Hamburg: Gateway to America
Scott, Anika. "Hamburg: Gateway to America." German Life, April/May 2003, 36-38.
Group picture of emigrants and officials
at the Veddel Auswandererhallen, 1909.
They spoke German, Russian, Yiddish, and Rumanian. Knotted blankets
held what few possessions they could carry. Some of them were young
men alone, their mission to scout out land and jobs in the New World.
Others were families, grim-faced in photographs, their clothes drab
and dirty. They fled from war, poverty, unemployment, and hunger.
They were Central and Eastern Europe’s emigrants.
For four million of them, the journey to America began in Hamburg.
More than a century ago, Hamburg on the Elbe River enjoyed the
status as one of Europe’s key ports of emigration to North
America. Between roughly 1850 and 1930, five million people from
the lands of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary caught ships to
North and South America in Hamburg. The emigrants traveled to Hamburg
on foot, in carts, by riverboat, or by train, leaving their villages,
language, and culture behind. The emigrants sought a new life on
the other side of an ocean most had never seen.
When the emigration numbers dried up in the 1930s, Hamburg –
and Germany as a whole – had concerns other than preserving
the rich history that tied the city to America. Fortunately for
the descendents of the emigrants, Hamburg’s emigration records
survived the devastating bombings of World War II. In 1999, the
city dusted off those records and converted them into an online
database that helps English-speaking genealogists search emigrant
ship passenger lists. An ambitious plan is also on the table to
renovate the last surviving emigrant pavilion on Veddel Island,
the massive stopover and quarantine center that a century ago was
the city’s version of Ellis Island.
Online genealogy databases have sprouted up across the web in recent
years, and now anyone with ancestors from Central and Eastern Europe
has one more gold mine of information: Hamburg’s web site
Link to Your Roots at: http://www.hamburg.de/staatsarchiv/.
New arrivals at the Veddel Auswanererhallen,
Officials measure an emigrants in Hamburg,
The Hamburg State Archives hired workers with disabilities to pour
over yellowed and oversized ledgers that contain information on
the millions of emigrants who took ships from the city between 1854
and 1914. The meticulous work of deciphering old script and faded
ink and making the information digital and searchable will take
until 2008. There are also plans to launch a cooperative effort
between the Hamburg database and Ellis Island’s.
So far, records from 1890 to 1898 are online, and archive employees
are working through ledgers through 1914. Later, they will backtrack
to input records from 1850 on. Though the web site only has a portion
of its records online, it gets about 4,000 searches a day, mostly
from people in the United States.
The Hamburg Emigration Lists can be searched using first or last
names, year of departure, birth date, year of birth or place of
birth. These could turn up information such as the emigrant’s
age and profession, date of departure, the name of the passenger
ship and captain, whether the emigrant had a stopover at another
European port, his or her final port of destination, names of accompanying
family members, and what type of accommodation the emigrant had
An online search produces a free overview of the results, but to
see information in detail, searchers have to pay a fee that starts
at $20. Once paid, the results can be e-mailed, printed, or downloaded
to a computer. Directions for the Link to Your Roots website are
in English but results are in German. The web site provides English
speakers with tips on reading the search results.
The first great milestone for the Link to Your Roots team was reached
when they inputted data on the one-millionth emigrant. Selig Ackermann
was 19 years old, a Jewish hat maker’s apprentice from Russia
who arrived in Hamburg in 1902 with six dollars in his pocket. He
planned to meet his Uncle Chaim in New York. Ackermann set sail
on the Blücher and stopped in Le Havre and Southampton before
reaching America. His days in Hamburg would have been spent in a
new modern facility for emigrants, the Auswandererhallen on Veddel
Ironically, a cholera epidemic and Xenophobia led to the construction
of a cleaner better-equipped “city within a city” for
emigrants on Veddel Island. During the 19th century, emigrants waiting
for a ship in Hamburg lived in filthy overcrowded inns and barracks
scattered throughout the city. Starting in 1892, most emigrants
stayed in crowded sleeping halls on the American Pier. A cholera
epidemic erupted that same year, killing 10,000 people in Hamburg.
The Germans assumed that Russian emigrants had brought the disease,
which festered in the unhygienic emigrant quarters.
