This large baggage room in the former maritime railway station doesn’t really have much to do with emigration, since it wasn’t completed until 1933, when the flow of emigrants was already greatly reduced. But it is now used as part of the Cité de la Mer to explain the history of emigration, using pictures, diagrams and texts that are projected onto the walls.
Of all the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who embarked at Cherbourg over the years, I was of course particularly interested in one, namely my father, who came through as an emigrant in January of 1928.
Among other things, I learned from the Cité de la Mer (and later confirmed on its website) that most of the emigrants who embarked at Cherbourg were not French, but came from Eastern Europe, particularly from Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland and Lithuania. My father was no exception to this, since he was a Sudeten German travelling on a Czechoslovakian passport.
The ships that stopped in Cherbourg harbor were also not French, but belonged to companies based in Germany, the UK, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Greece or Sweden. French shipping companies preferred to dock at Le Havre, one hundred km to the east, because Le Havre was larger and more centrally located, with better and shorter rail connections to the rest of France. Also, the position of Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine meant that non-perishable freight could be loaded onto barges and transported slowly but economically up the river to Rouen or Paris.
But for the foreign shipping companies, which were primarily passenger lines, Cherbourg was ideal, because of its convenient harbor and its location at the end of a peninsula sticking up into the Manche aka ‘English Channel’.
This text-and-photo panel in the Cité de la Mer begins with a quotation, in French and English, from an 1870 French parliamentary investigation of the merchant marine: “Emigrants are excellent cargo for a ship, boarding by themselves, disembarking by themselves and paying a high price.”
The text below, also in both French and English, reads: “Although they symbolize luxury, the great transatlantic liners would not have shown a profit without the constant flow of European emigrants flocking to those legendary promised lands, the States of America. Lines competed fiercely to attract these passengers who made their business so lucrative. They sent sales agents round the countryside, promising the earth to potential emigrants — but with no guarantees of what they would find.”
My father, however, was not living in the countryside and was not persuaded by a sales agent from a steamship company. He was working in Paris when a visiting American business executive noticed him and offered him a job at his wholesale costume jewelry company in Chicago.
This text panel begins with a quotation from the French novel Pierre et Jean by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), describing a shipload of emigrants leaving France in the 1870s: “This crowd of paupers defeated by life, exhausted and crushed, leaving for an unknown land where they hope not to starve — perhaps.”
The text below reads: “While their money funded the luxury offered to first-class passengers, the emigrants down in 3rd class travelled in often difficult and sometimes squalid conditions. For those in steerage, the dream of freedom and fortune often began as a nightmare. It was not until 1910 that the emigrants’ travel conditions improved. Why? American immigration law, which regulated the arrival of foreign citizens very strictly on health grounds.”
By 1928, when my father emigrated, travel conditions in 3rd class were quite acceptable — not luxurious, but clean and orderly. The shipping companies in that period went to great lengths to ensure that their passengers were healthy when they embarked and remained healthy on the voyage, so they would not be turned away by the American inspectors at Ellis Island, because in this case the shipping company would be responsible for transporting the rejected people back to Europe.
From the tiny notebook he kept at the time, I already knew that my father took a train from Paris to Cherbourg on Wednesday, January 18, 1928. And I knew that he boarded the SS George Washington in Cherbourg harbor the next afternoon. But I never knew where he spent the night or what he did in his twenty-four hours in Cherbourg.
Well, I know now that he must have stayed at the Hôtel Atlantique in Cherbourg, a large and unusual hotel that was built in the early 1920s by three of the leading shipping companies. This hotel, as described on the website of the Cité de la Mer, was “a building of 5,400 m² including infrastructures for accommodation and sanitary checks.” It had “a capacity to cater for and lodge 2,500 people per day” and was “fitted out with all the latest equipment needed to meet American health and hygiene requirements.”
When emigrants entered the hotel, the first thing that happened was that their packages were carefully inspected, and then they were sent to the disinfection department. “They were each given two bags: one for their clothes, the other for their belongings. They were then asked to take a shower and underwent a preliminary medical examination during which time their clothes were steamed. Each of them received a bar of petroleum soap. Emigrants’ hair was inspected particularly carefully to check for contagious disease-carrying parasites. They underwent several medical examinations and were systematically vaccinated before being transferred to the disinfected quarters of the hotel.”
