From Hamburg to the World: Over 5 Million European Emigrés from The “Port of Dreams" Are Documented by New Museum
Vera von Kreutzbruck
Nowadays the city of Hamburg in northern Germany is well-known for its monumental port, where thousands of containers depart every day from its docks to destinations around the globe. But not so long ago, it was also famous for another kind of business: making dreams come true. Between 1850 and 1934, more than 5 million Europeans left for the New World via Hamburg, driven by the hope of a better life.
The vast majority of them embarked from BallinStadt, a development conceived as a unique full-service departure point for emigrants. Encompassing 30 buildings, BallinStadt was so big that it was almost a small self-contained city itself, tucked within the bigger port of Hamburg. This innovative idea, perfectly suited to the times, originated with Alfred Ballin, general manager of the German shipping company HAPAG (Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft). What is left of BallinStadt is now located in the Veddel neighborhood of the Hamburg suburbs.
This July, a new emigration museum called “BallinStadt – Port of Dreams” opened its doors in Hamburg. It is dedicated to the role the port of BallinStadt played in helping hundreds of thousands of Europeans on their way to the Americas.
The interactive exhibits cover every stage of the emigrants’ journeys – from the conditions, such as the poverty and pogroms that led them to flee their countries, through to their arrival in the “promised land”. To illustrate the ordeal all went through, several mannequins recite the stories of real children and adults from different époques of European emigration. There is also plenty of film footage and photographs.But undoubtedly, the museum’s highlight is the digitalized searchable archive containing the passenger lists of the emigrants who departed from Hamburg. Name, city of origin and port of embarkation, as well as the passengers’ destination port and planned final destination can be found in the databank, which make it one of the most comprehensive historic passenger lists in the world. While America has long documented its immigrant past, Germany has only recently begun to look at its side of the story - the exodus from Europe in the 1800s and 1900s.
The original city of Ballinstadt, which opened in 1901 and expanded continually until 1907, was comprised of one-story buildings, which included a synagogue, a church, a hospital and cafeterias as well as a playground. Unfortunately, the facilities were damaged by bombing during World War II. By the sixties, almost all of the pavilions had been completely demolished. What the museum offers now are replicas of three buildings, designed to duplicate the living and sleeping quarters. The buildings were constructed at the historical site of the “emigrants’ halls”.
In order for HAPAG to keep profits high, Alfred Ballin’s shrewd business sense ensured that he took special care of his customers, keeping them healthy until their departure. The dormitory halls served as a way to screen out those with infectious diseases, who otherwise were likely to be barred by US immigration officers at Ellis Island in New York and sent back to Europe at the line’s expense.
The hostel’s comfort helped Hamburg maintain a competitive edge over Bremen and Antwerp for shipping customers. And the rivalry still continues today. Bremerhaven opened its own emigration museum in August 2005. Both cities are trying to develop a tourist industry based on their history as major port towns.
History of Emigration
Widespread poverty and pogroms in Eastern and Southeastern Europe were among the driving forces of the mass migrations that began in the 1880s. So many entered the United States that this was later referred to there as the period of the “new immigration”. The exodus of such massive numbers of people was made possible through the introduction of new modes of transport, such as trains and steamships. Some 2,725,000 Jews emigrated from Europe to overseas destinations between 1880 and 1914.The most popular destination for most of these emigrants was the United States. In 1892, the Federal Immigration Office on Ellis Island was opened in New York where thousands of new immigrants were processed on a daily basis. As a result, today, there are around 60 million Americans of German descent in the US.
Throughout the 1930s, thousands of Jews fled from Nazi Germany, until the borders were closed after the outbreak of World War II – which effectively shut down emigration from both Hamburg and Bremerhaven.
Between 1945 and 1949, Occupation Forces in general limited emigration permits to European academics and engineers. When in the summer of 1949 the ban on emigration was lifted in the western zones, Hamburg once again became the “Gateway to the World”. A new wave of emigration began, though it paled in comparison with the one at the turn of the century. However, these days, German emigration is on the rise again: close to 150,000 left the country last year, a record for post-war emigration.
About the Author
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.