Coming to America: From Northern Germany to the "New World"

In the 19th and 20th century, millions of people left Europe via the North German ports of Hamburg and Bremen respectively Bremerhaven in search of a better life in the "New World", mostly the USA.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Bremerhaven Statue Die Auswanderer
This sculpture called Die Auswanderer, emigrants, is standing on the shore of the river Weser and remembers the seven million passing through the port of Bremerhaven. Actually, this statue by Frank Varga was donated by the German-American Memorial Association.

As a counterpart to the arrival halls in Ellis Island, several museums in German cities remember the adventurous journeys of the emigrants in transit.

Migration and Me

All my life, I've been intrigued by the stories of emigration: The idea of leaving everything behind in search of a better life - whether for religious, political, or economic reasons. In times when there was no internet, when certain territories were white spots on the globe. How courageous - or desperate - were these people to just go....not knowing where.

Maybe it's because I'm a child of emigrants: In 1968, my parents left the former CSSR because of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact. Although we only had to cross the border to Western Germany, I still find their move pretty brave since they didn't have a clue what was expecting them; they've never been to Germany before, and my father didn't speak one word German. They had a five-year-old in tow. And most of all, they had left their families and friends and also most of their belongings behind without any certainty if they might ever see any of them again.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: On Emigration
This must have been just a couple of weeks after arriving in Germany - I remember kids teasing me because I pronounced certain words in a funny way.

However, this was nothing compared to people who cross deserts or oceans to flee wars or famines - and do risk their lives during the transit.

Migration to the "New World"

Since I have this personal connection to emigration, every time I visited New York, I made sure to visit Ellis Island where the whole subject is united in a heart-wrenching exhibition.

Ellis Island - for many the final destination of an incredibly exhausting journey.
(Photo: Raman Patel, Ellis Island, NY, USA - panoramio, CC BY 3.0)

It touched me seeing all the different attires, small appliances, pictures, and toys: mostly worthless stuff that was so precious to their owners that they found room for it in the small suitcase they brought with them from....wherever their home had been.
What did these people know about their destination? What were they expecting?

Strolling through these halls where the faith of so many was determined, I suddenly spotted a placard: A young woman, sitting on a suitcase, obviously sobbing, her hands covering her face. The writing was in German and warning young women to accept whatever job offers to take them to America.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Emigration Plakat Cap San Diego
Warning migrating young women.

Next to it was another placard advertising for the HAPAG. HAPAG? As in Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, the huge shipping company located in Hamburg - where I am from?  What was that all about? Of course, Hamburg has one of Europe's largest and most important harbors, hence it makes total sense that people started their adventure there. But why hadn't I ever heard of this topic back home?

Mr. Albert Ballin

One of Hamburg's most prestigious boulevards overlooking the Alster lake is called Ballindamm. It is named after a very interesting person, namely Albert Ballin.

Albert Ballin was born in Hamburg in 1857 to Jewish parents - Mr. Samuel Joseph Ballin and his wife Amalie. In 1852, Samuel Joseph Ballin had founded the migration agency Morris & Co. This agency facilitated passages first to England and further to North America.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Hamburg Alster
To the left, behind the lovely branches, you can spot part of the Ballindamm, one of Hamburg's most prestigious addresses.

Due to the father's death and to provide for the family - Albert Ballin had eight siblings - in 1874, the son got in charge of business at the age of 17. The company grew and grew: In 1882, 17 percent of all emigrations to the US were transacted by Morris & Co.

Albert Ballin (* 15. August 1857 to † 9. November 1918)
(Photographer unknown, Albert Ballin 2, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons)
However, Ballin left Morris & Co. in 1886 and started to work for the HAPAG. There he built a fast career for himself and made the company the world's largest shipping line.

It was Ballin's idea to install steerage decks where the passage was far cheaper and affordable for more of the poor migrants. This way he was able to increase the number of passengers dramatically.

Since during the wintertime crossing the Atlantic was far more unpleasant and dangerous, fewer passengers booked a passage. Smart cookie Ballin tried something new: In 1891, he offered what he called an educational and pleasure trip around the Mediterranean.

