It had been on my to-do list for a long time and this summer, I was finally able to visit the Emigration Museum in Bremerhaven, the Deutsches Auswandererhaus. Ever since I listened to a podcast interview with the museum’s director, Simone Blaschka (see my last blog entry), I wanted to go and see it for myself. When I did, I was not disappointed.
Right from the start, you get a feeling of what it was like to embark on this big journey into the unknown. Your visit begins in a waiting room, authentically recreated, where you get your boarding pass. This ticket is a key to the individual experiences of a person who made the journey to America. You learn all about ‘your’ person – their name, what they wrote about their adventure in letters and diaries, and what their circumstances were. You can hear other people’s stories too, as many as you want, and there are in fact so many that you can easily come back to the museum a hundred times.
When you stand in front of the huge ship, surrounded by a crowd of life-size authentically dressed models and their luggage, hearing the recreation of noises and voices around you, you get the first impression of how daunting it must have been. You walk up the gangway, casting a last look down at the quay, wondering what to expect. Once on board, you see original suitcases and chests that already tell a story, and as you are walking around the corridors and cabins, you can see not only the exhibits but also lots of black and white film clips of life on board. I had read that in the mid-19th century, the journey from here to New York would have taken six to eight weeks, but I had no idea what the cabins were like. Yes, I might have seen a picture of crowded sleeping quarters, but standing directly in front of the berths made me realise what it would have been like to lie side-by-side with everyone else, trying to catch some sleep. How would I have coped with the lack of privacy? With the constant interruptions at night? With such limited living space, for weeks? What would I have done to stop my children from getting into mischief?
Having said that, I am of course not talking about those who could afford a first-class ticket. Their journey was quite a different one, involving even a fitness suite (!) and ball games on deck which you can witness in yet more film clips about life on board. Most importantly, as a first-class passenger you were not detained for hours in Ellis Island, sitting on a wooden bench in what can only be described as a cage, waiting to be scrutinized about your health, your integrity, and your ability to make a living in the New World. Unlucky those who were put straight away on the next ship back to Europe because they did not get the answers right in Ellis Island.
But it is not just about the past. The Emigration Museum does not fail to remind us of current migrants whose stories are often so similar to those of the Germans depicted here. There is a huge space showing us how contemporary immigrants see their new home, the Germany of today, and you can get involved in a forum discussion if you wish.
For those who are following the tracks of their own ancestors, there is a help desk with a skilled and friendly member of staff who can answer a lot of your questions about accessing archive information. Actually, all members of staff I found friendly and helpful. They help you access the lift if you cannot walk stairs or the steep gangway, and they help you find the point where you left off if you decide to take a break half way through the exhibition and visit the museum café with its excellent food. If you ever travel to the North of Germany and have the time for a visit, I can highly recommend it. Here are a few pictures from the museum’s website: Emigration Museum Bremerhaven