Tracing ancestors from Germany

This item appears on page 18 of the December 2011 issue.
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From 1821 to 1914, more than 44 million people left Europe heading for North America, and, of those, over seven million sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany. To trace their travels, in Bremerhaven the Deutsches Auswandererhaus, or German Emigration Center (Columbusstrasse 65, 27568 Bremerhaven, Germany; phone +49 [0] 471/9 02 20 0 or fax 9 02 20 22), has been open to visitors since 2005.

My husband, Karl, and I visited this harbor-side museum on July 4, 2011. The DAH was the winner of the European Museum of the year in 2007 and we could see why.

Your credit card-sized entry ticket (€10.80, near $15) is also an RFID card with the name of an actual emigrant on it. Using this technology, you can follow that person’s journey from Bremerhaven to Ellis Island, learning the type of ship he sailed on and the conditions he experienced on the journey plus why he wanted to leave Europe and what he hoped to find in his new home. You can even find out what happened to him and his family in the New World.

The card grants you access to the audio guides, which can be heard in several languages, including English.

We were most impressed with the exhibit detailing life aboard ships, such as a sailing ship from the 1850s, a steamship from the 1880s and a larger cruising ship from the 1910s.

The ship conditions were awful — 100 people crammed for eight to 12 weeks into a room smaller than most modern living rooms! Five people would sleep in a bed smaller than a modern double bed. Washing and toileting facilities were in a telephone booth-sized room with a bucket.

Visitors can use the computer research facility (access included in admission price) to learn if any of their family members left from Bremerhaven. The helpful staff speaks English, and there are designated computers set up for English and with American-style keyboards, although if the museum is crowded you may have to wait. You can print out the records for a small fee.

We were lucky and found three of my husband’s relatives: his grandmother, grandfather and great-aunt.

The computers also connect to Ancestry.com, enabling you to conduct a broader search.

Bremerhaven offers other interesting museums: Klimahaus, or Climate Museum, with exhibits in English, describing climate zones found along the longitude line 8 degrees east; Deutsches Shiffahrtsmuseum, or National German Maritime Museum (website in German), with some exhibits in English, where you can tour a German U-boat, and Historisches Museum Bremerhaven, with exhibits in English.

We visited all of those and found them worth the time and entry fees. Be aware that the Climate Museum can be crowded with schoolchildren on weekdays.

We spent two full days in Bremerhaven and could have used one more to visit, in Speckenbüttel, the Volkskundliches Freilicht­museum, or Open Air Museum, a short bus ride from the city center.

As Bremerhaven is on the North Sea, it is advisable to bring a jacket; even in July, it was cold enough for a winter coat. Bremen, about 30 kilometers inland, was much warmer.

MARTHA WILEY, Landstuhl, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

From 1821 to 1914, more than 44 million people left Europe heading for North America, and, of those, over seven million sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany. To trace their travels, in Bremerhaven the Deutsches Auswandererhaus, or German Emigration Center (Columbusstrasse 65, 27568 Bremerhaven, Germany; phone +49 [0] 471/9 02 20 0 or fax 9 02 20 22), has been open to visitors since 2005.

My husband, Karl, and I visited this harbor-side museum on July 4, 2011. The DAH was the winner of the European Museum of the year in 2007 and we could see why.

Your credit card-sized entry ticket (€10.80, near $15) is also an RFID card with the name of an actual emigrant on it. Using this technology, you can follow that person’s journey from Bremerhaven to Ellis Island, learning the type of ship he sailed on and the conditions he experienced on the journey plus why he wanted to leave Europe and what he hoped to find in his new home. You can even find out what happened to him and his family in the New World.

The card grants you access to the audio guides, which can be heard in several languages, including English.

We were most impressed with the exhibit detailing life aboard ships, such as a sailing ship from the 1850s, a steamship from the 1880s and a larger cruising ship from the 1910s.

The ship conditions were awful — 100 people crammed for eight to 12 weeks into a room smaller than most modern living rooms! Five people would sleep in a bed smaller than a modern double bed. Washing and toileting facilities were in a telephone booth-sized room with a bucket.

Visitors can use the computer research facility (access included in admission price) to learn if any of their family members left from Bremerhaven. The helpful staff speaks English, and there are designated computers set up for English and with American-style keyboards, although if the museum is crowded you may have to wait. You can print out the records for a small fee.

We were lucky and found three of my husband’s relatives: his grandmother, grandfather and great-aunt.

The computers also connect to Ancestry.com, enabling you to conduct a broader search.

Bremerhaven offers other interesting museums: Klimahaus, or Climate Museum, with exhibits in English, describing climate zones found along the longitude line 8 degrees east; Deutsches Shiffahrtsmuseum, or National German Maritime Museum (website in German), with some exhibits in English, where you can tour a German U-boat, and Historisches Museum Bremerhaven, with exhibits in English.

We visited all of those and found them worth the time and entry fees. Be aware that the Climate Museum can be crowded with schoolchildren on weekdays.

We spent two full days in Bremerhaven and could have used one more to visit, in Speckenbüttel, the Volkskundliches Freilicht­museum, or Open Air Museum, a short bus ride from the city center.

As Bremerhaven is on the North Sea, it is advisable to bring a jacket; even in July, it was cold enough for a winter coat. Bremen, about 30 kilometers inland, was much warmer.

MARTHA WILEY, Landstuhl, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany