- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

HAMBURG, Germany — Wistfulness and envy accompanied the great ships, crowded with emigrants on their way to America, out of the mouth of the Elbe River into the North Sea. “America,” the saying went, “is just around the corner.”

Only a little imagination is required to see, in the mind’s eye, the tearful scenes on the dockside, the weeping relatives saying goodbye, and the ships moving slowly toward the cold horizon. This was the starting point for the great waves of German immigration to the New World.

My great-grandfather set sail from the nearby port of Bremen, the exit, together with Hamburg and the port of Cuxhaven, for millions of Northern Europeans. He was bound for California and the gold rush. I would follow a century later from Lisbon, Portugal, just ahead of the Gestapo, but I could feel a kinship with the ghosts of earlier immigrants.

I returned to Germany many times after my original voyage across the Atlantic but never visited the cities of the north until, in a group of travel writers, I toured several German Hanseatic League cities, including Bremen and Hamburg, and their ports of embarkation for the great century of emigration.

To help anyone interested in tracing the journey of German ancestors, Routes to the Roots is a private project begun in 1993 to offer special-interest tours to German ports of embarkation as well as other regions of Europe.

The northern path through the sea had been well-marked. Earlier, the Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution set sail from Cuxhaven and Bremerhaven by the thousands between 1776 and 1782. After that war, many of them settled in the United States, while others returned to Germany.

The Cuxhaven Steubenhoft terminal, the most modern state-of-the-art passenger facility of its time, was built between 1900 and 1902. The terminal remains the only historically preserved and operational passenger facility in Europe, although the ships no longer take passengers to America, but only across to England.

The excitement and hustle-bustle of departure on the journey to America has been replaced by mementos of that voyage in a usually silent terminal, with only a nostalgic echo of what the elegant first-class waiting room, the customs hall and other aspects of embarkation were like in the heyday of steamship travel. Cuxhaven, now a health resort, remains a fishing port.

The term Hanseatic League suggests power and romance. In fact, the league was an economic mutual-assistance pact in the Middle Ages between independent cities around the Baltic and North seas. The word “hansa” means a company of merchants trading with foreign lands. The league was born among the lovely red-brick towns of northern Germany in the 13th century when a group of independent city-states banded together to form a trade alliance.

The original cities of the league were Lubeck, Wismar and Rostock, with Lubeck as the leader. The league reached its summit of power in 1370, with membership varying from 100 to 160 cities from the Netherlands to Poland.

By the 16th century, internal dissension, curtailment of freedom by the German princes and the growth of centralized foreign states, as well as changes in trade itself, led to a decline in the league, although it was never formally dissolved. Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Wismar and Rostock continue proudly to call themselves Hanseatic cities.

It is in Bremen and Hamburg, however, that the Hanseatic spirit continues to exist most strongly. Indeed, highway signs leading to Hamburg add “Hansastadt” (Hansa city) or just the initial “H” before the city’s name.


We began our tour in Bremen, Germany’s smallest city-state and its oldest port. The city was evangelized by Charlemagne in the ninth century but was never governed by the nobility or by the church; it was a merchant city, ruled by money. After the Reformation in the 16th century, the city became Protestant for 300 years, and it was not until the 19th century that Catholics and Jews were allowed to live in Bremen.

On the market square in front of the Gothic City Hall is a statue of Charlemagne’s knight, Roland, erected in 1404. Roland, who took part in the Battle of Roncevaux, has become the symbol of liberty and the city’s independence. The people of Bremen believe that as long as Roland is on the square, the city will keep its independence.

On the side of the City Hall is a statue of Bremen’s famous town musicians — a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster standing on each other. The legend holds that the four animals became old and were turned out by their masters. They banded together and went singing merrily to town to seek their fortune. On the way, they came upon a house overrun by robbers. The four animals’ singing was so terrible that the robbers were frightened away and the town was saved.

Bremen has a delightful old town, the Schnoor District, with quaint houses and taverns once occupied and frequented by tradespeople and fishermen and now trendy artists’ studios, restaurants and shops.

Nearby is the Bottcherstrasse, the Barrel Makers Street, once inhabited by coopers. The houses were torn down and reconstructed between 1924 and 1931 in art-deco style by millionaire Ludwig Roselius, the inventor of decaffeinated coffee — sold as Sanka in the United States. The reconstruction looks like a scene from a German expressionist movie and makes this one of Bremen’s most interesting places.

It is still possible to travel by boat on the Weser from Bremen to its port of Bremerhaven. We called at the small town of Vegesack, once famous for the construction of wooden sailing ships, but shipbuilders went out of business in the second half of the 19th century once metal steamships took the place of wooden sailing vessels. From 1820 to 1840, the town was a whaling station. The port was the center of Germany’s largest herring fleet in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Brake is another charming little river town. Its brief moment of fame in the mid-19th century was due to a hand-signaled telegraph tower, which operated until the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph made hand signals obsolete. The telegraph tower and building are part of the town’s Shipping Museum, which has a delightful collection of paraphernalia associated with the trade.

