On a recent business trip to Bremen, I made some personal time to visit the new German Emigration Center Museum
- the "Deutsches Auswanderer Haus"- in Bremerhaven. The center opened just a year ago but already has drawn a quarter million visitors. The day I visited, two groups were evident: German senior citizens; and schoolkids carrying clipboards, scribbling answers to their assignments. One audience re-living history, another learning it.
The museum hosts an impressive exhibit that tells the stories of our ancestors who left their homes behind in search of better lives. More than 7 million emigrants boarded ships in Bremerhaven between 1830 and 1974 for destinations in the New World, making it the largest port of embarkment from Germany. These people came to Bremerhaven from Russia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Germany, Scandinavia... all over Europe... and left for the United States, South America, Australia and other places. They traveled to escape war, famine, religious persecution, poverty... and some to escape prison, of course... but all of them hopeful that their fortunes would change.
The museum building is well designed and the exhibit is set up as a "tour" through a series of displays that document a typical emigrant's journey, with interpretative placards and audio recordings throughout. The center uses theme-park style crowd control: visitors gather first in a representative passenger waiting hall of a shipping line, outfitted with rough wooden benches and a single wood stove, with no other amenties. Then, a pair of double doors open and the group is allowed to enter the first hall, set up to look like a departure wharf, complete with mannequins dressed in period clothing, wagons full of luggage , harbor sounds, voices in dozens of national languages, and the side of a ship. Very Disney-like, but very touching as well... I couldn't help but be reminded of the "Titanic" movies.
After leaving the wharf, one enters the "Gallery of the 7 Million", a long passage with floor to ceiling drawers and shelving containing stories of individual travelers, thousands of artifacts (photos, money, books, clothing, passports, postcards, letters...) and historical summaries from different periods of emigration. To make things personal, each visitor is given a name to research... mine was "Manfred Schnittzer", a real person who came to the US in the 1950's, started a career and raised a family. His drawer held, among other things, his Boy Scout ID card, showing when he was signed-off on camping skills and other tasks and made his ranks. I looked into some other drawers, many were full of information, but some could offer only sketchy details about a person's life, his or her motivations and activities... I guess the point was to show that people really did start all over. Many changed names, lost touch with relatives in the old country, or just cut all connections and didn't record much about their previous lives. Others never forgot their roots, though, and those stories are also told.
After leaving the gallery, the tour continues with a look into shipboard life and the struggles of the "crossing" experience. There are mockups of three types of ships and information about meals, entertainment, sleeping arrangements (get to know your neighbor!), and sanitation (in the head, visitors have to sit on a toilet to activate a slideshow explaining how many emigrants had never seen one before!). Moving on, visitors immigrate through an Ellis Island display and enter a "New World". What challenges did immigrants face as they started over? Large maps answer: Where did the most Swedes settle? Which state has the most Russian immigrants? There is a "Room of the Descendants", photo essays updating the stories of the people we researched in the departure gallery. A short film visits some American families: Texans who celebrate German customs; a woman who returned to Bremerhaven in her 80's but who longs to return to New York, where she worked post-World War II; a multi-cultural family in Ohio (husband of Japanese-Italian descent, mother of German descent).
After the film, there are several halls describing how the world population moves around and intermingles, a UN display about cultural and religious tolerance, and a "Migration Forum". The forum is a room with computer terminals tied into several geneological databases (including the LDS website and ship's manifest from Bremerhaven). Visitors can research their own families and print out information to take with them. I tried to find some more information about my own great-grandfater, Oscar Habicht... but there wasn't much to find that I hadn't already learned. It's just possible he left through Hamburg, or perhaps the records were destroyed in a fire, or perhaps he changed his name to escape some terrible threat. We may never find the true story. Maybe we aren't meant to find out.
Finally, the tour exits through the compulsory gift shop (like I said, Disney-like traffic management!) and a restaurant.
After my visit, I walked out onto the dike between the harbor and the Weser River. It was a beautiful day, sunny but cool, with a blustering wind coming off the water. I looked back over the harbor area: a new hotel is being built right next to the seafaring and shipping museum, across from a major shopping center, just down from the emigration center. People strolled along the dike to a seaside zoo and to the museum ships, herring boats, schooners, tugs. In the distance, I could see the cruise ship dock and the derricks of container terminals. Despite Germany's current economic woes, there were signs everywhere of industry and progress. Would the emigrants who passed through here in the last century be able to recognize the place?
I looked across the harbor to a statue of Christopher Columbus that gazes out towards the North Sea. I couldn't begin to imagine the feelings these people must have had, most of them being forced to leave their homes because they would starve, or be killed, or be imprisoned for their beliefs. When we think of our brothers and sisters in Darfur, Iraq, North Korea, Tibet, Mexico and elsewhere in the world, it seems that things have not changed all that much. By nature, people seek peace and security, even if that means facing danger and uncertainty to find a better place to live. If we are better off, we should always be ready to help. But emigration isn't the only solution, we also should find ways to bring prosperity to the homelands, so that people don't have to run away from forces of destruction, so that they can build up their own families and keep their cultural heritage.
All in all, the museum offered a worthy way to spend several hours and left me with plenty to think about on the train ride back to Bremen.