From North German Ports to the Americas: Migration in the 19th and 20th Century

In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of people left Europe for the Americas in search of a better life – choosing a migration route through North German ports.

sculpture called Die Auswanderer, emigrants, remembering Migration from North German Ports to the Americas
This sculpture called Die Auswanderer, hence emigrants, is standing on the shore of the river Weser. It 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, stories of emigration intrigued me. 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 after invasion of the Warsaw Pact. We only had to cross the border to Western Germany, still, I find their move pretty brave.

After all, they didn’t have a clue what to expect. They had never been to Germany before, and my father didn’t speak one word German. Also, 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 ever see any of them again.

Picture of Renata Green at her Kindergarten after arrival in Germany
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, what they did was, obviously, nothing compared to people crossing deserts or oceans, fleeing wars or famines. They actually risk their lives during the transit.

Migration to the “New World”

I have this personal connection to emigration. Therefore, every time I visited New York, I visited Ellis Island. Here, I found the whole subject united in a heart-wrenching exhibition.

Ellis Island in New York, USA, first stop of emigrants coming to America - remembering Migration from North German Ports to the Americas
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 deeply seeing all the different attires, small appliances, pictures, and toys. Mostly worthless stuff. Nevertheless, it had been so precious to their owners, they made room for it in their small suitcases.

How much 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 job offers from America.

Emigration Placard displayed on the Cap San Diego warning girls coming Migration from North German Ports to the Americas
Warning migrating young women.

Next to it was another placard advertising for the HAPAG.
As in Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, the shipping company located in Hamburg – where I was 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 the Ballindamm. It is, obviously, 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.

Alster Lake in the Center of Hamburg
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 in 1874, the son got in charge of business at the age of 17. After all, Albert Ballin had eight siblings to take care of.

Business kept growing. In 1882, 17 percent of all emigrations to the US were transacted by Morris & Co.

Portrait of Albert Ballin, the man who enabled Migration from North German Ports to the Americas
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.

Shaping Navigation

It was Ballin’s idea to install steerage decks. This way, the passage was far cheaper and affordable for more of the poor migrants. Henceforth, 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. Clearly, much of that credit goes to Albert Ballin.

Coming from Afar

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. This way, they sold sort of an all-inclusive-package to that not so worldly lot in the East-European hinterland.

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

Creating a Departure Hall

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 had to wait for many days for their passage. They had nowhere to go. They squatted in the streets. The Hamburgers were annoyed.

Supper at the HAPAG emigration halls in 1909 with people during their Migration from North German Ports to the Americas
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)

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. Those were containing sleeping and living areas, dining rooms, and bathrooms. Also, there was a music pavilion and a church as well as a synagogue. 

This way, his clients were able to wait for their passage in a comfortable and safe environment.

Getting Ready For The Big Crossing

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 I made the connection between those placards in Ellis Island and the HAPAG and Albert Ballin. Nevertheless, I kept wondering why in Germany, nobody seemed to be interested in this story. After all, it 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 remote and 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. They set up very nicely on the museum ship Cap San Diego in the very harbor. This gave visitors the feel of being on board of one of those ships.
A highly informative exhibition including a movie and some audio stations.

Cap San Diego - a museum ship housing different exhibitions since 1989, also one on Migration from North German Ports to the Americas
Cap San Diego – a museum ship housing different exhibitions since 1989.

The exhibition was called A Suitcase Packed With Hope. In addition, Belgian illustrator Gilbert Declercq made a comic book with the same title. It’s the story of the young woman by the name of Enzi who leaves her home in South Germany for America.
It is a great endorsement, especially when visiting the exhibition with kids.

There is still a small part of the show on display. So if visiting the Cap San Diego, 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.

BallinStadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg
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 /

Finally, in 2007, on the original grounds of the emigration halls, they opened a museum.
For this purpose, some of the original halls were reconstructed.

But first, let’s go back in time:

Building a City

The first construction phase of the emigrations halls in the Veddel district South of the river Elbe ended in 1901. Since the premises had direct connection to the railway, the emigrants could avoid the city of Hamburg all together.

Instead, they went straight to their interim lodgings.

The emigration industry got bigger and bigger, hence they added more halls. 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.

Exhibition World in Transit at the BallinStadt in Veddel, Hamburg,
The reconstructed halls in the Veddel district in Hamburg’s southern outskirts. Today, it is 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 )

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, families who had lost their homes in air raids found shelter in these buildings .

Nonetheless, step by step, all the buildings were demolished.

The Museum

In 2007, today’s BallinStadt museum opened its gates and is spread over three reconstructed halls.