What a success that was: The ship Augusta Victoria was completely booked out!

This was actually the birth of cruise trips.

A Suitcase Packed with Hope

Over five million people left Europe between 1859 and 1934 via the Port of Hamburg - and much of that credit belongs to Albert Ballin.

Many people - mainly from Southern Germany - were in search of a higher and more stable income. Jewish people felt the urge to leave Poland, Russia, and the Baltic States because of terrible pogroms. And those who were indecisive were encouraged by the HAPAG's agents sent even to the most remote villages. It was an entire industry: These agents made it sound very easy and comfortable and sold sort of an all-inclusive-package to that not so worldly lot.

No, you cannot compare them to today's refugee smugglers: Although there were cases where emigrants were cheated and betrayed, usually, everything went fair and square - and the companies operated under governmental control.

However, the high number of foreigners in transit caused problems for the city of Hamburg: The people - entire families - arrived in the city and sometimes they had to wait for many days for their passage. They had nowhere to go. They squatted in the streets. The Hamburgers got annoyed.

Of course, our friend Albert had a solution even for this problem. South of the river Elbe, he built the emigration halls: On a terrain of almost 600,000 square feet, he installed in total about 30 buildings containing sleeping and living areas, dining rooms, bathrooms, a music pavilion as well as a church and a synagogue. This way, his clients were able to wait for their passage in a comfortable and safe environment.

Supper at the HAPAG emigration halls in 1909.
(Photo: Johann Hinrich W. Hamann (1859-1935), Auswandererhallen der HADAG 1909, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons)

An important feature were the exam rooms where doctors performed medical examinations of the migrants. These strict controls before they entered the ships granted a very low quota of rejections at the port of arrival - it was only around 3 percent.

So after having made the connection between those placards in Ellis Island and the HAPAG and Albert Ballin, I kept wondering why nobody seemed to be interested in this story - which is an important part of Hamburg's history.
But I think that's exactly the reason: It is not really Hamburg's history; at least not the history of the Hamburgers. The emigrants came from other, more rural areas. They came from Eastern Europe. They were not from Hamburg. Why should the people of Hamburg care about their fate? They were here in transit for a couple of days - that's it.

However, in 2003, there was finally a first exhibition on emigration through the port of Hamburg - and I was happy. It was set up very nicely on the museum ship Cap San Diego in the very harbor so you got the feel of being on board of one of those ships.
A highly informative exhibition including a movie and some audio stations.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Hamburg Cap San Diego
Cap San Diego - a museum ship housing different exhibitions since 1989.

They had called the exhibition A Suitcase Packed With Hope, and in addition, there was a comic book by Belgian illustrator Gilbert Declercq with the same title on sale telling the story of the young woman called Enzi who leaves her home in South Germany to go to America.
It was a great endorsement, especially when visiting the exhibition with kids.

There is still a small part of the show on display, so if you pay the Cap San Diego a visit, make sure to have a look at the remains.

Cap San Diego
20459 Hamburg
Phone: + 49 - 40 - 36 42 09

Open daily from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. (unless the Cap San Diego is on tour)

The BallinStadt in Hamburg

The reason why today there are only humble remains on the Cap San Diego is actually a nice one: Finally, in 2007, on the grounds where the emigration halls used to be, a museum was opened. For this purpose, some of the original halls were reconstructed.
But first, let's go back in time:

Ballinstadt Emigration Museum Photo: ©  Christian Spahrbier /
The history of emigration via the port of Hamburg can be traced at the BallinStadt that for many used to be the first stop of their long journey for the better.
(Photo: ©  Christian Spahrbier /

The first construction phase of the emigrations halls in the Veddel district South of the river Elbe had ended in 1901. Since the premises were connected to a railway system, the emigrants didn't have to get to the city of Hamburg at all but were brought straight to their lodgings.

The emigration industry became bigger and bigger, more halls had to be added. In 1913, the all-time high reached as much as 170,000 emigrants.
Between 1891 and 1914, almost 2 million people had left Europe via the Port of Hamburg mainly to the US.

During WWI, the buildings were transformed into sickbays.

