Bremerhaven, as the name implies, is the harbor city belonging to the city of Bremen, which is 50 km upstream on the Weser River. Over a period of 150 years, an estimated 7.2 million emigrants sailed from the various wharves of Bremerhaven to begin a new life in the New World.
The German Emigration Center (Deutsches Auswandererhaus) is a museum on the site of one of those wharves.
After entering the museum and paying their admission fees, visitors are each given a ‘boarding pass’ and an iCard to activate and call up information. Each boarding pass lists two people, one emigrant and one immigrant, apparently chosen at random. At various places in the museum, the iCard “activates many audio stations and interactive displays, making a museum visit a thoroughly personal and emotional experience.” The intention is that individual information and pictures will “enable identification with the actual person and invite visitors to become more involved with their story and, thus, the history.”
Unfortunately, the two people listed on my boarding pass both turned out to be rather boring, so that aspect of the museum concept didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, I found the exhibits fascinating, in part because of my own family history.
The first stop on the museum tour is a re-created third-class waiting room, as it looked in the 1890s, and the second is a scene ‘On the Wharf”, with full-size manikins of emigrants from various epochs waiting to embark for the New World. In between, there are various places where visitors can swipe their iCards and hear recordings explaining who the people were and why they had decided to emigrate. A few changed their minds at the last minute and stayed on land, but most walked up the gangplank and entered the ship, knowing that in most cases they would never return.
This scene 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.
In his papers after his death I found a tiny notebook in which he had 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.
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.
When the German Emigration Center opened in 2005 it was just that, a museum about emigration from Germany to other parts of the world. But that was only half the story, so in 2012 a second building was opened, connected to the first by a covered bridge, documenting three hundred years of immigration into Germany, with emphasis on the decades following the Second World War.
In this building they have re-created some German shops as they looked in the 1960s and 70s, which is how I remember them from my first visits.
Near the exit there is a Family Research room, with computers where visitors can look up their ancestors (or anybody else) to find documentation on their emigration from or immigration into Germany. To try it out, I entered my father’s name in one of the computers and was immediately presented with half a dozen scanned documents showing his entries into the United States through Ellis Island in 1928 and 1931, his naturalization as a US citizen, his marriage, etc. I didn’t learn anything new, particularly, but it was interesting to see the original documents, complete with various misspellings of his home town.
One of my father’s disappointments later in his life was that neither of his sons chose to remain in the United States as adults. My brother enrolled in a Canadian university, and after graduation he stayed on, becoming a ‘Landed Immigrant’ and later a Canadian citizen. When I was in my twenties I divided my time between Europe and the United States (and Vietnam, of course), before finally settling in Frankfurt in my early thirties.
My photos and text in this post are from 2020.
My father’s photos are from 1931.