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Genealogy Tourism: Tracing Your Ancestors in Germany

Many journeys ended on New York's Ellis Island, but do you know where those trips began? You can easily turn a genealogy mission into a vacation by visiting these two emigration museums in Germany.

While England may be our "mother country," there are more people here of German extraction than of English -- about 50 million of them, in fact. For a while, German had a chance of becoming our national language, according to some historians.

In what has been called history's greatest wave of emigration, people left Europe for many reasons, including fleeing the depression in Germany after it became a unified nation in 1870. The class system, primogeniture, religious persecution, all played a part as well. (My own grandfather left Sweden because, as second son in a farming family, he would inherit nothing on the death of his parents, and because he feared conscription into the Swedish army).

Genealogy Tourism Increases

Emigration is big business in Germany now, especially in the field of tourism. In recent years, two large museums concerning the great Diaspora of Europeans to North America have opened up: one in Hamburg, the other in Bremerhaven. The museum in Bremerhaven is right on the city's waterfront and close to other attractions. The Hamburg museum is in rehabilitated warehouses on a lonely harborfront some distance from the city center. If you're on a mission to trace your ancestral roots, you might want to visit both if one museum doesn't have the information you're seeking.

Leaving Bremerhaven

The German Emigration Center (Deutsches Auswandererhaus), Columbusstrasse 65, Bremerhaven, tel. 011/49 471 902 200,

Bremerhaven was the largest port of emigration in Germany, with 7.2 million people sailing from here between 1830 and 1974. Of these, 4.1 million were German, 3.1 million from Eastern Europe. The German Emigration Center, which has 2,000 fragmentary and 80 complete personal histories on file, is still collecting materials. It has passenger records from 1920 through 1939 (numbering 690,592 registrations), which are now available online. Since about 90 percent of the people in the 19th century went to the U.S., their records upon arriving the New World are in the database (U.S. immigration records). So you'll find a good percentage of the 7.2 million emigrants from Bremen/Bremerhaven here.

Leaving Hamburg

The Emigration Museum at Ballinstadt, Veddeler Bogen 2, Hamburg, tel. 011/49 40 3197 9160,

Bremerhaven led Hamburg in number of emigrants until 1891, when the larger city pulled ahead for the first time, with 150,000 people passing through en route to the New World. Hamburg's passenger lists, which contain information on over five million people, survived two World Wars and more than 100 years in the basement of the Hamburg City Hall. By the end of 2008, more than 4.3 million entries were digitalized, the directors say.

Life Before Leaving

The original warehouses, which Albert Ballin built for his Hamburg America Line (HAPAG), contained two hotels, five dormitories, a hospital, a music hall, and a church. Men and women were segregated, but families could stay together. Jews were separated, so that they could have a kosher kitchen, unique among port cities. A medical exam was given to prevent the horror of being rejected in the U.S., in which case the shipping line had to pay your fare back to Europe. During 1901-1908, it cost 2 Reichsmarks a day per adult to stay in the dormitories (3.25 Reichsmarks to stay in the hotels). Both lodging options included three meals.

Ballinstadt, also known as Storage City, is still the largest multistory storage complex in the world today, according to Hamburg officials. By 1898, Albert Ballin's Hapag 58-vessel shipping line was the world's largest. During World War II, his storage buildings were used to house Allied Prisoners of War, but the structures were gone by 1962. Restored in 2007, the three buildings of the museum have access to the digitalized records, in addition to a film and exhibits about emigration.

Life Aboard the Ships

The Bremerhaven museum has a display of cabins, artifacts, and dioramas about life on board the ships. Around 1850, steerage passengers endured rations of bread and water. Meals usually included stews made of cured pork or beef, sauerkraut, bacon, potatoes, pumpkin, and turnips. If you had enough money for a cabin, you could eat fresh meat from the live chickens, hares, and pigs that were kept on board and slaughtered to order.

The concept of steerage is said to have been developed by Albert Ballin, who took over the HAPAG passenger line and realized that squeezing people between decks was more efficient and profitable. "Without steerage, I would be bankrupt in a week," he said.

Prices in 1906 indicate the differences: First class (400 Reichsmarks), 2nd class (230), new third class (170), steerage (150). On some ships, there would be as many as 200 emigrants in steerage, compared to only 20 in the cabins. It took 60 days to sail; by steam, the trip was reduced to about 13 to 19 days.

The History of Ellis Island

Some 16 million people landed on Ellis Island ( between 1892 and 1954, and their first big chance came when they were asked their names. This was the time to change your name, as there were no passports for the steerage passengers, and no documents were requested or produced. A quick test was given about your name, who paid for your trip, and the like. You had to answer quickly, or you failed. (I flunked the test that was duplicated in the Bremerhaven museum, because I pondered instead of replying immediately). Beginning in 1917, you had a reading and spelling test in English or in your mother tongue. You had to have a little cash -- $25 was the average -- or a guarantor. Up to 20,000 people a day could be processed.

If you traveled first or second (cabin) class, you didn't have to come to the island. Instead, doctors and officials came on board to process you, allowing you to leave the ship at will when they finished. Historians estimate that some 20 percent actually returned to their homelands. Some never intended to stay permanently in the first place.

If you were steerage class, you were inspected by a doctor. During the two-minute exam, a doctor watched you walk up a flight of stairs and then looked at your eyes, hands, feet, and throat. About 20 percent of immigrants were deferred on medical or other grounds, and about 2 percent were sent on the long journey back.

More Information The U.S. site ( works with the National Archives, where there are both U.S. census reports and passenger records for ships landing in the U.S. (the latter through 1957). The German version is Both sites charge for online material.

Castle Garden (, the first official receiving station in the U.S., was open from 1850 to 1892, and the site has over 10 million entries from the period 1830 through 1892. Free of charge.

Ellis Island (, which replaced Castle Garden as port of entry, has its American Family Immigration History Center. Founded in 2001 as part of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, there are 25 million records here. After you sign on and get a personal password, you have free access to the database, which traces the people who arrived in the U.S. between 1892 and 1954.

Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Germany forum.