After the war, the halls served again as shelters for emigrants, but the numbers had decreased dramatically: Between 1918 and 1954, only approximately 300,000 emigrants were registered in Hamburg.

After WWII, the buildings were used for families who had lost their homes in air raids. Little by little, all the buildings were demolished.

The reconstructed halls in the Veddel district in Hamburg's southern outskirts - today a working-class neighborhood with an extremely high percentage of emigrants.
(Photo: NordNordWest, BallinStadt Ausstellungsgebäude, cropped to 7,5:5, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE )

Today's BallinStadt museum was opened in 2007 - three halls had to be reconstructed to house it.

It is a great place of remembrance for all ages since there are many stories being told and everything is very hands-on. You can really follow the emigrants on their exciting way to an unknown future.

Meet some of the passengers in the exhibition at house #2 called World in Transit.
(Photo: © Emigration Museum BallinStadt Hamburg)

Although the museum can be easily reached by an urban train, a more alluring way is to get there by ferry crossing the river Elbe.

Auswanderermuseum Hamburg
Veddeler Bogen 2
20539 Hamburg
Phone: +49 - 40 - 319 79 16-0

The museum is open daily from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. from March till October and from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. from November to February.

The Hapag-Hallen in Cuxhaven

Slowly but surely, the HAPAG company had to realize that it became more and more difficult for the huge emigrant ships to access the harbor of Hamburg on the river Elbe. To avoid the complicated maneuvers, from 1889 on the passages to America very proceded more and more via the port of Cuxhaven, a city located about 120 km/75 miles west of Hamburg. However, till 1937, the city was politically part of the city of Hamburg so that the 'big brother' was able to take advantage of Cuxhaven's direct access to the Northern Sea.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuxhaven  Hapag-Hallen
The Hapag-Hallen were opened in 1902 so that passengers were able to get on board closer to the sea than at the port of Hamburg. 

The HAPAG-Hallen, basically a humongous waiting hall, were finished in 1902. The chic domed hall was exclusively for 1st and 2nd class passengers. They arrived by train from Hamburg whereas the steerage passengers were brought to Cuxhaven by ship from the BallinStadt.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuxhaven  Hapag-Hallen
Entrance to the dome hall - access for the upper class only.

The old Hapag Hallen can still be visited on occasional guided tours.

On the second floor of the terminal building on the pier Steubenhoeft, there is a permanent exhibition which doesn't look very spectacular - compared e. g. to the award-winning hands-on exhibition at Bremerhaven and at the BallinStadt in Hamburg, too - but however, if you take your time reading the panels, it's very informative and touching. Definitely worth the visit.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuxhaven  Hapag-Hallen
In the 19th century, people left Europe for very different reasons - and to many different destinations. The passage to Canada was very popular.

Hapag-Halle / Steubenhöft 
Albert-Ballin-Platz 1
27472 Cuxhaven
Phone: +49 - 4721 - 39 65 460

Norddeutscher Lloyd in Bremen

The Norddeutscher Lloyd was a Bremen based shipping company founded in 1857 by merchants Hermann Heinrich Meier and Eduard Crüsemann. It quickly became one of the world's largest and most successful shipping companies - also because of the emigration - just like the HAPAG.

Spoiler alert: In 1970, the Norddeutscher Lloyd and the HAPAG actually merged to the shipping company Hapag-Lloyd AG.

And just like the HAPAG, the Norddeutscher Lloyd installed a very active recruiting program in various European countries.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Bremen
Bremen, a city and at the same time Germany's smallest Federal State, used to be big in business - mainly because of its proximity to one of the Seven Seas. Access granted its exclave Bremerhaven.

Although the company's headquarter remained in the city of Bremen, the port of embarkation was Bremerhaven, Bremen's exclave located about 60 km up North where the river Weser empties into the North Sea. Bremerhaven was built in 1827 to grant Bremen access to the ocean and make business easier.

Migration via Bremerhaven

Especially the increase of emigration to the New World brought Bremerhaven lots of work and money - the cargo now was not only beer or coffee or commodity anymore, they got human freight: Between 1830 and 1971, about 7 million people left Europe via the port of Bremerhaven - even more than through the much bigger city of Hamburg.

