Walking around the lively pier families were buying ice cream, couples held hands as they slowly sauntered along and the air was rich both in the intoxicating scent of the ocean along with the cries of hungry seagulls. It wasn’t dissimilar from many other towns along the sea that I’ve been to before, except I couldn’t stop thinking about how much that same spot on which I stood has changed over time. It was from these very dockyards where one of the greatest movements of people took place and the spot from which millions left Europe for a life-altering voyage.
With a long history as a trade port, it was from these wharves that more than 7 million people left Europe to start a new life. Many of them sailed to Canada and the United States, and today an incredible museum dedicated to this history stands on that very same place – the German Emigration Center. That’s also why I was in Bremerhaven, long curious to visit this incredible museum and to learn more about this massive migration of peoples that forever changed the world.
Getting to Bremerhaven was easy enough, a short train ride from Bremen and I quickly found myself in town and excited to start exploring. The museum opened its doors in 2005 and, like so many newer museums, invites guests into the collection in ways that are engaging and fun. Before starting the journey through the Center, visitors are given an identity card with the name of one of the emigrants who left from Bremerhaven. Throughout the exhibits, guests learn about their assigned traveler at special information stations, understanding the full impact of this great exodus of people in the process. Although it’s called the German Emigration Center, the fact is that people traveled from around Europe to purchase their one-way fare overseas. It’s from Bremerhaven that millions left to fill the streets of New York and all points west, forever changing American culture in the process. I suppose that’s one reason why I was so captivated by the museum, because it really is the story of my own country as well.
The Center covers all aspects of the experience, from making the tough decision to leave friends and family, to the voyage itself and how the emigrants fared once they arrived to the destination. It’s a beautifully conceived and executed space with exhibits and installations that are just as thought provoking as there are engaging. The Center though doesn’t only cover those who left Germany, it also chronicles those who arrived to call the country home. In the second half of the museum, visitors are once again given an identity card, but this time of someone who entered Germany to start a new life. Through first hand testimony and personal stories, the goal is to share just how important immigrants are to any country and the incredible accomplishments many have achieved over the decades. In a day and age when the negative aspects of immigration are constantly in the news, it was heart-warming and important to be reminded how crucial a healthy immigration system is for any country.
The most important aspect of the Center though isn’t on display or even easily presented, through two different sets of international databases the Center also contains an incredible record of those millions of people who forever left their homes. Anyone with an interest in genealogy or even scholarly research can search through these records to not only better understand their own personal history, that that of the migration and its impact on the world.
The German Emigration Center is large and detailed, so make sure to devote at least half a day to the experience in order to really appreciate the story curators are trying to share. It’s not the only experience to enjoy in Bremerhaven though, just across from the Center is another thought provoking and engaging institution, but with a much more forward-looking focus – the Klimahaus.
The Klimahaus, or Climate House, first opened in 2009 and presents a unique and definitely engaging way to think about climate change, its effects and how we as a global community can best respond. At the heart of the experience is the Travel exhibition area, which takes guests on a trip around the world following the 8-degree longitudinal point that runs through Bremerhaven. Nine stations in eight countries represent the different climate zones of the planet, and each station reflects everything about that unique spot. Walking into the Antarctica room guests need a parka right away, the temperatures reflecting everything about that destination, just as a visit to Cameroon mimics the heat and humidity of the rain forest. Each station replicates that area, not just in weather and ambiance but in sharing the story of climate change there, how it’s manifested itself and the effects that these climatic changes have had on the people who live there. In Switzerland melting ice impacts traditional farming and milk production, in Sardinia the harsh winds from Africa are changing every day life, and so on. The entire concept is fascinating and executed flawlessly, making the adventure fun but also incredibly educational.
Klimahaus has other exhibition areas as well, meant to share the story of climate change, how countries are adapting (or not) and what changes can be made in order to help mitigate the effects. Overall, the entire facility is so innovative and unique that it’s hard not to fall under its spell. It’s also a massive space though and requires as much time as you can give it. No matter your thoughts on the issue, it’s an important center of education to visit and experience and a highlight for any visitor to Bremerhaven.
Where to Stay
During my time in Bremerhaven I enjoyed a fantastic hotel in the ideal location – The Liberty. Opened in 2018, The Liberty is right on the water and is literally a few seconds walk to everything you’d want to see and do in the city. It’s a luxurious, modern and elegant property that has strong design elements throughout, with a special emphasis on New York. It’s a tribute to the millions who left from the city to start a new life overseas and added a thoughtful dimension to the experience. Add in wonderful service and truly excellent cuisine, and I can’t imagine a better place to stay in Bremerhaven.
Bremerhaven is one of those cities that I didn’t know a lot about, but which quickly became a personal favorite place to visit. In addition to these world-class institutions, there are many other reasons to visit and enjoy one’s time there from being out on the water, to the vibrant culinary scene or just for the simple pleasure of enjoying a new place. It’s also so close to Bremen, that it just makes sense to combine the two cities and to see a side of Germany that may not get as much attention as places like Munich or Berlin, but which are just as much fun to explore.