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:
New arrivals at the Veddel Auswanererhallen, 1909.
Officials measure an emigrants in Hamburg, around 1900.

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 on board.
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 Island.

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.
 “Typical emigrants” in Hamburg.
Painted view of the Veddel Auswadererhallen, 1909.

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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller