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Tracing Your Ancestral Roots in Germany

the canals of the Speicherstadt in Hamburg, the world’s largest and oldest warehouse complex
the canals of the Speicherstadt in Hamburg, the world’s largest and oldest warehouse complex

By Marian Betancourt

Five million Europeans left from Hamburg for the New World during the 19th and 20th centuries, and another seven million departed from nearby Bremerhaven. Two museums on the North Sea coast keep all those travelers memories alive. Hamburg’s Emigrant World Ballinstadt opened on the Fourth of July in 2007 and was dedicated by German and American officials. Meanwhile, the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, which opened in 2005, was named the European Museum of the Year two years later. If you are one of the roughly 50 million Americans of German descent—and there are more of you than any other non-British ancestral nationality—you can revisit your family’s history at both places. They’ll give you a sense of the fantastic pull our country had for Europeans at the time. In the 1840s a trip to America cost $30—three times the average annual wage of a farmhand. Emigration from Germany gave birth to the travel business in Europe.

Bremerhaven

Until Hamburg took over late in the 19th century, Bremerhaven was the largest port of emigration from Europe. In fact, Bremerhaven was built because Bremen, farther up the River Weser, needed a deeper port to handle the ships carrying emigrants to the New World and cargo back from that world.  In 1796 the United States established one of its first general consulates in Bremen and the first ship to enter the new port, in 1830, was an American schooner, the Draper. Bremerhaven had a large American presence between World War II and the fall of the Iron Curtain, with all four branches of our armed forces based there. There is even an area called “Little America.”

You enter The German Emigration Center (www.dah-bremerhaven.de) through a recreated 1888 quay, walk up a gangway, and pass through several ship’s cabins, from first class to the tight quarters of steerage. In one gallery, large color coded maps of the United States show the original migration patterns to a few states and where the descendants of those migrants are today—practically everywhere in the country. Get a boarding pass to follow a particular family through the process. You will have access to various biography audio stations with the life story of the emigrant. Don’t miss the very moving 20-minute documentary film of emigrants and their descendants talking about what coming to America meant to them, or the computer terminals where you can search for your ancestors on ships’ passenger lists. The visitor can learn how German immigrants settled in the United States; how they got accustomed to their new surroundings, established a new home, learned the language, who they married and where they found work. Cross a bridge to the new wing opened in 2012 and change your perspective. Here accompanied by an immigrant or an immigrant’s descendant you can examine immigration into Germany.

Today Bremerhaven and its port is like a maritime museum with many historic ships including two and three masters that carried emigrants to the New World. It’s been developing as a city on its own, building hotels, museums, and other attractions, like the North Sea Aquarium, Climate House (Klimahaus), and the German National Maritime Museum with the world’s oldest boat and some 500 ship models. The new and appropriately named Atlantic Hotel SAIL, which is shaped like a sail, is the city’s highest building and offers a promenade from which you can view the entire harbor.

Leaving Hamburg. Courtesy of Emigrant World BallinStadt
Leaving Hamburg. Courtesy of Emigrant World BallinStadt

Hamburg

Emigrant World BallinStadt in Hamburg’s harbor, is named for Albert Ballin, who at the start of the 20th century, built extensive facilities to serve the hordes of emigrants who were streaming into the city. Three of his original 31 buildings have been rebuilt and turned into galleries and a recreation of a dormitory where emigrants would have waited for medical examinations and entry to their ships. Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, didn’t have much of a reputation for emigrants because it lacked accommodation in the city’s overflowing hostels and dormitories. A cholera outbreak in 1892 nearly devastated the emigrant trade there but once Ballin agreed to cover the costs for medical checks at the border stations, things changed. Ballin’s agents offered attractive “packages” and made it easier for people to plan a safe journey.

The museum, a public-private partnership, portrays history largely through photographs and memorabilia from families of emigrants, including that of George Gershwin. A “New World” area lets you experience what it was like arriving at Ellis Island and a display of historic posters offering free land, jobs, and news of the Gold Rush suggests what emigrants might have hoped for. Original letters and photographs from family albums provide a personal insight into historical events. Walk through the hull of a ship to experience travel conditions of a first, second, or third class crossing long ago.

Together with ancestry.de and ancestry.com and with more than five million names in a data base, the BallinStadt’s on-site family research center helps visitors find keys to their past. There are also passenger lists dating back from 1850 to 1934.

Speicherstadt
Speicherstadt

Take a harbor cruise through the canals of the Speicherstadt, the world’s largest and oldest warehouse complex () One of the restored warehouses encloses an enormous model train, plane and car museum called Miniatur Wunderland, a fantastic and ever changing mini world that has become an enormous attraction. Be sure to see the rail routes running through, among other places, the red rock landscape of northern Arizona, South Dakota’s Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, and Las Vegas.

And let’s not forget the hamburger! This iconic American fast food is said to have been invented here by sailors who wanted a quick portable meal to go as they boarded their ships on the way to sea.

Travel between Bremerhaven and Hamburg is easy on Germany’s excellent trains and buses as well as by car. There are many fine hotels and restaurants in both cities, and Hamburg, has several Michelin-starred restaurants.

If you want help finding your German ancestors, you can arrange for customized travel as an individual or with a group, through Wolfgang Grams’s “Research and Travel Dr. Grams”. Grams’ expertise evolved from his German-American migration studies at the University of Oldenberg and he is a consultant to both museums as well as ancestry.de.  Recently he met with a couple from Arizona and their two adult children at Bremerhaven, and helped them locate their roots in Westfalia and Hesse. Grams set up their excursions and meetings with local experts and served as their guide while they visited their ancestral villages.

Now, if I can only trace my elusive great-great grandfather, Charles Krumm of Hesse Cassel who, in the 1860s, came to the lower East Side of Manhattan then known as Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland, then the largest German settlement in the United States and the third largest German population outranking both Berlin and Vienna.

 

Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is working on a book about New York harbor to be published in 2016 and lives in New York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com
Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is working on a book about New York harbor to be published in 2016 and lives in New York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com
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