From Hamburg to the New World New Museum Pays Respect to Europe's Emigrants

Everyone knows that millions of European emigrants ended up at Ellis Island in New York. But where did they come from? A new museum in Hamburg documents the millions who began their journey across the Atlantic from the shores of Germany.

By Cameron Abadi in Hamburg, Germany


Visit Hamburg's port, and it's difficult to mistake the city's connection to the sea. Mammoth container ships clog the city's harbor and cruise ships regularly tower over the city's low skyline as they dock. Vast quantities of goods start their voyages around the world from Hamburg, one of Europe's biggest ports, every year.

Yet despite the hustle and bustle of modern-day Hamburg, the port was just as busy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Back then, though, it wasn't material goods being shipped. Rather, the city was known for an entirely different export: people.

On Wednesday, a new museum devoted to the vital role Hamburg played in sending vast numbers of Europeans on their way to the New World opened its doors. Carefully scheduled to coincide with America's Independence Day on the Fourth of July, the new BallinStadt-Port of Dreams exhibition will highlight Hamburg's role as a point of departure for the "tired, hungry and poor" on their way to the shores of Ellis Island. More than that, though, the museum seeks to restore ties with tens of millions of Americans who can trace their lineage back to the city's docks.

“We don’t want to look at emigration simply as a list of historical facts and figures, but as an ongoing and complex issue to which everyone can relate,” says Volker Reminers, BallinStadt’s managing director.

Full Service for Emigrants

It's an ambitious mandate. Between 1850 and 1939, more than 5 million Europeans left for the New World via Hamburg -- resulting in 40 million present-day Americans with German ancestry. Many of those emigrants departed through the new museum's namesake BallinStadt, a facility conceived by Alfred Ballin -- an executive at the shipping company Hapag -- as a full-service point for emigrants. The complex, a reconstruction of which now houses the new museum, saw 2 million customers pass through, the vast majority of them coming from Eastern Europe, many of them Russian Jews fleeing pogroms back home.

To tell their stories, the museum takes visitors themselves on a voyage, from the quays in Hamburg to the docks of the Ellis Island immigrant processing center in New York City. Original documents are plentiful, as are photos depicting the lives of those who passed through Hamburg. And exhibition organizers haven't shied away from kitsch: Throughout the exhibition, life-size models of specific emigrants -- or, in one instance, a model of Alfred Ballin himself -- speak about their personal experiences upon being approached by visitors.

But the museum isn't only interested in the past, as Jen Nitschke, the exhibition's designer, points out. “The museum should be a three-toned harmony between the past, the present and the future,” he says.

To that end, a genealogy research center has been set up in the main entrance hall. Using computer workstations, visitors can search a network of genealogical databases including the lists of all passengers who passed through Hamburg from 1850 through 1934 -- including information from emigrants' birthplaces to professions.

Foray into the Present Day

The museum even attempts a foray into the present day. The exhibition concludes with the question: “Would you be prepared to make such a voyage?” The inquiry is followed by a photo and video installation depicting people living in the neighborhood around the museum who have, in fact, made such a voyage; almost 60 percent of the residents in Veddel, the district around BallinStadt, are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

“Immigration, emigration -- these are subjects that are extremely relevant for the Veddel,” says Nina Siepmann, a spokesperson for the museum. “The place that was a stop-over for emigrants 100 years ago, has today become a new home for many immigrants, who may have left their own homes for very similar reasons.”

Most of all, though, the museum is part of a larger project to convince more foreign tourists that Hamburg is worth a couple of days. Currently, many who arrive in the city on a cruise ship take the next train out of town on their way to Berlin or Munich. Hamburg is currently focusing its development energy on HafenCity, a massive riverside development project that will ultimately combine modern architecture, arts, living space and offices in a whole new city quarter.

In addition, the "Hamburg 2010" fund is throwing money at a variety of projects aimed at upping tourism. The city has sent €9 million the way of the new BallinStadt museum and has invested in a circle-line ferry that is to operate between the city’s main tourist attraction, the Landesbrücken port, and Veddel’s less frequented port on the opposite bank of the Elbe River where the museum is situated. Despite the help, the museum will still need to attract 150,000 visitors in the first-year just to cover its costs.

The Devastation of Cholera

Museum officials are hoping that -- much like Ellis Island in New York -- the site's authenticity will be enough to pull visitors to an otherwise unfrequented part of town. The BallinStadt development -- complete with living quarters, two churches, a synagogue and a kosher dining hall, at least until it was leveled by World War II bombs -- was part of Hapag's effort to provide full-service emigration, from transportation to Hamburg to moving costs on arrival in the New World.

It was also a massive improvement on the decrepit, ad-hoc living conditions that had, until then, been provided for people intent on leaving Old Europe behind. The establishment of BallinStadt even managed to forestall Hamburg's plans to discontinue its involvement in emigration after a cholera outbreak devastated the city in the late 19th century.

This century, though, the site has a different function. “Above all," says Nitschke, "the exhibition pays homage to those people who dare to take their fate into their own hands, and those who are prepared to try something new, set themselves challenges, meet new people and find their own way in life,” he says. “They deserve our respect, regardless of when they made that voyage.”

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