German Emigration Center
When the U.S. census of 1990 results were published, approximately one in five Americans claimed German ancestry. But how did so many Germans all end up in America? And WHY? The Deutsches Auswandererhaus, aka German Emigration Center, is a remarkable museum for giving dimension to all those immigrants. Suddenly, the vague knowledge that great-great-grandparents left Germany for America is not just a part of the distant past, it’s something you can feel and even understand. It’s no wonder this museum won the 2007 European Museum of the Year Award. A visit here will help you
Discover Your Germany!
When you visit the Deutsches Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven, the museum does its best to pull you out of the 21st century and let you experience what the emigrants went through on their journeys. At the check-in, every visitor to the museum is given a boarding pass. Inside, you find the name of an emigrant, and on the opposite side, the name of an immigrant with a small photo and relevant dates.
You also get a plastic card that activates audio stations along the way.
To set the tone, the museum staggers visitors by bringing them in through a holding area where you first begin to feel the anticipation of setting out on an adventure. Through the doors, you come upon a scene that goes back 150 years: a massive ship in the harbor, people waiting to board, cargo stacked around, and you are THERE. You hear voices, smell the sea, see the water, the ground creaks a bit like a dock, you can almost feel the motion of the waves. Here and there are marked stations; place your card on the spot and pick up the receiver. The story of YOUR emigrant begins.
Unlike many museums, there aren’t ropes holding you back or marked paths you must stay on. Wander in and out of the people on the dock, noticing how their clothing changes in time as you walk along the line from rough peasant clothes to chic outfits from the 1920s.
Go on up to my favorite room, the Gallery of the Seven Million. Slim drawers labeled with names, many containing a story or even artifacts, fill the room. Here you will find your emigrant’s special display. Spend time looking around. These aren’t just anonymous names in a history book; these are the stories of REAL people.
The most eye-opening exhibits were the re-created bunks that the emigrants used on their journey. In the early days, sailing ships would take eight weeks to travel to America. Passengers would live below deck in horribly cramped quarters, barely getting a chance to come on deck for air. They carried everything they needed, including food (and even chickens!), and slept squashed in tight bunk beds. Over time, the ships got bigger and faster, but it was still not a luxury cruise. Tight quarters and shared spaces made passage difficult for everyone.
But don’t think you are just LOOKING at things! Touch, feel, try on the clothes! You can even sit on the toilet (it activates a little video)!
The last part of the emigration portion of the museum deals with the arrival at Ellis Island. As you walk down a long hall scribbled with the graffiti of thousands of people who came before you, you get a feeling of anticipation and nervousness. And those uncomfortable benches behind chain link are the same ones your ancestors sat on, worrying and wondering if they would get though or maybe sent back.
Make it through and you are in the New World…and ready to go anywhere!
Don’t stop there! The Deutsches Auswandererhaus is not just about emigration – cross a bridge, and there is a whole wing devoted to immigration. Start at the kiosk, where you get the information about your immigrant, and wander through the shopping mall looking for bits and pieces that connect your story.
This portion of the museum is still growing. Although the focus is on immigration into Germany, immigration around the world is also being studied here. Why do people leave their home and set out to live somewhere new? Are their motivations the same as our German ancestors who left Germany for America so many years ago? Or are other forces driving them to leave the homes they know for a new land?
The last stop is the Family Research Room. Here is where you can spend a little time looking up your family with the help of a genealogy expert. If you are wondering about your great-uncle Gustaf, you may just find out what ship he sailed to America on and perhaps even why.
So many people are curious about their origins and where they came from. DNA tests can give you basic information, but a piece of paper won’t give you a feeling. The Deutsches Auswandererhaus will give y ou an idea of how it felt to leave home and sail off to the unknown. The next time you tell someone your family came from Germany, you will understand exactly what that means.
Written by Karen Lodder