Genealogists say that more than 42 million Americans can trace at least part of their ancestry to Germany, a group comprising 15% of the population of the United States. That information hasn't been lost on the German Tourist Board, which recently launched a campaign to encourage Americans of German descent to "come home" and find their roots. Two museums in northern Germany are especially geared to exploring this interest in German heritage.
Much of the emigration from Germany started out from the ports of Bremerhaven and Hamburg, and while today these ports handle millions of tons of merchandise shipped to and from Europe, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was people who waited on the docks for the voyage to a new world.
Some 7.2 million emigrated from Bremerhaven between 1830 and 1974, mostly to the U.S., but also to such countries as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those of German heritage accounted for 4.1 million, while 3.1 came from Eastern Europe. Bremerhaven's German Emigration Center, an architecturally dazzling building that is Europe's largest museum devoted to migration, opened in 2005 and was named "European Museum of the Year" for 2007.
The museum uses audio tours to let visitors follow the story of a real emigrant from the pier through their uncomfortable and sometimes perilous journey. There are several stories to choose from, showing emigrants who left for political reasons, fleeing religious persecution, or to build a better life. Most often the journey ended at Ellis Island, and, working with the museum in New York, that experience has been re-created as well. "My emigrant" was a Jewish teenager from the German Palatinate region who moved on from New York to Chicago, and rose from being a deliveryman to heading a Hollywood studio. The museum also offers programs for children and a genealogy section, where visitors can trace their ancestors from the German Emigration Center's voluminous records.
Bremerhaven itself is an attractive city that is still a major port for European trade. For more information on the museum, you can go online at
www.dah-bremerhaven.de. For information on Bremerhaven, access the city's tourism website at www.bremerghaven-tourism.de.
A somewhat different experience on the same subject is available at Hamburg's new Ballinstadt Museum, featuring replicas of the buildings where millions of emigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, waited for their journey to a new life. Some five million left Hamburg between 1850 and 1934, and in 1901 "emigrant halls" were constructed where passengers could be housed and receive medical care while they waited for the ships to take them to their destination. That experience has been re-created here for visitors, who can re-live every stage of the emigrants' passage. The museum also has the largest collection of passenger lists in the world, and works with the Generation Network to provide internet research onsite.
Hamburg has long been known as Germany's "Gateway to the World," but it's more than just the country's largest port. The city offers sophisticated opera, ballet and musical events, and even its famous "red light" district now has Broadway-style theatres and cosmopolitan jazz venues. Families will marvel at MiniaturWunderland, one of the world's largest model railways, and historical walking tours cover the city's history, with special emphasis on Jewish heritage. It is also, surprisingly, a "green" city, with numerous parks, and more bridges on its canals than either Venice or Amsterdam. In late 2008, its spectacular new Philharmonic will open on the waterfront, giving Hamburg an architectural signature comparable to Sydney's Opera House.
For more information on the Ballinstadt Museum, go to www.ballinstadt.de. You can learn more about Hamburg at www.hamburg-tourism.de. The German Tourist Board in New York can be reached at (800) 651-7010, or online at www.cometogermany.com.