Trace your ancestors journey at the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven

(Last Updated On: 18. April 2020)

From the port of Bremerhaven, 7.2 million emigrants from all over Europe sailed towards an unknown future in the New World. So if your ancestors are from Germany or Eastern Europe, it’s pretty likely that they sailed left from the port in Bremerhaven. Find out all about their journey on your own exciting journey through the interactive emigration museum in Bremerhaven called “Deutsches Auswandererhaus” (German Emigration Center in English)…

What’s Bremerhaven all about?

When emigration to the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Argentina or New Zealand were at their height, Bremerhaven was one of the busiest ports in Europe. Around 7.2 million people emigrated from here to all corners of the world from the time Bremerhaven was founded in the 1830s up until the 1970s.

The Emigrant Memorial in Bremerhaven

The Emigrant Memorial in Bremerhaven

The port city located about 60 kilometres from the city of Bremen, was established in 1827 by the Mayor of Bremen at the time, Johann Smidt, who after quite some negotiating managed to secure a piece of land from the Kingdom of Hanover (at that time a very powerful player in northern Germany).

The reason why he was looking for a new port was that the old port in the city of Bremen became impractical for emigrant ship departures. Over the years, too much sand had built up and since the port was located at a river (the Weser) and not at the open seafront, it became more and more difficult for the big ships to dock here.

Nevertheless, as you might have noted as well in your ancestry research, the departure port for emigrants is often given as “Bremen” even though “Bremerhaven” is meant.

The German Emigration Center (Deutsches Auswandererhaus) in Bremerhaven

The German Emigration Center (Deutsches Auswandererhaus) in Bremerhaven

Today, the cities of Bremerhaven (ca. 113,000 inhabitants) and Bremen (ca. 570,000 inhabitants) together make up the Bundesland (federal state) of “Bremen”. It’s the smallest federal state of Germany in terms of its surface size.

In the past 20 years since the start of the new millennium, the sea front in Bremerhaven was given a major regeneration makeover, so that today tourists can visit several great museums here.

Aside from the Emigration Museum, which first opened its doors in 2005, there is a museum dedicated to climate and climate change called  “Klimahaus“. Here you can go on an interactive journey around the world through all the countries and different climate zones (from super cold to super hot) that are placed along the 7th longitude (among them one of the Halligen islands in Germany, Switzerland, Sardinia, Italy, the Sahara desert in Africa, Alaska and Samoa).

There is also a Mediterranean-style shopping mall, in which you might feel like you’ve made a short detour to Italy.

Mediterranean-style shopping mall in Bremerhaven

How to I get there?

Bremerhaven is within convenient reach from the city of Bremen. By car it takes about 45 minutes to one hour via the Autobahn. There are several car parks and parking garages.

There is also a direct train. So if you would like to just sit back and relax, book a direct train ticket via bahn.de. From Bremen central station (Hauptbahnhof, or HBF in short), it takes 34 or 45 minutes depending on which of the two local trains you get.

With the “Lower Saxony ticket” (currently 24 Euros for one person) you can take as many regional trains in a day as you like, so you can use it to get to Bremerhaven and back to Bremen. The ticket can be used for regional busses and trams in Bremen and Bremerhaven, too.

Bremerhaven

So what’s there to see?

At the beginning of the experience, you will get a “passport”. This passport is about the story of a real former emigrant. On your way through the museum, there are several stops at which you can learn more about this person and his or her fate. To me, that was eye-opening and makes the whole experience even more interactive!

On your tour through the building you will re-live the journey that some many emigrants have taken: from embarking the ship to the on-board experience in various time periods (initial sailing ships to the more convenient steamboats) into Ellis Island and the Grand Central Terminal Hall in New York as your final destination.

Bremerhaven sea front

On “Ellis Island”, there is also a computer where you can do the “emigration test” and see whether you are admitted to the United States based on the answers you give to the questions asked. There are actually several tricky questions and it is not as easy as you might think…

You will also see quite a few wax figures, which additionally help to imagine what the journey must have been like. In the end, you will not only get to see the USA, but also get to know Germany from a different side.

In the flashy 1970s West German shopping mall, you will learn all about immigration to Germany. The 1950s marked the change from Germany being an emigration country to Germany being an immigration country. The so-called were among the first major immigrant groups to Germany and came mostly from Southern European countries such as Italy or Turkey.

Bremerhaven

Hard to imagine that this rather small looking port once was the departure point for huge liners!

Re-feel the experience of emigrants and immigrants

In the Roxy cinema, you can see and listen to the stories of Germans in the USA, Argentina and Australia who will tell you all about their hopes and fears when leaving Bremerhaven and their experiences in the new country.

Needless to say that on your way, you will get tons of information about everything emigration and immigration related. There is, for example, a map of the USA with a selection of cities that were named after German cities. It’s quite fun to check how many US cities and towns are called “Hamburg”, “Bremen” or “Hanover” with the help of a flashlight integrated into the map.

Old meets new! A sailing ships with the modern skyline behind.

Trace your own ancestors

At the very end, you will be able to trace your own ancestor’s journey in the little archive provided if you type their name into the data banks of the computers there. They have mainly passenger lists for ships, but there is always someone from the personnel at hand to help you, too. I found one of my ancestors, Anna Fleddermann from Ankum, who emigrated in the 1920s when she was only 16, to join and work for a German aunt as a maid in Covington, Kentucky.

German Emigration Museum in Bremerhaven

What’s the final verdict?

Overall, the Bremerhaven Emigration Museum is not your average museum, but more of an interactive experience with lots of very useful and interesting information. I have been several times as a tour guide with my guided tours and I am still not tired of it!

Find out more about the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven by visiting their website.

Bremerhaven seafront

From here, it was off to new horizons for many!

When will you arrive at the port of Bremerhaven? Or have you already been? Let me know in the comments below!

Unless otherwise credited, all photos © Sonja Irani / RevisitGermany.com

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