A town within a town -Ballinstadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg

Hotel Hafen Hamburg overlooking the harbour. Cabin styled rooms are on the lower floors.

I peep through a porthole over Hamburg harbour just as many migrants must have done when they left for the New World over a century ago. But unlike the migrants I am on dry land in my cabin-inspired room in the Hotel Hafen Hamburg, previously a seafarers’ home. The hotel is decked out with seafaring memorabilia including a trunk from the Cutty Sark, perhaps from the time the British took the building over from the German Navy at the end of WW11.

Train l

Frustrated by the restricted view through my porthole I make my way down to the harbour.

Train line running above the harbour

As I walk along Landungsbrücken promenade, trains thundering overhead and giant cranes resting against a sunset-tinged sky, I stumble across two white lions guarding an open book. I read the dedication.



The page features a bronze relief of the Pan Anamur, one of the ships that rescued the Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Communist regime. Between 1979 and 1987 the ships Pan Anamur 1, 11 and 111 rescued 11,300 Vietnamese refugees.

Monument thanking Germany, German people and Hamburg city for rescuing Vietnamese refugees on Hamburg harbour

As I stroll towards the historic warehouse district I wonder where those Vietnamese are now – in Hamburg or elsewhere?

Historic warehouses

As I meander along the narrow canals, dwarfed by historic warehouses built on timber piles, I wonder whether there will be such handsome plaques donated by Syrians, Eritreans and Afghanis rescued from the Mediterranean, dedicated to Angela Merkel who, unsupported by most other European leaders, has made some attempt to provide home and shelter for today’s ‘boat people’.

The next morning a boat steers me between massive Italian cruise and Chinese container ships along the River Elbe. I hop off at Ballinstadt, an isolated dreary dock. Huge black and white portraits guide me towards my destination. A bearded man in long leather boots and woollen hat, with his daughters or granddaughters perhaps – mini adults dressed in layers of clothing;

East Europeans photographed by Johann Haman in 1909

a trio of men with impressive handlebar moustaches, striking a pose and smoking pipes;

East Europeans photographed by Johann Haman in 1909

women in long gathered skirts and scarves covering their head and shoulders.

East Europeans photographed by Johann Haman in 1909

They are East Europeans photographed in 1909 by Johann Haman in the Emigration Halls where people stayed in Hamburg before leaving Europe.

The BallinStadt Emigration Museum

The BallinStadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg is located on Veddel Island where Albert Ballin, a successful ship owning magnate, built what constituted as a small town within Hamburg – a place for emigrants to stay before they sailed across the Atlantic. It was operational between 1901 and 1914 when, at the outbreak of WW11, it was taken over by the German navy. This ‘town within a town’ had 3 places of religious worship – a Protestant church, a Catholic church and a synagogue. There were two hotels but the majority of emigrants stayed in H shaped dormitories. It is these, rebuilt according to the original design, that now house the Emigration Museum charting emigration from this busy port from 1850 to 1934. Over 5 million people left from Hamburg during this period.

As I stroll through the Museum I sigh inwardly at the predictable piles of battered, brown suitcases.

Suitcases again?

There are interesting black and white photographs and colourful Art Deco posters of the shipping line but in ugly wooden frames. Then I meet eight life-size awkward figures in ill-fitting clothes. But the benches are comfortable enough so I sit and listen though an earpiece to interesting histories of these stiff limbed emigrants.

Real life stories 1848 – 1938

The earliest story is that of a young man from Southern Germany who fled the 1848 revolution in Europe and became a successful journalist in the US. The most recent story is that of a woman who, in 1938, fled the Nazis with her husband and children. And there are children too – a peasant girl from Austria who emigrated with her family in the 1860s and a boy who emigrated in 1900 with his family from the Ruhr. He sits astride a wooden cart, showing off his long socks and young knees.

A boy form the Ruhr who emigrates in 1900 with his family

There is a promise to hear more about the fates of these figures at the end of the exhibition.

But it takes me some time to get there. There is so much information about the different waves of emigration and from different parts of Europe. I am almost relieved that not all of the text has been translated into English.

Emigration from different European countries

It is the individual stories and quotes that interest me. Esther Sheinman who emigrated from Russia at age of 10 expected the US to be, “the land of gold.” It certainly turned out to be better than home where, “fun was not allowed.”

The story of Leon Solomon from Lithuania reminds us that emigrants have often had to dodge authorities. Instructed by ‘experts in helping emigrants’ Leon hid in a barn and at a particular moment was told to run. “And I remember how breathlessly we ran and crossed the border until we were told, ‘Stop running.’”

I examine the different types of accommodation on board ship – the ‘tweendecks’ that maximised space and profit; the third, the second and first classes interspersed with moving observations – like how the immigration officers on Ellis Island came on board  to process the first and second class passengers but how the third class and steerage passengers were told to stay on board an extra night and were subjected to  strict and lengthy processes. “And so there was this slight feeling … that. ‘ Isn’t it strange that here we are coming to a country where there is complete equality but not quite so for the newly arrived immigrants.’” (Hans Bergner from Germany 1924 – Ellis Island interviews)


The rustic, isolated housing in rural Argentina must have been a shock to the new arrivals, far less inviting than New York. Here at least there must have been mutual support amongst fellow countrymen and women in  the Irish quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Italian quarter and the German quarter – one in 5 US citizens today are said to be of German heritage.

Little Germany

Clustered around New York central station, I meet my stiff limbed figures again. They must have passed the health checks and successfully answered the questions about political affiliation and money. I sit down to hear of their fates.

New York Central Station

The amount of text in this exhibition is overwhelming and the display needs both refreshing and updating but there is interesting material. Like the story of Leon Feuerstein and Maria Zimmerman who were taken into custody in Buenos Aires and deported back to Hamburg. Leon was suspected of being in business as a pimp – museums sometimes avoid these difficult histories. There is a whole section about Albert Ballin. He was of Jewish heritage, married a Protestant and built HAPAG up into the biggest shipping company in the world. Despite his influence he failed to stop the Kaiser, to whom he was both a friend and advisor, from his saber-rattling, anti British policies which led to WW11. Fearing for his business and still feeling an outsider, Ballin committed suicide.

Office of Alfred Ballin

There is also a sense of place. The recreated dormitory is bare, quiet and pristine but I imagine it full of men, women or families, tossing on their iron bedsteads, restless from anxiety, dreaming of a new life.

Dormitory at BallinStadt Emigration Museum

I imagine them rising and going to the refectory for a kosher or non-kosher breakfast, spending time in the day room deafened by the babble of different languages, stepping outside into the tree lined streets to listen to the band. Yes the health checks were feared and Russians, at one stage, were not allowed to leave the complex – they had been blamed for the spread of cholera in the town that killed 10,000 people. Yet many appreciated the accommodation and the complex was awarded several international awards.

“It was no hostel. It was a large village to which people from all over the world came. And they provided us with accommodation and food and a bathroom and all… We liked it very much. It was lovely….They were so nice to us. (From: Brownstone, Franck, Brownstone: Island of Hope/Island of tears, New York 1979)

I try to think of an equivalent scenario in Europe today – people gathered together in one place from all over the world, escaping war or discrimination, searching for a better life – the Jungle in Calais? Far less hygienic, far less comfortable with no clear process of how to move on.

Archives of those who emigrated through Hamburg on HAPAG ships

This blog was based on a visit to BallinStadt Emigration Museum in September 2015.

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