Billed Europe's largest theme museum, the new German emigration center opens in the northern port town of Bremerhaven Monday. It recounts the story of seven million people, who left Germany in search of a better life.
The center recounts journeys to the New World
At the site where steamboats and sailing ships docked to take on emigrants in the 19th century, the new museum now offers visitors a chance to relive the beginning of these journeys into the unknown. The center wants to serve both as a memorial and a place for people to relive the past. Officials for the public-private project hope that 170,000 people from both sides of the Atlantic will come to visit each year.
Sabine Süss, the museum's director, recently took visitors on a preview tour of the building that includes displays built by movie set designers and prop masters that allow guests to feel like they're really just about to board a ship.
A set design of a ship at the museum
"Once you've left the waiting hall, you end up on the pier here," she said. "The year's 1880. You're standing in front of a huge side of a ship, which sits in a basin. There are boxes everywhere, you see luggage and really start to feel like you're getting ready to emigrate."
Süss is thrilled with the work of the film professionals, who have recreated the scenes in the 20 million-euro ($24.6-million) building. There's a gangway that moves when visitors walk on it, giving them at least an idea of what it must have been like.
Helga von Schweinitz left Germany for the United States on the ship "Italia" in 1957 in search for a job.
"It was a mixture of excitement about the unknown and a fear of leaving everything behind," she said. "My father was standing on the pier and kept waving and waving and I saw that he was crying. I was torn, but the thrill kept me going."
Emigration scenes adorn the wall of the center
While von Schweinitz left on a modern ocean liner, emigrants still traveled on sailing ships a century earlier. It was a strenuous trip, Süss said.
"We're in a sailing ship now and these are the sleeping quarters," she explained while touring a replica of a boat. "This was also the room were people stayed during the day and throughout the entire journey that took 70, 80 days. It was extremely crowded and people didn't know each other and often didn't even speak the same language."
In the 19th century alone, 35 million Europeans packed their bags in search of a better life abroad. In Bremerhaven, 15 of these life stories are recounted to serve as guides for visitors.
They help to explain motives for leaving -- many didn't emigrate voluntarily, as the example of a young Jewish doctor shows, who fled Germany for America, but could never work in her profession again.
Interactive displays at the museum
Interactive displays also give people a chance to search for their own relatives who emigrated or simply scroll through passenger lists.
One name that comes up on the lists is Volker Schmeissner. As a 26-year-old student from Tübingen in southwestern Germany. He left for the United States in 1961.
View of the center at night
"This was the last bit of Germany I saw," he said. "It was a memory that stayed. I keep getting asked where my roots are and were I can go to find them documented."
Now his story has found a home in Bremerhaven.