With all the touching destinies and fantastic hands-on exhibits, it is a great place of remembrance for all ages. You can really follow the emigrants on their exciting way to an unknown future.

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

The museum can be easily reached by urban train. Still, 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. Then, from November to February, it’s open from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m.

The Hapag-Hallen in Cuxhaven

It became more and more difficult for the HAPAG’s huge emigrant ships to access the harbor of Hamburg on the river Elbe.

To avoid complicated maneuvers, from 1889 on, passages to America started mostly at the port of Cuxhaven. This city is located about 120 kilometers west of Hamburg on the shores of the North Sea.

However, till 1937, Cuxhaven was politically part of the city of Hamburg. Therefore, the ‘Big Brother’ was able to take advantage of Cuxhaven’s direct access to the North Sea.

Cuxhaven Hapag-Hallen from where people were coming to America
The Hapag-Hallen were opened in 1902. This way, passengers were able to get on board right on the North Sea’s shores.
Cuxhaven Hapag-Hallen from where people were Coming to America
Entrance to the dome hall – for the upper class only.

Today, on the second floor of the terminal building on Cuxhaven’s pier Steubenhoeft is an exhibition. Admittedly, at first glance, it doesn’t look very spectacular. However, if you take your time reading the panels, it’s very informative and touching.
Definitely worth the visit.

Nevertheless, compared to the award-winning hands-on exhibition at Bremerhaven and in Hamburg, it is far more austere.

Cuxhaven Hapag-Hallen, Exhibition at Steubenhöft Exhibtion on people Coming to America
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 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.

City center of Bremen, Germany. Bremen was a city from where people were coming to America
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 headquarters remained in the city of Bremen, the port of embarkation was Bremerhaven. This exclave of Bremen is 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. Subsequently, the cargo was not only beer or coffee or commodity anymore. It was human freight. Between 1830 and 1971, about 7 million people left Europe via the port of Bremerhaven. Altogether, more than through the much bigger city of Hamburg.

The former Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven, Germany from where people were coming to America
Today, this building is part of Bremerhaven’s University. It used to house waiting rooms for passengers waiting for their passage.

Migration Becomes an Industry

So initially, the money from the living freight was made in Bremerhaven. With the construction of the railway in 1862, however, the passengers had quicker and easier access to the ships. Consequently, they did not need to wait right next to the docks.

Exhibtion on Emigration in Bremerhaven, Germany on people Coming to America
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)

Hence, they now waited in the city of Bremen – and spent their money rather there.

Germany’s First Museum on Emigration

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.

Exhibtion on Emigration in Bremerhaven, Germany on people Coming to America
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)

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

Menus at the Deutsches Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven
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.
"Boarding Passes" at the Deutsches Auswanderermuseum in Bremerhaven, exhibition on people Coming to America
Every visitor is supplied with a boarding pass following the destiny of one of the emigrants. This brings the stories – and history – really alive.

One Last Anecdote

I cannot spare you a last fun fact. In 1885, a certain Friedrich Trump migrated via Bremerhaven to the United States of America. He came from Kallstadt, today located in Rhineland-Palatinate, and intended to evade military service. Obviously, 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. Then, from November to February, it opens from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m.

Four Places of Remembrance

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

Best Way to Travel Between These Cities

If you’re not driving, you can travel between the four cities easily by train. The Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national train company, offers the so-called Ländertickets. These country tickets are valid for one day in a specific federal state. Every federal state has its own. The costs vary from about 24 to 29 €uro.

For these four cities, a ticket for Lower Saxony is enough. This day pass covers Cuxhaven, but also the city-states Hamburg, Bremen and Bremerhaven. Hence, for one day, it’s all you need.

This day pass, the Niedersachsen-Ticket, costs 24 €uro for one. Then, you have to add another 5 €uro per person travelling with you. So if you are two adults, it will set you back 29 €uro for both of you. Finally, if you travel with four other people, you’ll pay 44 €uro for your party of five. Not bad, right?!
Also, a child under 15 travels for free with two adults.

Hamburg train station
Here, at the main station in Hamburg, you can see two different regional trains. On these, you can travel an entire day with a Lower Saxony-ticket that you can also use going only to Cuxhaven with another person.

Altogether, you can actually travel the entire day within the respective federal state. However, you can only take regional trains. Those train numbers beginning with RE, MET, etc. In contrast, not the interregional trains such as the Intercity (IC) or Intercity Express (ICE).

Single Trips

However, if you are travelling by yourself, oneway trips between the cities might be cheaper than a day pass. Therefore and for other connections and rates, please visit the Deutsche Bahn’s website. It’s available in seven languages.

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