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German Museum Documents Emigrant Experience

A new museum opens Wednesday on a site in Hamburg where millions of European emigrants were housed and processed, most on their way to the United States.

Between 1850 and 1939, about five million emigrants left Europe through the city of Hamburg, nicknamed 'Germany's Gateway to the World.' There, they waited anxiously for ships to take them to Ellis Island.

The Hamburg site was bustling until the U.S. passed laws in 1924 restricting the number of immigrants allowed in. From 1933, Jewish emigrants fleeing Hitler found shelter here, until the Nazi SS arrived in 1934.


"You could have up to 5,000 people live here at the same time, migrants," says Jorge Birkner, a historian at the museum, called BallinStadt or Ballin City.

Reconstructing the Emigrant City

Until recently, there was little left to mark the last stop on the emigrants' journey from the Old Country.

Now, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on a new $16 million replica of part of the compound where those leaving Europe were housed before they boarded ships sailing West.

Named after the head of a shipping line, BallinStadt is made up of reconstructions of three of the almost 30 buildings that once made up this emigrant city.


The original complex was built in 1901 to keep emigrants of that period, mostly poor Eastern Europeans, out of central Hamburg.

The museum begins by explaining the different reasons why emigrants left: poverty, persecution, or simply to find a better life. One room has mannequins dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing, and talking puppets narrate emigrant experiences.

"We're actually trying to be very interactive here. That's why we have those puppets here who talk to you as a visitor. When you approach those puppets, they are going to speak to you and tell you their story," Birkner says.

One puppet, 10-year-old Heinz, tells visitors about his parents, who want to escape the drudgery of backbreaking and poorly paid factory work. Another puppet tells of fleeing the pogroms against Jews in Russia.

Visitors can also dial replicas of old candlestick phones and hear original recordings of emigrants telling their stories, or they can use an interactive map to learn about the conditions in different countries that pushed people to leave.

Props such as suitcases and an old portable phonograph are scattered about, and one building contains a faithful re-creation of a dormitory. Another illustrates what life was like once emigrants reached the U.S.

Emigration: Still Relevant in Germany

People can also research their family histories.

Museum spokeswoman Nina Siepmann says the museum won't just attract American tourists. Germans will come too, especially since the subject of emigration is still relevant in Germany today.

"If you switch on TV, there docu-soaps which are about people leaving Germany for various reasons to go to Spain, Chile and the U.S. to find new jobs and start all over. Thinking and talking about leaving the home country is very close to people these days," Siepmann says.

But for Elisabeth Kolb, who is in her 70s, thoughts of leaving are far in the past. When she was a child, several of her uncles emigrated from Germany to Argentina. She found two postcards one of them had written from Buenos Aires and donated them to the museum.

"We live in a time where our lives are pretty easy. But think about everything these people had to go through to make new and more secure lives for themselves. I think it's good that we remember that," Kolb says.

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