I stroll along the quayside at Bremerhaven from where 7 million people left for the New World between 1830 and 1974. I am heading for the German Emigration Centre that won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2007. I enter a spacious modern building, framed in lattice wood.
The receptionist hands me a boarding pass. I am to accompany Martha Huner, born in 1906, on her journey to New York in 1923.
I walk past the personal possessions that emigrants took with them on board – a thimble, a Christian cross and rosary in a wicker handbag from 1913; marbles and a harmonica in a child’s suitcase from the 1930s. I wonder what Marta would have taken – I know so little about her.
I admire a print of the new Waiting Hall built in 1870 to accommodate the increasing flows of emigrants. People are hovering beside tall clipper sailing boats moored in the dock. Did Martha travel in such a ship, the sails billowing in the wind?
Unlikely. Sleek ocean liners had replaced sailing ships by the time Martha embarked in 1923.
I move through a recreated Waiting Hall and hear about emigration to the New World. I progress into a dark, cavernous space. People of all ages, rich and poor, mill around on the quayside, dwarfed by a bolted, black steel hull of an ocean liner.
One child is perilously close to the water’s edge.
I activate my boarding pass and the figures start to chatter in Yiddish, German or Russian.
It’s hard to know what they are saying, whether they are sad or excited. I look round for Martha but only know from a blurred image on the boarding pass that she is wearing a large brimmed hat and heavy overcoat. Several young women fit the bill.
Overwhelmed by the chatter I enter a plush, wooden panelled room lit by chandeliers. Perhaps this is the offices of the Norddeutsche Lloyd shipping company.
I admire coloured monochrome postcards of emigrants dressed in exotic costumes with hats to rival Martha’s.
I rummage through drawers and find what I am looking for – more information about Martha Huner.
Martha was the eldest of three daughters. In 1921, in order to support her family, she became a nanny. Two years later, sponsored by her aunt in New York who also paid for her travel, she emigrated. There is a photograph of Martha on the deck of the Munchen. I read the weather report. The crossing was sunny and fair with low winds. Just as well, otherwise her wide brimmed hat would have blown away.
I pull out more drawers and listen to interviews from others who migrated to USA, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Erich Koch Weser, born in 1875, was a mayor, a member of the Reich parliament and a lawyer in Berlin until he was disbarred from practising by the National Socialist Party. He left for Brazil in 1933 with his wife and 2 children. Hannah was only 10 months old when she sailed to the USA with her parents, both Holocaust survivors. Azbeta migrated to Ohio where she became pregnant from her employer, a farmer. She sailed back to Germany, in disgrace perhaps but the farmer stepped up to the plate and persuaded Azbeta to return to Ohio with their son.
There is, as yet, no indication as to what happened to Martha. Perhaps she got sick and died on board. In 1854 cross-Atlantic passengers, particularly in third class, were vulnerable. The conditions were unhygienic, the drinking water was polluted and there was overcrowding. By the time Martha sailed in 1923 conditions had improved. I walk up the gangway and search through the first, second, and third class cabins but find no trace of Martha. There is no record of how she travelled or maybe I just don’t know how to use my boarding pass – I look around for someone to help but find no one.
On arrival in New York I am subjected to 29 questions. Can I write or read, do I have a physical disability, am I an anarchist or a polygamist and do I have a criminal record? I suppress my temptation to admit to at least one of these attributes.
Emma Goldmann, born in Lithuania in 1869, emigrated to the US at the age of 16. She worked as a seamstress, supported women’s and worker’s rights and eventually became an anarchist. When she was deported to Russia in 1919 she joined the Bolsheviks but left them in 1921. She spent the rest of her life in exile in Europe and Canada. Perhaps Martha had an equally colourful life?
Only when strolling through Grand Central Terminal in New York do I discover what happened to Martha.
She worked as a nanny but then married a baker with whom she set up business in New Jersey. After he died in 1962 she worked for 20 years as a housekeeper. Then, for ten years, she lived with a girlfriend in Florida. When she became ill her sister and brother-in-law brought her back to Bremen.
I try to imagine what Martha must have felt when she returned to Germany. Was it a wrench to leave the United States? Was she leaving or returning home? Did she think Germany had changed? She left when she was just a teenager years before WW11 broke out.
As if in anticipation of Martha’s return I find myself in a 1973 shopping mall in Germany – a department store, camera shop, ice cream parlour, hairdresser and bookshop.
I am no longer tracing the steps of those who emigrated from Germany but those who have migrated to the country.
This time, still using my boarding pass (by air this time) I accompany Mai Phuong Kollath who migrated from Hanoi to Rostock in the German Democratic Republic in 1981.
After a 3 month course in German Mai Phuong was allocated a canteen job. She had dreamt of better things but signed the contract, trained as a chef and was promoted to shift supervisor.
In 1989 she left her job as she became pregnant, something she kept secret for seven months. Contract workers who became pregnant in the GDR had to have an abortion or be deported. From 1995 Mai Phuong worked for the society, Dien Hong – Together Under One Roof. It was founded after an arson attack on 120 Vietnamese locked in a building. Mai Phuong now lives in Berlin and works as a coach and intercultural consultant.
I examine Mai Phuong’s work contract of 1981 and letters between her and her family back in North Vietnam. There are photos of Mai Phuong when she first arrived in the GDR, with her relatives on a return visit and, in later years, standing just a few feet away from Angela Merkel.
It is a story of emigration not only from Communist North Vietnam to the GDR but from East to West Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall.
There are stories of other emigrants – of Huguenots from France; textile traders from Holland; ice cream manufacturers from Italy; a student from Turkey and refugees form Serbia – all people who have made a success of their lives in their adopted country. I miss some of the darker stories I found at Ballinstadt but perhaps these are easier to tell in an historical, rather than contemporary, context.
I applaud this interweaving of immigration and emigration stories. Yet the significance of Bremerhaven is that it is a place of departure rather than arrival. Whilst Martha left by boat from Bremerhaven Mai Phuong came by air to the GDR so I miss, too, the sense of place evoked by Ballinsteadt.
There is no doubt that that the impressive quayside and the liner are the star attractions but do they verge on the theme park, romanticise or sanitise the emigration experience? And does my more intimate knowledge of Martha’s and Mai Phuong’s lives limit my understanding of other lives and of the broader picture? Some of the most informative parts are the breakdown in numbers of immigration and emigration to and from different countries.
This is an impressive museum that is visually stunning, has received considerable investment and is popular. The challenge is that the story of immigration, in particular, is unfolding by the minute. Perhaps it is only temporary exhibitions, art installations, education programmes, film and other media interventions that can reflect this. Museums can be slow, lumbering machines.
I enter a 60s style Roxy Cinema to watch a film about Germans in the USA, more recent migrants to Australia and about Betina Ruth Ehrenhaus in Argentina. She tells the story of being kidnapped by the military junta and both she and her partner being detained as political prisoners in Buenos Aires. Her partner did not survive.
it is time for me to cross the Atlantic – to trace the steps of Betina to Argentina and those, like Erick Koch, who having fallen out of favour with the National Socialist Government, settled in Brazil.