They Sailed In Search of A Better Life

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

JOHANN MOLLER has decided to leave his village in the German state of Hesse to go to Wisconsin. Jadwiga Bachleda, a 19-year-old Polish girl, is also heading for America.

These emigrants have two things in common: Each expects to find a better life in the United States; both will pass through the north German port of Bremen.

From the early 1800s to 1915, more than 30 million people left home during what historians refer to as "The Great European Migration." Bremen was the major port of embarkation. At least 7 million people journeyed to the New World by way of this city.

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This summer, under the German title "Aufbruch in die Fremde," or "Departure Into the Unknown," an imaginative multimedia history exhibit in Bremen's ancient, red-brick city hall highlights the experiences of 19th-century emigrants and explains how Bremen profited by transporting them across the Atlantic.

"The meaning of emigration, especially for Bremen, is historically essential," says Christian Schrenk, one of the exhibit's organizers. "It's not stretching the point if I say that without the emigration, without 7 million emigrants going through Bremen, leaving their money here, in a period of 50 or 60 years ... Bremen would, economically, not have developed to what it is today."

Working with Diethelm Knauf and colleagues at the University of Bremen's "Labor Migration Project," Dr. Schrenk has assembled an exhibit that conveys the emigrant experience. "Johann" and "Jadwiga" act as guides to the exhibit, explaining the larger historical trend of 19th-century emigration through their own representative lives.

Johann's voyage begins in 1854 and Jadwiga's in 1907. "The 1850 period is marked by a lot of Germans emigrating, and by an emigration from the [German] countryside to the [US] countryside, more or less," explains Schrenk, "whereas around 1900, you have a completely different type of emigration. You have what can be labeled as `proletarian mass migration.' People from eastern and southern Europe, basically landless, leave for the US, and they wind up in the big industrial agglomerations, like New York Cit y and Chicago."

The exhibit comprises 14 rooms that Schrenk and his colleagues call "rooms of experience." Each room illustrates a stage of the trip, such as life on board a ship.

Entering the first room, visitors walk into Johann's peasant farmer's shack in Hesse. On a video screen, an actor playing the part of Johann describes what life is like in Germany as he decides to leave his village. Outside the hut, visitors step onto a cobblestone street leading to the edge of Jadwiga's impoverished Polish village. An actress playing the part of Jadwiga explains that she has never known what it is like to have a full stomach.

The differences between Johann's and Jadwiga's voyages illustrate the revolutionary changes in transportation. In 1854, Johann must wait in Bremen for several weeks before his wooden sailing ship departs on its nine-week passage. In 1907, Jadwiga is whisked from Krakow to Bremen on a special train and waits only three days in Bremen before beginning her nine-day steamer trip to New York.

Transporting emigrants to America quickly became big business for the shipping merchants in Bremen.

"The Bremen merchants had a problem in the early 19th century," says Schrenk. "Their problem was they had nothing to bring to the United States. They only had goods [such as cotton and tobacco] to take from the United States. So their ships actually went over there empty, with no freight. Once they realized, as early as the 1830s, that there was emigration going on in Europe, they began to channel emigration to Bremen."

Emigrants became "profitable freight" for the shipping companies. A lucrative, circle route was established whereby Bremen merchants used fares from emigrants to pay for the passage of boats bound for the US and to finance the boats' return voyage in advance. This prefinancing of eastbound ships allowed them to underprice their freight rates from American ports back to Europe, thus giving them an advantage over competing shipping companies.

Agents for the shipowners fanned out across Europe looking for people who wanted to go to America. The more emigrants they could pack into the steerage sections of their boats, the cheaper their shipping costs would be. Detailed railroad schedules were devised to deliver emigrants to Bremen close to a ship's departure time.

SPEED was important to save the shipping companies money, but Bremen officials realized that it was necessary to treat emigrants well to keep business from going to other European ports. Satisfied emigrants were good advertising.

"It's amazing how many emigrants wrote back to their families from the US telling them very detailed [accounts of] how the trip was," says Schrenk. "They said, `Don't go via Rotterdam. Don't go via Liverpool,' or even, `Don't go via Hamburg. Go via Bremen. They'll take care of you.' "

The Bremen government passed laws regulating the treatment of ship passengers. Information bureaus were set up to inform travelers about where to find inexpensive rooming houses and places to eat. Later, huge dormitories provided temporary accommodations for large groups of emigrants. Cafeterias in the halls were capable of feeding 3,500 people in a single sitting.

In an anteroom, visitors get a taste of some of the emigrants' emotional journey just before arriving at New York's Ellis Island. Worried voices repeat the question, "Will they let me in?" Two percent of all emigrants who entered the immigration center were sent back, often on the boat that brought them.

The exhibit has significance for people on either side of the Atlantic. Surprisingly, most residents are not aware of Bremen's role as the No. 1 port of embarkation before World War I, Schrenk says. In addition to learning about their city's history, he says, German visitors get a new perspective on some contemporary problems, such as the flood of eastern Europeans now coming to Germany looking for work.

"We have this word, `Wirtschaftsfluchtlinger,' economic refugees," he says. "It's used in a derogatory sense: `They just come here because they want to make money.' But our Johann, or the Germans in the whole of the 19th century who emigrated to the US, they were `Wirtschaftsfluchtlinger' all the way. They left because they wanted to live better."

American audiences will have a chance to meet Johann and Jadwiga this fall when the exhibit travels to New York City. Using the English title "Fame, Fortune, and Sweet Liberty," it will appear as part of the 100th anniversary celebration at Ellis Island from September 10 to November 11.

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