Editor’s note: In the October of 1949, when I was five years old and hurricanes were numbered, not named, my family and I, displaced persons from Latvia, left for the United States from the Interzonal Staging Area at Camp Grohn in Bremerhaven aboard the USS General SD Sturgis, a converted troop carrier, and headed straight into Hurricane 11, which was moving across the Atlantic with winds reaching 100 miles per hour. When Amanda Lauer, who lives up the road from me in Maryland, posted the above picture, I felt I was back there again. I asked her to tell me about her visit, and she sent me the following, which she now shares with you.
I write from a train traveling from Northern Germany to Frankfurt for my return trip to the United States. Though I have visited Germany several times, this was my first excursion to Lower Saxony to visit colleagues at the University of Oldenburg. My host professor suggested that I take a Saturday trip to Bremerhaven, a place that I had never heard mentioned. At first, I was hesitant about visiting a busy port near the North Sea but was persuaded by promises of the amazing Climate House at the Bremerhaven Zoo and the German Emigration Center. It dawned on me that my ancestors might have left from that same spot over 150 years ago in search of a better life.
With a Japanese postdoctoral fellow in tow, neither of us speaking more than a few words of German, we set off on our journey north. Yoko proved to be a valuable companion since she came equipped with three more months of German public transportation experience than I possessed. On the first bus, I used three crucial words on the driver, asking, “Sprechen Sie English?” He responded by speaking very loudly and slowly. In German. Somehow the tickets were purchased. We managed our bus transfer, rode through miles of flat, flat farmland and disembarked just steps from the Emigration Center.
After a quick lunch in the cafeteria, we were subjected to what I assumed was an introduction–it was all in German–and were herded into a small, dim room crammed with other tourists. A very loud German voice began booming over the loudspeaker. I felt quite trapped and rather wary. Just as the doors opened, I figured out that all this had been done simply to simulate what emigrants might have experienced while they were stuffed into similar holding rooms. Phew.
We climbed wooden steps and began the tour, which was quite well done. You are able to listen to the story of an actual passenger–each person has her own–while exploring hands-on exhibits that show the living conditions that prevailed onboard three types of ships.
The first was a sailing ship, used until about 1870 to transport farmers and tradesmen searching for living conditions better than those found in Southern Germany. At the time, only about 1 in 4 farmers could make a living, and there was an overabundance of tradesmen.
That was the case with Frederick Maulick, my great-great-great grandfather, who left Württemberg in search of plentiful land. He arrived in Philadelphia, where he lived for a while before moving west to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, along with thousands of other Germans. As I peered into the replicated steerage exhibit, my heart sank. How terrifying to leave everything you know only to be crammed into a filthy, stinky, dark bunkroom with just a trunkful of clothes and other necessities. I was completely consumed imagining Fred’s life aboard a ship for several weeks and his apprehension at arriving in a foreign land where he could neither speak the official language nor know where he would end up. Things must be awful to entice anyone away from the familiar and into such a ship’s belly.
I barely registered the drastically improved conditions depicted in the replica steam ships and ocean liners. These were for the soft. I forgot about the passenger that I was supposed to be following until we arrived at the Ellis Island audio station. There, I learned that Hertha and her husband were Jewish doctors fleeing the deteriorating political conditions of the 1930s. They encountered terrible situations in New York but survived, never returning to medicine. Things were looking up for Fred, though. He had the promise of fertile farmland and a far better existence than the one that he had left behind.
After Ellis Island and information about the distribution of German emigrants around the world, we were given the option of visiting the displaced persons special exhibit. We both declined. My traveling companion probably did so because she did not know what that entailed. I did so because I get very upset whenever I consider the issue of displaced persons and those that never made it out of war-torn Europe. One tour of a former concentration camp (Mauthausen, years ago) will make you lose faith in humanity for a good long time.
After the museum tour, we took a walk outside along the Weser River. It is this river that carried the emigrants to the North Sea and beyond. I have trouble describing the feeling, but it was incredible to stand where my ancestors stood, looking out at the menacing gray skies and feeling the bracing wind. As I looked out in the distance, just past a big rock, I could almost see the floating icebergs, the billowing sails, the seasickness and the relief of a port on the horizon.