HAMBURG, GERMANY — IN a quiet corner of the bustling tourist-information center on Hamburg's waterfront, a circular sign shows a 19th-century sailing ship on the high seas. It reads: ``Historic Emigration Office.'' Nearby, a colorful brochure repeats the motif and invites visitors to ``Come Trace Your Roots in Hamburg.''
For $60, the brochure explains, staff members will search ships' passenger lists for people who departed from this port between 1850 and 1914 - some 6 million names. These registers often provide personal data, such as an emigrant's town of origin.
Tracing roots is precisely the vacation-week mission that has brought me here. My paternal great-grandfather sailed from Germany around 1867, when he was a 16-year-old farmer eager to avoid military service. But when I give historian Gerrit Aust his name, John Theodore Mueller, he shakes his head. Impossible, he says. Without an exact month of departure, he cannot locate such a common name in his unindexed records.
One door closes. But then Mr. Aust opens another by handing me several volumes listing German passengers arriving at United States ports. I peruse indexes and lists. Finally, on a ship called the Senator Iken, which arrived in New York from Bremen on June 22, 1867, I find ``Mueller, John. 16. Farmer.'' It is as close as I can come to a match.
Aust photocopies the list and talks about this low-budget, low-tech office, equipped with only a desk, typewriter, telephone, file cabinet, and microfilm reader-printer. In 10 years, researchers have handled more than 14,000 requests with a 35 percent success rate.
Even for those of us in the other 65 percent who cannot uncover specific information, this emigration office offers a window on a world that until now has existed only in family lore.
To see long lists of ships - some with solid Old World names like Teutonic, Deutschland, and Germania, others with poetic New World names like America, Plymouth Rock, and Wm. Penn - is to understand the enormity of the 19th-century exodus from Europe. And to view old photos showing the hopeful faces of those awaiting passage and read the A-to-Z list of their occupations - accountant, buttonmaker, linen weaver, navigator, tutor - is to realize the diversity of talent that was literally carried on the wind for 3,000 miles to the New World.
For my great-grandfather, what should have been a 40-day voyage stretched to nearly nine weeks. First his ship was blown off course to South America. Then it was quarantined outside New York harbor because of smallpox. Jammed into rickety wooden berths in gloomy, poorly ventilated space known as steerage, most emigrants on this and other ships endured hardships few could have imagined beforehand as they dreamed of a new life.
Perhaps the wonder is how little has changed since then - how dangerous emigrants' journeys remain, for everyone from Vietnamese boat people to Haitians piling into rickety vessels. Yet the promise of ``America!'' still proves to be an irresistible lure for brave-hearted voyagers everywhere, the designated haven from persecution, the whole world's promised land.
What are we really looking for, those of us who travel to this tiny office in Hamburg? Another scrap of information to add to a family tree? The name of a village where we might find clues in a town register or cemetery? That would be rewarding, of course.
But even when that kind of detail eludes us, there exists here a different kind of reward - an indefinable sense of roots and connection that goes beyond our own ancestors. It is a broader appreciation, bordering on awe, for the courage of adventurers everywhere who are willing to risk everything to start over.
And why do we, inevitably the children of immigrants, retrace our ancestors' journeys? We too want to start fresh in our own way, and by discovering and acknowledging a little of what drove our forebears to these unknown and irresistible shores; we share their fervor ourselves. What else does it mean to be an American?