While the money from the living freight was initially made in Bremerhaven, with the construction of the railway in 1862, the passengers had quicker and easier access to the ships and did not need to wait right next to the docks. Hence, they now waited in the city of Bremen - and spent their money rather there.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Bremerhaven Auswandererhaus
What today is part of Bremerhaven's University used to be the Auswandererhaus, housing waiting rooms for passengers waiting for their passage.

Bremerhaven was quicker than Hamburg and opened a museum on emigration already in 2005. It sketches the story of emigration in a fantastic, very emotional exhibition that in 2007 won the European Museum of the Year award.

Waiting on the pier for the big adventure: If you stand close to these passengers, they actually tell you their story: Where they come from and what made them leave their home.
(Photo: Jürgen Howaldt, AuswandererhausBremerhaven 05, cropped to 7:5, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

However, basically, the clients were the same groups of people and business was proceeded in a very similar fashion in Hamburg as in Bremen.

People travelling third class did not have it very comfortable. To underline their hardship, you actually hear them getting seasick and throwing up. These museum-people really gave their best - no wonder they were awarded Europe's best museum in 2007.
(Photo: Jürgen Howaldt, AuswandererhausBremerhaven 08, cropped to 7:5, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Bremerhaven Deutsches Auswanderermuseum
At the museum's restaurant, you can read what the passengers from the very different countries used to eat and which food they brought with them for their long journey.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Bremerhaven Deutsches Auswanderermuseum
Every visitor is supplied with a boarding pass following the destiny of one of the emigrants. This brings the stories - and history - really alive.

I cannot spare you a last fun fact: In 1885, a certain Friedrich Trump from Kallstadt, today located in Rhineland-Palatinate, migrated via Bremerhaven to the United States of America, probably to evade military service. He lived the American dream: In 2017, his grandson had become President.

Deutsches Auswandererhaus
Columbusstraße 65 D
27568 Bremerhaven
Phone: + 49 - 471 - 90 22 0 – 0

The museum is open daily from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. from March till October and from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. from November to February.

Feel like visiting these fascinating exhibitions - and need more information on their locations? Here are travel guides to the four cities involved:



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  1. This is such a well researched post! I didn't really think about this emigration and I love the details that you've included. I also like the way you've linked the sites together for a full story.

  2. So historic, love to know a lot about historical facts through your posts. Personally I don't really much like visiting museums. Loving the BNW shot from Kindergarten, all are so cute, including YOU :)

  3. thanks for taking the time to share this! super helpful and interesting to read. i love that you have RULES that help guide you on your ADVETURES IN USA

  4. Very detailed and informative post! I actually learned quite a lot about emigration that I had no idea about. Keep creating your wonderful posts!

  5. I didn't expected such an interesting article, I like that you shared personal story of emigration too.

  6. I've never visited Ellis Island in all of my trips to NYC - and it's truly such a special experience - as you've demonstrated! Thank you for the history and deep dive into something so important!


  7. How incredibly interesting. Our boys have visiting Ellis Island and we talk a lot about immigration back then and now in our current political climate. I'm going to read this with them- they will really enjoy the personal story!

  8. full of info and very-well designed story. Liked the photos and your post. thank you:)

  9. Great article with a deep dive to history.I also migrated from one country to another. Learned a lot about it from your post.

  10. I love Germany! One of my biggest regrets is the last time I was there I didn't visit Hamburg. I heard it's one of the most interesting cities in Germany and from your article I can see why! Next time :) Thanks for sharing!

  11. The European migrations in 20th century definitely left its mark in many people's hearts and families' histories. I do believe, however, that even when they were made out of "desperation", it still required A LOT of courage to do so, especially back then. Thank you for this article, very interesting read!

  12. This is a fantastic read Renata! So touching yet packed with historic facts and information. And now you've made me want to visit all the points of interest you are mentioning such as Ellis Island or Hamburg and Bremen!

  13. The history of migration is very fascinating and I like that in many American cities there are one of more immigration museums divided by geographic provenience of their immigrants.

