If you decide to visit Hamburg, you have to go to Ballinstadt, the emigration museum. This is where numerous Europeans, especially Jews, were boarding in order to leave Europe to go to America, hoping for a better future. From 1850 to 1934, more than 5 million emigrants coming from all over Europe left from Ballinstadt to go to America in order to start a better life. Ballinstadt was destroyed by the Nazis in 1934 but it was restored as it was in the early 2000s. Ballinstadt opened in 2007 and it’s now possible to discover what the emigrants were going through before leaving Europe.
History of Ballinstadt
It’s important to put things in context. At the time the Jews were persecuted, anti-Semitism was rampant. 80% of the emigrants leaving Eastern Europe to go to Hamburg were Jews at the time. There were also many conflicts, famine, poor economic activity and lack of job opportunities. Those were the strongest factors for migration. Moreover, some rumors were saying America had a growing need of labor force due to the industrial boom. So there were mostly people from Germany but also Poland, Hungary, Russia and even Ireland who went to Ballinstadt, this emigration station at the Hamburg port, in order to leave the continent.
This flow of emigrants was bringing money in Hamburg. Indeed, Ballinstadt was selling to the emigrants a train ticket from their departure city to Hamburg, the nights at the hotel, transfer from the hotel to the boat and the boat ticket to go to America. The flows didn’t bring advantages only: there were hygiene problems, thefts and not enough rooms in boarding houses or in homestay accommodation. At the end of the 19th century, there was an outbreak of disease so those who were sick were isolated in dormitories until they recovered.
Opening of Ballinstadt
To remedy these problems, the city of Hamburg called Albert Ballin, director general of the Hamburg-America line, a transatlantic shipping enterprise. He was also named director or Ballinstadt, in fact Ballinstadt was named after him! Albert Ballin built big halls to host the emigrants. Those halls opened in 1901. The emigrants were arriving by train and were going straight to the boats to board. There were 30 buildings total and they could host 5,000 people at the same time. Ballinstadt was proudly called largest hotel in the world.
All the efforts of Albert Ballin were ruined by WWI. He lost numerous ships and committed suicide on November 9th 1918, two days before the armistice. Ballinstadt stayed opened until 1934 when the Nazis demolished the place. After WWII, the halls were used as temporary housing then as a car workshop for many years. The museum finally opened in 2007.
Visit to Ballinstadt
So you can now visit Ballinstadt, also called the emigration museum or the port of dreams. It’s dedicated to all these emigrants and was built where you could find the emigrant halls at the time. It’s a place full of history, made of 3 red-brick buildings. It’s actually a big exhibition about the emigrants who came here, their living conditions and their experiences during their trip from Hamburg to the new world, America!
We learn that in these halls, there were dormitories, living rooms, dining rooms, bathrooms, a church, a synagogue, a small concert venue, a room for medical examination and a military hospital. It was a shelter but also an entertaining place for the emigrants. In the museum today there are interactive screens, historical documents, suitcases and exhibitions offering a customized experience of the historical events which took place more than a century ago.
Ballinstadt was really an open door to the new world. You’ll find there photos, newspapers of that era, items, sound extracts of testimonies (history of emigrants to learn about their motivations, what they’ve been through and their hopes). In total there are 1,500 items exhibited. In a room, you’re in a bustling market of New York in the 1920, where the emigrants were arriving.
In an emigrant’s shoes in Ballinstadt
The visitors can also live in an emigrant’s shoes, from their socioeconomic and political origins to their journey to America. There’s a video game called “Simmigrant”. You’re the main charachter, an emigrant and you’re going through all the emigration steps. From giving up your roots to passing through the European ports, then crossing the Atlantic and let’s not forget arriving on the American ground and the selection in Ellis Island.
The fear, the tears, the cruelty of the immigration officers in America, the hopes of a better life… Everything is exhibited. It’s poignant but very interesting. Most emigrants were going to New York City. Over there, we all know Little Italy and Chinatown but most people don’t know there was also a Little Germany! The Germans also went to Canada (on the west coast), in Argentina and in Brazil.
At the end of the visit, there’s a room with computers with a database of all the people who left Europe from Ballinstadt from 1850 to 1934. You can find the names of your ancestors. For your information, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg’s ancestors passed through Ballinstadt. There’s also a cheap restaurant there, just like the cafeteria at the time. This visits complements the visit to Ellis Island in NYC. Ballinstadt is smaller but it’s still very interesting.
I really liked my visit to Ballinstadt in Hamburg and I strongly encourage you to visit this museum, especially if you’ve been to Ellis Islans in New York City! Here are some tips now!
How to get to Ballinstadt
You have to take the S3 or the S31 train and get off at Veddel/Ballinstadt station. You can also take ferry number 10 from Landungsbrücken (the Maritime Circle Line).
Ballinstadt ticket price
It’s 13 euros to get in. For children from 5 to 12, it’s 7 euros to get in.
Ballinstadt opening times
From November to February, Ballinstadt is open from 10am to 4:30pm. From March to October, Ballinstadt is open from 10am to 6pm. Final admittance one hour before closing time.
Ballinstadt travel tips
- FYI, when you get in, they hand you a guide with all the information written in English. Very useful!
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