For many Americans, tracing their heritage is more than a hobby. Increasingly they want to know who their ancestors were and why they came to America. Frequently the efforts to find out more about a person's ancestry are stymied by too little information passed down through the generations.
Now the north German port city of Hamburg has opened up new research avenues for many families. The Historic Emigration Office, newly established at the Museum of Hamburg History, can draw on 5 million names entered in passenger lists of people who left for America via Hamburg between 1850 and 1914.
These passenger lists are a unique treasure of American heritage. Until now they were kept under cover at the State Archive. About 10 inquiries a month arrive there, and the employees process them as their other duties allow. Now two full-time researchers will help Americans find out more about their forefathers.
Hamburg and Bremen, plus Rotterdam and Le Havre, were the classic European emigration ports. But only Hamburg and Bremen cared for the emigrants, many of whom came totally destitute and had to wait many weeks or even months for a ship to take them to America.
During that time they were easy prey for swindlers and criminals. Health care was out of the question for the emigrants, and food was usually scarce.
In both cities, concerned citizens decided to improve conditions for the emigrants. Special societies were formed, and in Hamburg special legislation was passed for the protection of the emigrants. This legislation provided counseling , food, and health care, plus temporary housing for as many as 5,000 people at a time. It also required ships' agents to keep exact lists of all those who left Hamburg on a certain steamer. These lists have been preserved in Hamburg only; in Bremen they were destroyed for lack of space, apparently by someone who did not realize their historic significance.
The lists contain the name of each person aboard - usually the husband's name , plus that of his wife, children, and other family members traveling with them. Also given are the ages, the occupations or professions, when applicable, and the last places of residence before emigration. This is of particular importance , because church registries can often be consulted for further information in these towns.
Any American who knows an ancestor's name and the year he emigrated to the US can inquire in Hamburg for further information. Obviously the lists apply only to those who actually did leave via Hamburg, but with 5 million names the likelihood of success is rather good.
The original passenger lists are too fragile to be handled frequently, so they have been copied onto 274 microfilms for easy storage. Inquiry can be made in person at the Historic Emigration Office in Hamburg or by mail.
''For us, delving into what really amounts to American history is very exciting,'' says Bernd Nehls, one of the researchers.
''For example, a man named Richard Voss from Downingtown, Pa., wanted to know something about a man named 'Christ. Voss' and his wife, Wilhelmina. He gave us a range of three years, in which Mr. Voss was believed to have left for the United States. We not only found out that he traveled with his wife and three sons, but also that he came from Malchow, now in East Germany. If Mr. Voss wishes, he can inquire there for more information about his ancestor,'' Mr. Nehls says. East German cities are usually cooperative in helping to trace the ancestry of Americans who inquire.
The Emigration Office works in close cooperation with the State Archive, with the University of Hamburg department of history, and with the Museum for Hamburg History, which is in the process of setting up a new permanent exhibition on emigration via Hamburg.
The Hamburg passenger lists contain emigrants of German nationality, but also many who came from Poland, from Romania and Hungary, and from Austria to make their fortunes in the New World.
There is a $30 fee for processing an inquiry, plus charges of $10 for each additional year the researchers must check if you're not certain about the year of emigration. The Historic Emigration Office is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays. Inquiries by mail should be addressed to Historic Emigration Office, Museum fur Hamburgische Geschichte, Holstenwall 24, 2000 Hamburg 36, West Germany.
Anyone stopping by in person receives very fast service, with an answer possible within an hour or two - if the data are precise.