The website also says that there were “two dining halls in the building catering for 250 and 800 people respectively. There were also two kitchens: one Catholic, the other Jewish as the Jews passing through Cherbourg continued to follow the rites of their religion. Dormitories on the upper floors awaited the emigrants who would pass the night facing the sea…”
The Hôtel Atlantique continued to function in this way until the end of the 1930s, even though the number of emigrants declined from year to year during the Great Depression.
This is how the quay at Cherbourg must have looked in January of 1928, several months before the old maritime railway station was demolished to make room for a new one. The vessels in the foreground are the tenders, small ships that ferried the passengers and their baggage out to the ocean liners anchored in the outer harbor.
On a typical day, five or six ocean liners might make brief stops in Cherbourg harbor, but hardly any of these voyages began or ended here. The SS George Washington, for instance, began its voyage in Bremerhaven, Germany, and called at Cherbourg and Plymouth before continuing on to New York.
This life-sized mock-up in the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven is supposed to represent a third-class dining room on a steamship in the 1920s — much more comfortable than in previous decades and centuries — so I imagine this was the sort of ambience my father had on his first crossing in 1928 on the S.S. George Washington.
Here are some more entries from the tiny notebook in which he noted down, in pencil, the main events of each day, as well as the exact amounts of money he had spent and lists of things he had to do on that day. A lot of it is faded or illegible, or written in shorthand, but from what I can decipher it seems that on Wednesday, January 18, 1928 he took a train from Paris to Cherbourg. The next day he boarded the S.S. George Washington, which had come from Bremerhaven and would make one more stop, in Plymouth, before crossing the ocean to New York.
He spent eleven days and nights on the ship, and noted Nacht gut (=night good) nearly every night. He mentioned being seasick on the second morning at “¼ 8”. He didn’t eat any lunch that day, but by late afternoon he felt better and had some coffee and cake as the last land disappeared from view.
For Saturday, January 21 he noted: Abends ganz gut. Esse im Bett. Sehr stürmische See. Nacht gut. (“Evening quite good. I eat in bed. Very stormy sea. Night good.”)
On Monday the 23rd he wrote: “Good. I can already stay on deck. Very stormy. Hailstones. Waves on the deck. Night good. Wrote to Mother.”
Tuesday the 24th: “Good. Stormy. Wind 10. Night good.”
Wednesday the 25th: “Sea much calmer. Sunny. Chess. Wind 5. Night good.”
Thursday the 26th: “Stormy. Chess. Entertainment.”
Friday the 27th: “Still 634 miles to New York. Somewhat stormy. Night good.”
They arrived in New York harbor on Sunday, January 29, but had to sleep one more night on the ship before debarking on Ellis Island on Monday morning.
These cages and benches in the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven are meant to represent the waiting room on Ellis Island, where immigrants waited for the short interview that would decide if they would be allowed to enter the United States. When my father came through in 1928 he was confident they would let him in, since he was young (22) and healthy, and had a firm job offer from a company in Chicago.
For that day he noted in his little diary: “Suitcase control – Ellis Island. Subway. YMCA. Room. Good meal. City. Compare with Paris. Streets? Traffic? Self? Buildings.”
The next day, Tuesday the 31st, he noted the name “Karásek”. This is a name I heard many times from him when I was a child. He often told me about his arrival in New York, when he was immediately befriended by a young man named Karásek, who showed him around and helped him get oriented.
As I have mentioned, my father was a Sudeten German with a Czechoslovakian passport. He had grown up in a town where the Germans and the Czechs didn’t get along very well, so he was surprised and delighted that the first friend he made in the New World was a Czech. His conclusion was that in America everything was better, since all the stale old Old-World animosities were no longer important.
Actually, my father was one of the few people who entered the United States twice through Ellis Island. The second time was three years later, in 1931, when he was returning from a business trip. He was already a resident of the United States, but was not yet a citizen, so he had to enter through Ellis Island like all the other aliens. This was even less of a problem than the first time, and they didn’t even ask him to open his suitcase.
My photos in this post are from 2020 and 2021. I revised the text in 2022.