It is 10 in the morning and the German Emigration Centre in Bremerhaven opens its doors. We get our tickets with microchips in them and an in-depth explanation of what to expect from this truly unique museum. I am so curious what I am going to experience.
More than 7 million people left Germany from Bremerhaven. Between 1830 and 1974, ships carried the emigrants towards the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia.
The German Emigration Centre tells the story of some immigrants and some emigrants and turns them into multimedia presentations for the visitors.
The German Emigration Centre opened in 2005 and was solely focussed on emigration at the time. Since 2012 an exhibition in an annexe presents „immigration to Germany since the 17th century“. What makes the exhibition so unique is that it doesn’t end with the presentation of facts and figures about immigrants and emigrants but also lets the visitors step into the shoes of real people to relive their stories.
German Emigration Centre – our visit
So we get handed our tickets with the microchips and a boarding pass. These documents tell us all the relevant information. Let’s see, who am I going to be for the next few hours…
My emigration – living history
Alright, I emigrate…
In the first part of the exhibition, I am Martha Hüner and I get to relive her emigration. Martha was born in 1906 and she emigrated from Bremerhaven to America (New York) in 1923. I am also told that she died in 1987. I am curious to see what happens next.
We step into the waiting area for the 3rd class passengers and wait for the departure of the ship. After a brief introduction, we get to the quay. Suitcases surround the people that say goodbye to the emigrants, water hits the quay and we see the hull of the ship. Countless voices in many languages fill the room, the scene is enhanced by the additional information on the microchip in the ticket. I stand between the suitcases, totally engulfed in the scene. I discover more and more details and I find myself gripped by the atmosphere. I feel a little like I have to say goodbye, too…
We enter the ship over a walkway. I start by learning more about Martha Hüner‘s journey on the „München“ (1923) and then continue to discover the interior of a typical emigration ship. At different stops with audio files, I learn how life looked like for a passenger in 3rd class. I get to see dorms with metal and wooden bunkbeds (whole families shared a bed). On pictures, we see the luxurious accommodation in the 1st class. We walk through many small rooms in authentic historic design and can even feel the floor moving ever so slightly – or maybe I made this up because of the waves I saw through the portholes…
Finally, the ship reaches New York. For my Martha, who is already expected, this is an important moment. For many other travellers this moment is full of fear – will they be allowed to enter the US?
In a typical waiting room with metal bars and hard, wooden benches I listen to the procedure inside the American office.
Only the passengers from first and second class are allowed to enter New York right away. All the other passengers were brought to Ellis Island – an island only for immigrants. Between 3000 and 5000 people arrived here on a daily basis. They received a medical exam and were thoroughly interrogated and then, based on strict criteria, it was decided who was allowed into the US and who wasn’t. Those who were denied entry had to be transported back to where they came from at the expense of the shipping company. Everyone else sooner or later moved on to Grand Central Terminal, a train station in New York. Very interesting to overhear these conversations and I can’t help but feel a little down after seeing how the people are treated like animals. How happy those must have felt who successfully passed this stage.
At the train station in New York, I learn more about the life and death of Martha Hüne. I hear about a ´diverse and often very hard life and I feel a bit like I emigrated myself.
My immigration – welcome to Germany
The section of the exhibition about immigration to Germany is in the annexe of the building. At an information desk, we get introduced to the rest of the exhibition by a member of staff.
My new identity is the one of Mai Phuong Kollath, who immigrated to Rostock in 1981. I am curious about the life of the Vietnamese woman and mostly about her reasons to come to Germany.
We enter a shopping street from 1973. It is like travelling back in time. I spot items from my childhood and cannot get enough of all the memories that surround me. There are several different shops along the street, a grocery shop for example and an antique shop. In every shop, I find something that brings me closer to the answer to my question: Who is Mai Phuong? There are pictures, items from the past of her family, info about how she came to Germany… At an audio station, I am told that Mai Phuong landed in Berlin Schönefeld in 1981 and that she was hired by the GDR regime and therefore left her country in the hopes of a better life. Contrary to the original promises she’s placed in a canteen kitchen in Rostock. Her life story is told to me in great detail, including all obstacles and important events. I even hear what happened to the Vietnamese woman after the German Reunification.
A truly fascinating journey into the past.
The last thing before we leave is a short movie about German/Turkish love that we watch in a small cinema. The movie describes the conflicts and problems that German/Turkish couples face but also their hopes. A very well done movie which made me smirk a good few times and certainly gave me food for thought.
In 2016 the German Emigration Centre included a section about Syrian immigrants. The topical situation about immigration into Germany is explored by following the story of a Kurdish family.
Every day, starting at 12.00, the computer room is open to guests who wish to do their own research. Supported by two genealogy computer programmes with extensive databases, visitors can uncover whether their own family members emigrated at some point. This isn’t a new idea for us. We ourselves are connected with an international group of people that all carry the same last name that we have (and also varieties of it). In this group, someone is always looking for info about their ancestors and we know by now that some of them were originally from Germany. The network works hard to connect the dots and to create a family tree.
We restarted our own research and we are very curious if we are going to be able to discover some new information.
So… was it worth it?
Absolutely! We spent about two hours in the German Emigration Centre and left so full of new impressions that we kept talking about the things we saw long after our visit. The immense care for detail, the great variety of impressions and first and foremost the stories of real humans created a great experience in this museum.
March to October:
daily 10.00 – 18.00
November to February:
Daily 10.00 – 17.00
We would like to thank the German Emigration Centre for the invitation as part of a promotion trip to Bremerhaven. The blog post is exclusively about our own experience.