They Sailed In Search of A Better Life
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.