  14. very inspiring and educational post. great coverage on the various cities as well with so much information.

  15. Fascinating, this is a period of history, I know so little about. I’ll be visiting Ellis Island next week myself. But I’d love to see the exhibitions in Germany. It’s always good to see from both sides. Thanks for sharing

  16. History is always fascinating and I like the way you describe it.

  17. I felt like I was on a journey through time... love the Trump bit too haha!

  18. What a wonderful, informative read, its so important that part of history is shared on both sides of the atlantic. Thank you such a fantastic post, I really enjoyed reading it.

  19. This is such a beautiful story.based on real people who left their countries often due to reasons beyond their control.v infotmatibe

  20. A very absorbing story indeed. I also have a background of emigration in my family, so I was very interested to read this. A fascinating insight and beautifully written - thank you.

  21. A very amazing story. I love it. I love the way it's written. Thanks for sharing with us

  22. Well curated post on your journey to America. Like lot the exhibition well captured and displayed.

  23. Fascinating post! Really enjoyed reading about the different facets of history and the lives of people who dare to dream!

  24. I love well researched posts and this sure is one! I love the way you've linked the sites together for a full story. Great job - keep up the good work

  25. I understand perfectly what you say, change to another state or to another country is a very brave action. Part of my family emigrated from Europe to America and I can imagine how difficult it must have been.
    What a fantastic post!

  26. Very interesting post! You've clearly done your research. The museums look fascinating.

  27. That's an interesting walk into the history of migration. When I visit places, I often don't really look onto these detals, so it is good to see them from you. I think everyone is more concerted wit "nowadays migration".

  28. You have written very emotional post about touching the sentiments of immigrants. Due to some unrest in their own country, some people have to choose a new world with lots of hope and heavy heart. But, this is the bitter truth and whole of USA is perfect example of this. The most sentimental moment was seeing the photo of that young lady sobbing and covering her face. Thanks for sharing the immigration story which was carried many years ago and it is still on.

  29. Such an interesting idea for a post and very well put together. I learned a lot about immigration that those of us who haven't really been affected by it probably don't understand. Thanks for sharing your story.

  30. What a fascinating piece of history and to think it has been almost forgotten. Ellis island was never recommended to us but I think I will add it to my must see list

  31. What a beautiful written post. And also so interesting, never look at places this way!

  32. Oh boy this made me want to cry a little! I think it’s so important to keep this kind of perspective, especially in the current climate where refugees are being turned away all over the world. We need to remember just how hard it must have been for them to make the decision to leave, and that they likely wouldn’t do so unless it was really necessary. Thank you for this beautiful post!

  33. When you said that not a lot of people in hamburg seemed interested in this story because it is not their history but the history of immigrants is sad but true in many places. But no one should forget that these peoples helped build towns too and contributed to the society. After all, aren't we all descendants of immigrants at some point in our ancestry?

  34. What a great perspective as we always see the American side of things. We still have our great grandparents Ellis Island papers. I love this post especially today with all things going on. It is not easy to immigrate and as I tell my kids, most people would love to remain in their own countries if not for the hardships.

  35. This was such an interesting post and it gave me a new perspective on emigration and my own life experiences having emigrating twice once to the US for a few years and now to the UK for almost 8!


  37. I love reading a well researched article, you really took your time to get the facts and for that i appreciate you. Just like you i always wonder what goes into someone's mind when they make the decision to migrate. Personally it's a mix of feelings, exciting to see the unknown and learn new things and then comes the fear of leaving my entire life behind (friends and family)to start a new one. I guess i will never know how to feel about emigration until i make that bold move.

  38. What an experience- looks very beautiful and not somewhere I’ve seen that much info on!

  39. Such an informative post. I like how you do the research, a well-written post. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  40. Making a choice to move from ones home country is never easy whether it is due to a social or economic reason. Hearing parents share such experiences would be like stories but there is a deeper reality in the process and as you rightly put it .. its quite brave.

  41. As a migrating German myself it is very ineteresting to read about your experience coming to America. I'm sure a lot of people will find this article very useful :)


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