn't cheap but very nice and the food is good. In good weather guests can also sit outside and enjoy the view of the Old Harbour. The museum shop offers mainly books on emigration topics and some of the usual knickknack.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this museum to anybody interested in the topic. If you wait for some time, you'll find an even bigger museum because now an annexe is being built dealing with 'Immigration to Germany'.
As entrance prices and opening hours can change, I'm giving you the link for the museum so that you can inform yourselves: http://www.dah-bremerhaven.de/english/english.html
Elvis Presley disembarked in Bremerhaven from an army troop ship in 1958, but this is a different story.