For many Americans, the search for their roots often takes them to the entry and exit points of their ancestors. It might be Ellis Island in New York, Gorée Island in Senegal or Bremen and Antwerp. On our own quest for answers, Jay and Tanya recently took a trip to the Emigration Museum in Ballinstadt, a suburb of Hamburg. The grounds of this once sprawling temporary city for European emigrants to America are much as they were during the center’s 33-year history, although most of the buildings are now gone. Reconstructed buildings are those shown with green roofs in this photo.
Over the time period from 1850 to 1934, over 5 million Europeans made the journey through the port of Hamburg to start new lives elsewhere, many of those passed through Ballinstadt from the time it was built in 1901. Meticulous passenger records were maintained and these have been digitized and are capable of being searched online while at the center. Tanya was excited to find her Russian grandfather’s name in the database, documenting his passage from Hamburg to America in 1913.
In the early years of the 20th century, Europe, especially eastern Europe, was a place lots of people wanted to leave, even more so if you were Jewish. Born in Hamburg, Albert Ballin, who was Jewish, had inherited his father’s emigration agency in 1874. He developed it into a shipping line and facilitated the exit of people leaving Europe. He eventually became the general director of Hamburg-America Line (HAPAG).
So many people were trying to leave Europe through Hamburg that they had no place to stay while waiting to board one of his 14 ships sailing for North and South America. Ballin solved this problem by building an emigration facility on an island about 5km away from the place where emigrants would eventually board their ship, several days or weeks later. Known as “The World’s Biggest Inn”, for two marks a day (compared to 3.25 marks at a hotel) people could get food, lodging and recreation while they waited for their ship.
Now Ballinstadt was not the Ritz by any means. But after traveling for several days from Russia, Poland, or Hungary, finally getting across the Prussian border and getting to Hamburg, exhausted and hungry emigrants were able to recover a bit before continuing on to their new homes.
There was practicality in having them stay at a place like Ballinstadt. Passengers had to undergo several medical exams while there because the shipping company knew that if the emigrant was rejected at their destination port, like Ellis Island, they would be forced to return to Hamburg at the shipping company’s expense.
Eastern European Jews were especially attracted to Hamburg as an exit point because Ballinstadt had its own synagogue, served kosher food and cultural differences between the several different arriving groups was respected. It was no bed of roses however. Men and women were housed in different buildings, children had to sleep two to a bed and there was often overcrowding. But Ballinstadt served its purpose as a transit point to a potentially better life abroad.
In April, 1934 Ballinstadt’s history as an emigration center began to end. The Nazis housed an SS division in two-thirds of the complex and for seven months people fleeing Germany were forced to live next to them. This was obviously not a good situation. In November of that year, the SS took over the entire complex and its history as a temporary home for emigrants ended. In 1939, Ballinstadt became Hamburg’s largest prisoner-of war camp, housing over 1,500 POWs from France, Belgium, Poland, Serbia and Russia and in 1947 it was used as temporary housing for Hamburg residents made homeless due to the war.
But for us, Ballinstadt was another valuable piece of the puzzle of discovering our roots.