Hamburg’s senate reacted to the public outcry by temporarily
banning emigrants from Russia. The number of registered emigrants
shrunk from 144,000 in 1891 to just 39,000 in 1894. One of the city’s
most lucrative sectors suffered; innkeepers, travel agents, money
changers, and merchants, all made money off the emigrants. Albert
Ballin, president of the main shipping company Hamburg-Amerikanische
Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG), did not take kindly to
the slowdown in emigration either. He threatened to move his business
to Bremen, Germany’s other major emigrant port. In the end,
Hamburg and Ballin hammered out a solution: the emigrants would
be housed on Veddel Island, where the shipping company would build
a stopover and quarantine area separate from the city.
Painted view of the Veddel Auswadererhallen,
Starting in 1901, most emigrants in Hamburg spent their stopovers
in the Veddel Auswandererhallen. For the poor who gave up everything
for their trip to America, Veddel must have seemed – at first
– like living quarters fit for a king. There were 30 sleeping
pavilions when Veddel was at its height. Most pavilions had a courtyard
lush with bushes and trees, as well as washrooms, sanitary latrines
and four separate sleeping halls where 40 people could bunk down
on clean mattresses. The emigrants ate three meals a day at tables
decked with white cloths. Jewish travelers had separate meals from
a kosher kitchen. A stroll down a tree-lined street took the emigrants
to the western side of the complex, where a new church spire thrust
into the sky. Catholics and Protestants had separate services in
the Christian church, and Jews attended their own temple on the
south side of the Veddel complex. A music pavilion provided emigrants
with a little entertainment. About 5,000 emigrants could live comfortably
in Veddel after the expansion of the facility in 1907.
Yet Veddel was no vacation spot. Brick walls sealed off the entire
complex from the surrounding canals and the city of Hamburg. Most
emigrants glimpsed little of the German metropolis; as soon as they
arrived, quarantine began. A train carried newcomers directly to
the Veddel facility’s front gates where policemen, doctors,
nurses, and porters directed them into the entry building. There,
Hamburg-Amerika officials sitting high on wooden stools registered
the newcomers and directed them into the next room where luggage
was tagged and stored. From there, the emigrants moved to the “unclean”
side of the building, where they bathed and endured examinations
by doctors. If needed, they were sent to large disinfection rooms.
Germans and Americans feared that emigrants carried diseases such
as tuberculosis and trachoma, and there was always the specter of
another cholera epidemic. Only emigrants with a clean bill of health
could proceed to the “clean” side of the facility. Sick
emigrants were treated at Veddel’s infirmary, or in serious
cases, sent back to where they came from.
Over the course of their stay – several days for some, a
couple of weeks for others – emigrants endured more medical
checks along with the boredom of being penned in at Veddel. The
cleanliness and efficiency that earned Veddel kudos from social
organizations did not make up for the feeling among the emigrants
that they lived in a military barracks. “All of the policemen
and nurses screamed orders at us as if they considered us lepers,”
remembered the emigrant Mary Antin, a Russian Jew born in 1881.
By 1938, the Auswandererhallen had outlived their original purpose.
During the war, the buildings served as SS barracks and holding
cells for captured French soldiers. Hamburg demolished most of the
dilapidated halls in the 1960s, with the exception of hall no. 9.
During the emigration era, 80 emigrants had enjoyed a waiting room,
toilets, and two sleeping rooms in hall no. 9. The windows had looked
out onto a little courtyard garden. Today, hall no. 9 on Veddeler
Bogen is a lost place, a run-down building that looks more like
a warehouse than a piece of Hamburg and American history.
If funding materializes, Hamburg plans to bring hall no. 9 back
to life as a museum of emigration history. The facade of the building
will be restored based on historical records, and a glass ceiling
will enclose the courtyard. The finished museum would host historical
exhibits and cultural activities. Though 1.2 million German marks
had been pledged for the project by the end of 2001, about 5 million
marks (roughly 2.5 million Euros) are still needed. The Veddel Island
project will follow the lead of Ellis Island, which was largely
restored with private donations and sponsors.
With the help of the Internet and the Link to Your Roots database,
Americans can find more clues to their family history. Visitors
to Hamburg can already experience what some of their ancestors did
by walking along the city’s historical streets or joining
a guided tour of Hamburg’s “Emigration Trails.”
When the hall on Veddel Island is renovated, the descendants of
emigrants will also be able to see what their ancestors did –
the last stop on the way to a new life in the New World.
Anika Scott, formerly a journalist at the Chicago Tribune,
is a freelance writer and author now living in Germany. She is the
coauthor of Lost to the World, a new book about a rediscovered music
manuscript by the composer Gustav Mahler.
Reprinted with permission by German Life.