Hamburg: A Remarkable New Immigration Museum & More

by Marlene Fanta Shyer

(October 18, 2007) Larchmont families come from diverse backgrounds, but in their  photo albums, you'll very likely find a picture of someone who emigrated to the United States between 1850 and 1939, and left from German ports either in Hamburg or Bremerhaven. Those were the years of the greatest migration; five million refugees left Europe, most were Germans, but many came from Poland, Russia, Hungary or Czechoslovakia and sailed to America from these harbors.

The emigrant's suitcases are displayed outside the new BallinStadt Museum.

Now on an island outside the city of Hamburg, a brand new museum dedicated to that migration celebrated its opening, fittingly, on our Fourth of July holiday this year. It is reached from the city's main railway station by subway in five or ten minutes or by boat in about thirty, and gives us the virtual experience of the refugees, who stood on this shore with their suitcases and dreams, generations ago.

The museum is called BallinStadt, after Albert Ballin, a Jewish businessman who committed suicide in 1918, thinking he had lost everything.

He was a director of Hamburg-America Line, HAPAG, and was instrumental in arranging passage for emigrants, profitably filling the same ships with cargo on their return voyage to Germany. Although he became friends with Kaiser Wilhelm II, and despite his accomplishments, as part of a Jewish family he was not accepted into Hamburg society. It was World War I that ruined him economically; he lost almost all of his ships, some of which were given as war prizes to Great Britain and the United States. It was just two days before the armistice that he took an overdose of sleeping pills.

The new museum honoring him, subtitled, " Port of Dreams," is a re-creation of the facilities that existed when five million refugees left for reasons of persecution, economics, new challenges. Many followed families already established in America. They spent their last hours before sailing off to a new life at this port or at Bremerhaven, another point of departure with its own emigrant museum, which opened in 2005.

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was Albert Ballin who built accommodations, then known as "emigrant halls," for thousands of passengers, who waited for the ships that would take them to the Americas. He catered to Jewish travelers with Kosher meals and a synagogue and placed ethnic groups in separate dormitories to prevent discord. Three of these buildings have been reconstructed into their original form and for the admission price of about ten euros, you can relive the emigrant experience, step by virtual step.

At the Museum

Here are the people and their individual stories: going back in time, we immerse ourselves in their journey, through custom-built backdrops, interactive videos, authentic tableaux. Mannequins sit or stand near their suitcases, with a push of a button they speak to us --in several different languages--about their own lives, which are historically documented. Here are the cots on which they slept, the tables at which they ate. On view are their letters, photos from family albums, their clothes and children's playgrounds, the sitting areas in which they waited to begin their journey into the unknown. A sign bears the motto: "Mein Feld ist die Welt"--"My field is the world," but it was not always so. Three hundred thousand people were sent back home for reasons of illness, illiteracy or penury.

Mannequins - some of them talk to you - help recreate the emigrant experience at the new BallinStadt Museum.

On prominent display too are the biographies of the ancestors of some of our famous American captains of industry: refugees Heinz, Levi-Strauss, Kellogg. Representations of new arrivals' lives in America are here as well as three-dimensional farm or city scenes depicting their new homes, and so, we follow them into their future. For visitors, an interactive section enables us to research the emigration history of ancestors based on "the world's most comprehensive genealogical database." Here where 21 Century technology resuscitates the nineteenth: with the click of a mouse you can find an aunt's or great-grandfather's name in the computer and print out their actual historical documents.

What Else to Do in Hamburg

Hamburg makes a congenial headquarters for a visit to the museum. More canals than Venice, more bridges than Amsterdam and Venice combined, it is the richest city in Germany. Various boat trips allow passengers a peek at millionaires' homes visible along the banks of the city's lakes or its three rivers: the Alster, the Elbe, the Bille. On dry land, green parks and woods cover half the city area; "the magic is in the mix," according to its promotional literature. It's true; the glossy modern shops and cafés are within sight of the imposing neo-Renaissance Town Hall with its spire that looks down on the city square. It dominates the skyline, decreed not to exceed treetop height.

Hamburg claims more canals than Venice.

There's more to explore indoors or out. The three-building Kunsthalle, "art hall," with its Renoirs, Rembrandts, Richters, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (craft and design) and the largest model train museum in the world, for example. That includes a re-created miniature Las Vegas, Mt. Rushmore and Manhattan among other topographical landscapes, for the little trains to glide through. Other, smaller museums abound and the glossy stores along Jungfern Stieg or Neuer Wall are very tempting.

One should probably never mention Hamburg without referring to the famously infamous red light district, the Reeperbahn. Here's late night music club action, some of it the seedy neon-and-hot-sheets-hotel type, with procurers and pole dancers visible through dim-lighted doorways. It's very safe these days, and its place in history is also fixed because it was the site of the Beatles' headliner concerts at the Star Club in 1962. That place burned down a decade later, but is marked by a plaque at its original location, a good place to take yet another snapshot in this beautiful city.

Marlene Fanta Shyer writes for adults and children - and sometimes about Larchmont, where she lived for many years.

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