Hamburg, Germany: The Emigration Museum

I spent last week in Hamburg, a holiday I had booked at the start of March at a time when I was worried that we might be leaving the EU before the holiday took place, so I wanted to be sure that even if the shit hit the fan, I’d be somewhere organised enough that getting in and out of the country wouldn’t be too much trouble (having had a hellish experience using the non-EU passport queue in Rome some years ago, before I had British citizenship). I hope I’m not being too horrible about national stereotypes, but Germany seemed to fit the bill in terms of efficiency. Having already been to Berlin and Munich, I decided on Hamburg. In addition to being the home of the franzbrotchen (a type of cinnamon roll I am very enthusiastic about, of which you will no doubt hear more in a future post), it is also a former Hanseatic League city, and of course a port city with an interesting history and quite a few museums, so I was sure we’d find plenty to do.

Because it was a port that ran various ships to the Americas, it also attracted a number of immigrants on their way to a new life, including my great-grandmother (my maternal grandmother’s mother), who had travelled from the Galicia region of Poland in order to catch a ship to the US. In 1898, Albert Ballinn, the General Director of the HAPAG shipping company (HAPAG stands for Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, which is probably why it acquired the acronym in the first place) started to have emigration halls constructed on an island near Hamburg for the emigrants to stay in as they waited for their ships, a complex that became known as Ballinstadt. This was not so much done out of the goodness of Ballinn’s heart, but rather to make extra money for the firm, prevent the emigrants from mingling with the Hamburgers, and try to prevent the spread of disease (immigrants who were obviously sick on arrival in America would not be allowed in, and had to be returned to Europe at HAPAG’s expense, so it made financial sense to try to keep them healthy). The Emigration Halls fell out of use after WWII (after they were taken over by the SS, that was obviously the end of emigration, and during the war they were used as POW camps), and became a Portuguese restaurant in the 1980s. Eventually, in 2004, Hamburg city government purchased the property and turned it into a museum on emigration.

I knew that my great-grandmother had departed Europe through Hamburg (I suspect my maternal grandfather’s parents did as well, I just haven’t found their records) so I was eager to see this museum. She died before I was born, so I never met her, but I wanted to get a taste of things she might have experienced. We took the S-Bahn out from central Hamburg to Veddel Island, and found Ballinstadt only a short walk away (which was fortunate, because it was extremely cold and windy throughout our visit). Admission to the museum is €13, though we purchased Hamburg Cards at the airport (we normally don’t buy city passes, but these included free public transport for the duration of our stay and discounts at every museum we were planning on visiting, so in this case it was worth our while) which got us €2 off. I had read in advance that none of the signage in the museum was in English, and I was bit apprehensive when I saw an English guidebook for sale at the front desk for €9.90, because I thought €11 was enough money to be spending on a museum where I couldn’t read anything, but we were provided with a booklet containing English translations for most of the main signage free of charge, so perhaps the guidebooks were for those who wanted additional information.

The museum was spread out over the three remaining dormitory buildings, and only the first building told the story of Ballinstadt, which was what I was most interested in learning about, the other two buildings being a more general emigration museum. There were small numbers on each panel that you’re meant to match up with your booklet to find the English translation of the text – though in sections where they weren’t many images or things to look at on the signage, I just parked myself on a seat (which you can spot me doing throughout the posts – my feet hurt!) and read all the room’s captions in one go. Life at the Emigration Halls definitely sounded grim – whilst the accommodations, after being expanded in 1908, were sanitary, they didn’t seem to have been particularly pleasant to live in. Emigrants were not permitted to leave the complex, and were forced to undergo regular medical examinations. There were parks, a church, and occasional concerts, so the emigrants had some opportunity for recreation, but most of their time was spent preparing for their upcoming voyage, though since they weren’t allowed off the premises, they had to buy everything at the HAPAG shop (and I’m sure they weren’t offered the lowest prices). And then of course most of them (including my great-grandmother) were travelling in steerage or ‘tween decks, which by the early 20th century were cleaner and less cramped than those on earlier ships, but were definitely still no picnic. Ballinn himself was the person who came up with the idea of using the ‘tween decks on HAPAG’s cargo ships to transport emigrants, as they weren’t fit for any other purpose (though were apparently just fine for people) – he said he would have been financially ruined had it not been for the ‘tween deck passengers (he was actually financially ruined by the First World War, and ended up committing suicide in November 1918).

All of the information about Ballinstadt was super interesting to me, but as I’ve mentioned, it was solely contained to the first hall. The second hall was the largest by far, and was initially primarily about pull-factors and push-factors that lead people to migrate. This building seemed very modern, with bold displays and interactive elements where you were supposed to insert a special card at different stations, but we were never given this card, perhaps because the screens were only in German, which we obviously didn’t speak. It was still fun to walk through and see all the different displays, especially the large ship in the middle of the hall moored inside a small indoor pond, which you could board, but I wish they could have offered something interactive for everyone, especially as it’s not difficult to provide translations for something that’s already on a computer.

I found the section on Ellis Island informative, especially the list of questions that immigrants would have been asked when they arrived (I’ve been trying my best to use “emigrants” and “immigrants” correctly throughout this post, but I find the distinction between them a little bit confusing, so sorry if I’ve made any errors), but I found that as the museum progressed, less and less of the material had translations available. By the time we entered the third hall, which contained a temporary exhibition, virtually nothing had been translated in our booklets except for the stories of various immigrants in one of the rooms, which I very much enjoyed (one of them was from a German man who immigrated to Cleveland because he was offered a job after helping to save 25 people’s lives during a maritime disaster). The last section before the gift shop contained computers where you could search HAPAG’s records (via Ancestry), and I was able to confirm that my great-grandmother did in fact come through here (I knew she had come to the US on the President Lincoln, out of Hamburg, but didn’t have proof that she had stayed in Ballinstadt. Now I know she did) in 1910 at the age of 16, travelling alone to the US. I wish I had asked my grandma whilst she was alive if she knew anything about her mother’s immigration experience, because I bet it was an interesting story.

Though I enjoyed this museum on the whole, I must admit I am perplexed as to why nothing inside the museum was in English. I always struggle with what to say about museums in foreign countries that don’t have English translations, because of course they’re not obligated to provide them – I know of few museums in the UK that bother to have signage in anything but English – and I don’t want to be the ugly American or Brit who demands them, but if they want to attract tourism, I always think it’s a good idea, because I know that I’m personally hesitant to pay to visit a museum unless I’m confident I’ll be able to read at least some of the signage. In the case of Ballinstadt, I think it really doesn’t make any sense at all to not offer English right on the signage. I know they’re trying to be a more general emigration museum than just the story of Ballinstadt, but I’m sure there are plenty of people like me out there who have ancestors who stayed in Ballinstadt and want to know more. And, as I learned in the museum, although some people ended up in South America, the vast majority of emigrants who passed through here were bound for the US and Canada, where their descendants now speak English, so I’m not sure why they’re not doing more to cater for these visitors. We were the only people in the museum for most of our visit, and when a few people turned up near the end, they were all evidently German-speaking, so I can’t imagine they’re attracting many foreign tourists as it stands.

I guess I should be glad that at least they offer the booklet for free, and that the displays were visually engaging, even if I couldn’t always understand them. Having recently visited the Migration Museum in London, I’m tempted to compare the two, but they’re such different experiences – one in established premises with informative factual displays, the other an art installation in a warehouse that focuses more on stories and emotion – that I think it’s better not to. I’ll give the museum 3/5, but I suspect that score would have been higher if I spoke German, and was able to read and use everything in here, so I’ll just have to hope they improve the interactivity for all visitors in future. Regardless, it was neat to stand somewhere my great-grandmother did and contemplate her experience here, but I think visitors without that personal connection might not have gotten as much out of it as I did.

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14 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful, I would love to visit. I’ve also been to Berlin and Munich but have never thought of Hamburg so I’ll be interested to read what else you got up to. I’m so pleased you found your great-grandmother’s records, that must have been so emotional.

    1. I liked Hamburg a lot, but it was so cold! The upside is that we went to a lot of museums so we didn’t have to be outside much, so there are lots more posts to come. I knew that my great-grandmother’s ship had come from Hamburg before going, but I didn’t realise how extensive the Ballinstadt complex was or how exactly it worked before visiting, so finding her on HAPAG’s records pretty much confirmed that she stayed there. It’s the only being 16 and going to a new country on her own that gets me, but she was apparently pretty bold. My mom always talks about how she was the first woman in her neighborhood to drive a car.

    1. Yes, I imagine most of my Polish family came through either Hamburg or Bremen, and I know my Slovenian grandfather came through Trieste. They all came in the 20th century though – we haven’t been in America as long as your family!

  2. I really need to get my mom to write up her recollections of her family’s history before it is totally lost. Both sides of her family emigrated from Russia in the late 1890’s/early 1900’s, with a great-grandmother being born along the way and a great-grandfather somehow ending up in Wales before coming to the US. I know bits and pieces, but now that my grandparents are gone, I’m afraid it’s too late for a lot of the information. I wish I was more interested when I was younger and they were still around to tell the stories.

  3. What a cool museum and how odd so little is in English when so many of the immigrants were headed for English speaking countries! For years I thought my grandmother might have come through here, but she came straight from Denmark. I got to visit Ellis Island a few years ago, and it was really fascinating to see where my grandmother was and try to understand what it would have been like for her. I’m glad you got to make a family connection even if there wasn’t enough English language description!

    1. I think my great-grandmother was possibly the only one to come through here, as I’ve just found evidence that my other Polish great-grandparents came through Bremen, and I know the Slovenian side came through Trieste. I would love to go to Ellis Island though – it was still closed to the public the last time I was in New York.

  4. Aw, I love that they give you the opportunity to search the records. It must’ve been a great, strange feeling to see her name there. That’d definitely give me goosebumps.
    I’m sorry there wasn’t more translated signage – that would frustrate me too. But some of their artful exhibits are pretty neat looking – especially the trunks and hats, and the dining table on the wall.
    Nice photo of you with the Statue of Liberty. I wonder why she’s fuchsia.

    1. It was just via Ancestry, which I have looked on many times, but the German records normally get buried when you search from an English speaking country, so I’d never seen them before. I just found the naturalisation papers for my maternal grandpa’s father as well – I never realised they spelled their surname so many different ways!
      Thanks! I don’t know why she’s fuchsia, though she appears that way a couple of times in the museum, and on their guidebook as well. Perhaps they said, but it was in German so I didn’t understand.

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