The émigré experience

Interactive exploration: Exhibits at the BallinStadt Museum.

Interactive exploration: Exhibits at the BallinStadt Museum.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Gunvanthi Balaram


By recording and preserving the stories of past migrations, a museum in Hamburg seeks to address issues of integration in Europe today…

In spring 2008, John Siegmund, an American of German descent, came across a report in the Hamburger Abendblatt that made him sit up. Describing Hamburg’s new BallinStadt Museum, located in the harbour and dedicated to the history of migration, it mentioned that the institution was soliciting biographies from people of their ancestors who had sailed out of Hamburg port to find succour and refuge in the New World.

Siegmund was the first to call the museum. “My great-grandfather, Johann Heinrich Gustav Siegmund (1866-1921), left Hamburg in the early 1890s for better prospects in the US,” said Siegmund, who grew up in the US but subsequently settled in Helstedt-Ulzburg near Hamburg. “Johann fared well and kept in regular touch with his family here until World War II. Then their letters got lost.” The family re-connected — serendipitously — when Siegmund’s cousin visited Hamburg on a concert tour in 1956. “Some relatives heard my cousin’s accordion concert and interview over the radio, and rushed over on the S-Bahn to meet him. They caught him just before his ship was to set sail.”

Beverly Higgins of Rochester, NY, also sent in the story of her grandfather, Walter P. Lowack, along with his original documents and pictures. “My grandfather migrated to the US after WW I, when things were so bleak in Germany,” she recounted. “His uncle Albert in Rochester sponsored him and Walter proceeded to study English and become an accountant. His fiancé, Hertha Bannick, joined him in 1926 and they were married. He built a home for her and they had two children, Gunther and Ruth (my mother), who took care to preserve his papers.”

Leaving home

Johann Siegmund and Walter Lowack’s were among the 72 biographies in the show. Their documents were digitally copied and added to the institution’s huge archive of biographies, clippings and passenger lists: the cornerstone of BallinStadt Museum. The passenger lists contain details about all the five million people — including infants — who left from Hamburg for America between 1850 and 1939. They can be viewed on the museum’s computers with the help of, a website that allows people to search their family trees with census databases and other resources.

The museum, with its unorthodox aesthetic concept, was set up in mid-2007 by the “Stiftung Hamburg Maritim”, a foundation dedicated to preserving Hamburg’s rich maritime heritage. It cost 12 million euros — two-thirds of the money came from public funds and one-third from private sponsors including the Hapag-Lloyd shipping company.

It’s named after Albert Ballin, an influential Jewish entrepreneur who built BallinStadt, “a city within the city”, in 1901 on the island of Veddel to harbour the emigrants who converged on Hamburg from all over Europe to take his Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) ships bound for the Americas. The original BallinStadt comprised 30 buildings that included a synagogue, a church, a hospital, cafeterias and a playground. Ballin committed suicide in November 1918, after the Kaiser’s empire, and his own business, collapsed. BallinStadt and the Hapag ships were later used by the Nazis to evacuate their soldiers.

The museum is located in three “replica” BallinStadt buildings. Visitors learn about the émigré experience not only through artefacts, pictures, documents and archival footage shown on computer screens, but also through interactive exhibits — among others, mannequins in period garb that drone out recorded stories in solemn voices when you pick up a handset attached to their side.

“We did not want to stick to a traditional museum concept,” explains BallinStadt’s research chief Jorge Birkner, a German historian with Brazilian roots. “We plumped for the interactive concept; our angle was that people should be able to relate to the exhibits.”

Moving stories

People clearly do. An elderly man seemed close to tears as he listened to the account of a 17-year-old Polish boy whose parents, fearing he would be drafted, had convinced him to flee to America in 1904, after war broke out between Russia and Germany. Teenagers frowned at the tale of a young iron-smelter who had to abandon his beloved worker-grandparents to escape inflation and riots after French and Belgian forces occupied his native Ruhr Valley in 1924, and ended up at the Ford factory in Detroit. Others sighed over stories out of the Jewish exodus.

“What does home mean to you?” asked a mannequin’s sombre voice after one account. And I was reminded of Friedrich Schiller’s words: “Home is probably the most valuable thing human beings can possess.” Home away from home, too: when you consider the sections on émigré success stories — Kellog, Levi Strauss, Heinz, Miller, Steinway, the Vogt family, the Kissingers — and on new migrants in Germany.

“Issues of migration, integration and the co-existence of societies are searing European topics today,” said Birkner. “Our objective is to portray migrations as a timeless phenomenon. We seek to bridge that gap between emigration history and contemporary in-migration/immigration to Germany, pointing out similarities and distinctive features. And, as BallinStadt is located in Hamburg’s foremost multi-cultural district, we seek to reach out to the local migrant community (Turkish, Balkan, South Asian) and encourage them to participate in the public discourse by submitting their own migrant stories.”

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