All Aboard the German Emigration Centre

The German Emigration Centre (Deutsches Auswanderer Haus) in Bremerhaven in northern Germany is one of the most interesting museums I have ever been to anywhere in the world! It simulates the journey taken in the late 1800s through the 1900s by German emigrants seeking a better life in America. All aboard!

Each person is given a German emigrant boarding pass of a real German emigrant who made the 8 day journey to the U.S (which got shorter as time went on). I was given Martha H√ľner, a young single woman who had relatives in the U.S. and big dreams of making it rich as a house keeper. Many German emigrants who made the journey were poor, unemployed and were seeking a better life in the U.S.


The first stop is the enormous ship, where plasticized figures wait for the large looming boat. Most impressive are the noises. The port was a busy place and standing among all the figures and luggage with the boat in the background and all the noisy seagulls and people chattering that I actually felt like I was the one emigrating. Here I learned that all of Martha’s friends and families came to send her off on her journey.

Next visitors “board” the boat.

Then it’s off to the third class cabin where most emigrants were based. Conditions were tight. Five people to two narrow mattresses, with often 100 people in a small room. If passengers didn’t have a family of five, they slept next to strangers. There were no windows in third class and when conditions were rough, passengers had to stay in their rooms. The stench from the sea sickness is said to have been wrenching and passengers were often forced to stay there for several days at a time in rough seas.

Second class was much nicer with each person getting their own bunk. Unfortunately most German emigrants couldn’t afford second class and the majority of them had to rough it in third class, where they were later joined by Irish immigrants who also normally stayed in third class.

In later years, the journey became shorter and conditions much more comfortable, with only 4 people in a room.

In this room, visitors swipe their German Emigrant boarding pass and learn more about their German emigrant.

After a long journey emigrants waited here at the U.S. Immigration Office where their fate is decided. First they had to see a doctor, and pass a several minute exam ensuring they weren’t carrying infectious diseases.

Upon passing the physical inspection, emigrants faced bullet fired questions from U.S. Immigration Officials. If an emigrant hesitated too long on any question, they would be pulled into a separate room for more intensive questioning. Fortunately, most emigrants passed. In the above photo, visitors test their knowledge of their German emigrant and see if they are allowed entry into the U.S. Fortunately I had paid attention and passed the test and was able to begin a new life in the U.S.

Martha’s father had predicted she would marry an American cowboy, instead she married another German emigrant. They opened a bakery in New Jersey and ran a modest business in a Czechoslovakian neighborhood, but when WWII started the Czechs boycotted their store and they went bankrupt. Soon after, Martha’s husband died. She then found work as a housekeeper for a well-to-do family, a position she held for ~20 years. In her old age she had a stroke and decided she was homesick and came back to Germany to live with her sister. She died in Germany. The letter above is a sign of the times – note the “Russia Zone Germany” address.

The German Emigration Centre does a realistic job of showing visitors what the German emigrants faced and by having my “own” German emigrant, I felt very connected – something that I don’t feel very often in most museums. Along the way, I kept hoping that things would turn out OK for Martha and was silently rooting for her. Americans with German ancestry would find the German Emigration Centre especially interesting. I went with four other Germans and we all found it fascinating. Unfortunately their German emigrants didn’t fare as well as Martha did. Unfortunately the American dream wasn’t to be realized by all emigrants.

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