Wohin und Warum (Where to? And Why?) Are the words that greet you in my favorite room at the Auswanderer Haus or Emigration Museum Bremerhaven . Known as the Gallery of the 7 Million, it is FILLED with names and stories. This room is a treasure trove of history, and it’s only a fraction of what you can see and experience at the Emigration Museum and Immigration Museum. This relatively small museum won a well-deserved European Museum of the Year Award in 2007, and it just happens to be my new favorite places to visit in Germany.
I honestly can not recommend this museum enough, and it’s not just for genealogists or museum junkies (like me). The Auswanderer Haus is immersive. Even the most jaded will ‘feel’ what it’s like to be at sea… hopeful and a bit nervous… and ready to start a new life in America.
Not too far from the museum is the statue dedicated to the Auswanderer. Looking ahead to a new life, and back to what they leave behind.
Emigration Museum Bremerhaven
The Deutsches Auswanderer Haus
Bremerhaven is far from the usual tourist track of Americans visiting Germany. Way up in the far north, the city is not known for its Beer Gardens or fabulous Castles. Bremerhaven is a working city, and a relatively “new” city. You see, the town fathers of Bremen, a city state member of the Hanseatic League, worried that the Weser was beginning to silt up, and ships would no longer be able to get their trade goods to market. In 1827 they made the decision to take some swampy land at the mouth of the Weser close to the North Sea, and annex it as a harbor. The result was Bremerhaven (the Bremen Harbor). The port city that belongs to the state of Bremen, even though it’s 55 km (34 miles) away.
Right around the time Bremerhaven was developing, Germany was being stirred up. Revolution, Religious persecution, and inheritance laws were forcing people from their homes, and more and more looked to the New World for a place to call their own. Over 7 million of them went through the docks at Bremerhaven. And it is in this important place, the last view many Germans had of their homeland, that the Auswanderer Haus makes its home.
Pamphlets that were distributed in Germany to lure Germans to America
Welcome to the Auswanderer Haus
The Museum welcomes you with a large lobby, restaurant on one side, gift shop on the other, and right in the middle, you are handed a “Boarding Pass”. Inside you will find a picture of your “Emigrant” and also your “Immigrant”, as well as a plastic card that becomes your key to the Museum.
Everyone gets their own boarding pass… in the language they want
The boarding pass is the beginning of your immersion into experience of being an emigrant.
It’s hard to believe that the Wharf is just a room, because there before you are a SHIP and a few dozen passengers waiting to board. Water laps against the docks, and you hear the voices of the people standing around. Keep in mind, this is no ordinary museum with ropes and bars holding you back! Walk around the dock (it creaks!), step between the passengers, touch the crates, look at the different clothing that they wear (the clothing gets more modern as the line moves closer to the front).
Here and there are stations for you to put your card and listen. Each card is different, so you will hear what YOUR emigrant was experiencing at this point.
(Your card will deliver the information in the language you choose when you purchase admission, so don’t worry about learning German before you go.)
Gallery of the 7 Million
The Gallery of the 7 Million
Upstairs is my favorite room, the Gallery of the 7 Million. 7 Million Emigrants left Germany through Bremerhaven, and many of their stories are captured in this room. Like the rest of the Museum, this room is interactive. Names are attached to drawers, pull them out and you will find information about that German Emigrant. Some drawers even contain memorabilia such as photos, travel documents and maybe even a diary.
My Emigrant… Carl Lemmle
Find YOUR Emigrant’s display and listen in to the next chapter of the story. You can also peek into other drawers and see the bits and pieces of information they left behind. My Guide, Susan, was especially proud to show me one drawer… it belonged to her father… who left Germany as a young man and came back for the museum opening.
Feel free to rest on one of the velvet covered benches, organized by years, and you can hear different stories. What made someone take that chance and get on a ship for the United States or Australia or South America?
Listen to the recorded stories of emigrants
I had to tear myself away from the drawers… but there was so much more to see!
Travel to America by Ship
Over the years, three sizes of ships were used, beginning with sailing ships.
Down the hall you get to see what it must have been like for those early emigrants to travel across the Atlantic. Step into the tight quarters packed with bunkbeds, livestock, food, and several family’s worldly possessions. It’s dark and cramped! You can hear coughing and the murmur of voices. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to spend 6 weeks below decks like this, with only an occasional walk on deck.
Passenger quarters in a sailing ship
As time passed, ships switched from sail to steam, and accommodations for emigrants changed. But only the very wealthy would travel in comfort. Bunk beds were set right up against each other, and washrooms had strict timetables for me and women.
Ships changed from sail to steam
I love how everything is so interactive in the Emigration Museum Bremerhaven. Press the buttons! Turn on the spigot! You can even sit on the toilet (it activates a movie!). All of your senses are activated in a way to give you a taste of your ancestor’s experiences.
The most recent ships were the most comfortable… and by this time it only took a week to make the crossing.
Luxury travel to America
Arriving In America!
When the boat finally arrives at Ellis Island, you are taken down a long hallway, identical (down to the penciled graffiti) to the one people waited in 100 years earlier.
It’s a long narrow hallway between the boat and the USA
Slowly, you work your way to the benches inside of chain link cages… waiting for your chance to take the test proving that you are worthy of being allowed into the US. Take the test yourself and see if you would qualify! Made it through? Congratulations! You are off to Grand Central Station, and the rest of America!
The waiting area on Ellis Island
But that’s only half of the Museum.
Immigration Museum Germany
In recent years, the Emigration Museum Bremerhaven is expanding to include more and more stories about Immigrants. Immigrants to Germany, and also immigrants throughout the world.
It’s here that the other half of your Boarding Pass comes into play. Visit the Newspaper Kiosk and pick up the information about your Immigrant. Then head into the shopping mall to see what immigrants to Germany would have found on arrival.
Wander the “shopping mall” to look at what your Immigrant might Buy
Make sure to take the time to visit the movie theater! There is a constant rotation of films about Emigrants and Immigrants that take place all over the world. Films about Germans in Argentina and Australia… but also films about New Orleans and Turkey. All are subtitled, and the seats are a comfy respite from all the walking!
Family Research Help
Family Research Room
Before leaving the Museum, you can stop in to the Research Room, and a librarian will be able to help you look up a few of your relatives that may have traveled through Bremerhaven. They have records and old manifests, and a part time staff to help you search.
Maybe all this history has given you an appetite?
Well, you are in luck! The Deutsches Auswanderer Haus has a lovely little Speise Saal (restaurant). They serve regional Bremerhaven dishes, but they also prepare a nice assortment of Auswanderer-Gerichte Emigrant Specialties! And I was told that the Thursday Night St Louis Ribs are worth standing in line for! And, naturally, you can get Kaffee and Kuchen. The restaurant comes with a view of the water…
An original menu from an Emigrant Ship. The Speise Saal will be serving foods like this soon.
Everything in the Deutsches Auswanderer Haus is bilingual German and English (other languages are also available). The museum is small enough that if you only have 1 ½ hours, you can see everything… but it’s interesting enough to want to slow down and stay longer. Believe me, however long you stay, the time will FLY! After you’ve been through, you might actually have an idea how it really felt to leave Germany for the unknown of America. And next time someone asks about your family coming to America, you can tell them exactly what that was like.
photo of exterior exhibit from Susan Rienitz of the Auswanderer Haus
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UPDATE -In June 2021 the Emigration Museum Bremerhaven will be opening a new wing!
In addition to “Pop Up Museum” exhibits, the new wing will focus on the complexities of immigrant families, specifically, “the museum aims to show that conflicts in immigration societies are part of everyday life. The only question is: how can conflicts be negotiated so that the rights of all are preserved?” Past immigration will be examined, and ideas for better assimilation of future migrants will be explored. The new wing will also be home to the “Academy of Comparative Migration Studies (ACOMIS)”.
Current museum operations will not be affected.
I’m excited to see what’s coming for the Emigration Museum Bremerhaven!!