The ruins of a huge Nazi bunker, built as a submarine construction site, lie on the banks of the river near Bremerhaven. Submarines could navigate directly from the North Sea underwater into the bunker, which was large enough to hold six submarines at one time. The work was done by forced labor; there is a memorial to them at the site. The bunker was too large and the walls too thick to be blown up after the war, so its ruins remain and are used for special theatrical performances.

Bremerhaven became the port for Bremen in 1827 after the Weser became silted. On Sept. 12, 1830, the American schooner Draper became the first ship to enter the new harbor. With the start of steamship travel, the dock was expanded, and with the founding of the North German Lloyd company in 1857, traffic expanded rapidly and a regular sailing schedule was set.

The new harbor became Europe’s busiest port of emigration, nicknamed “New York’s Outer Harbor.” Plans are under way for a stunning new museum dedicated to the northern emigration. The German Emigration Center Bremerhaven is scheduled to open in August on the harbor. Visitors will be presented with the sights and sounds of the voyage to America, beginning with a reconstruction of the docks, the cabins on the ships and so forth.

Animated accounts of several individuals from among the 7 million who passed through Bremerhaven and their journeys through the various stages to the New World will be included. Specific rooms of the museum will be devoted to the reasons for the emigrations, accounts of the ocean crossing, what the newly arrived immigrants encountered upon arrival and what they anticipated in their new lives. The museum also will focus on specific aspects of worldwide migration and offer information to persons who are prospective emigrants.

The Morganstern Museum in Bremerhaven has an emigration database accessible to visitors. The database is based on passenger arrival lists at U.S. ports as published in “Germans in America” (1850-1895), with work on the entire period 1820 to 1939 continuing. At present there are about 4 million data entries for the periods 1850 to 1891 and 1904 to 1907.

Before moving on to Hamburg, we stopped for lunch in the port at the “Last Bar Before New York.” American wannabe decorations, somewhat tired and faded, surrounded us as we ate our North German lunch — with a glass of always-good beer.


Hamburg, home of the Hamburg-America Line, remains a vital and important port. Germany’s second-largest city, located 60 miles from the North Sea, is one of the country’s most vibrant and exciting metropolises. Its roots go back to the 12th century, when it was settled as a place for barge masters, merchants, small traders and fishermen.

Since 1850, more than 5 million people, including 1 million Jews, have emigrated from Europe to the rest of the world from Hamburg. Today, the busy port is filled with freighters of all kinds, especially giant container ships from all over the world. Hourly harbor cruises permit a visitor to see the ships, the cranes and the containers up close.

Hamburg is a beautiful city, crisscrossed by numerous canals and the Elbe flowing through it. Two lovely lakes created in the 17th century as the result of a mill dam grace the town center. The city has many imposing contemporary buildings and elegant bourgeois villas bordering the lakes; it has numerous parks and more than 2,500 bridges. Small wonder that Hamburg vies with St. Petersburg for the title “Venice of the North.”

The brick buildings of Speicherstadt, the waterfront warehouse complex, replaced many of the old merchant houses that burned in a devastating fire in 1842. The district is filled with coffee, tea, chocolate and almost 200 carpet warehouses. Some of the old buildings house trendy bars and restaurants.

Hamburg offers a visitor good food, excellent shopping and some fine museums, including the Museum of Arts and Crafts with an extensive, first-rate collection of art-nouveau objects, furniture and paintings. There are weekend flea markets, the Sunday fish market (started in 1704 when fresh fish could only be sold on Sundays before church services began) and the famed Reperbahn, Hamburg’s red-light district.


We left the cities of emigration behind us and moved on to the original Hanseatic League towns, beginning with the queen of the league, the 12th-century city of Lubeck. Although World War II bombings inflicted considerable damage, many of the beautiful gabled brick buildings remain, and the town citizens rebuilt Lubeck’s famous seven spires, bourgeois houses and damaged churches as quickly as possible after the war. Today, Lubeck is again a splendid city, and its copper-domed spires soar into the sky.

The old town — one of Europe’s largest medieval old towns — is an oval island surrounded by the Trave river and the Trave Canal. The mouth of the river, called Travemunde, is the city’s seaport on the Baltic and a beach for vacationers from all over Germany.

Lubeck’s most famous landmark is the Holsten Gate. Constructed between 1464 and 1478, it is the symbol of the city’s wealth and prosperity. The gate was built on an earthen foundation about 23 feet high, beneath which lay soggy bog and peat. The heavy gate soon began to sink, and part of the gate remains below ground today. The Burgtor (city gate) is part of the existing ramparts.

Lubeck has beautiful churches and a remarkable medieval market square adjoining the City Hall, which dates to 1240. Among the town’s numerous museums is the Buddenbrookhaus, where Thomas Mann once lived. His novel “Buddenbrooks” takes place in Lubeck. St. Anne’s Museum, a former 16th-century Augustinian convent, contains Germany’s most significant collection of religious art. It also has an exhibit of life in the Hanseatic League city during the Middle Ages.

One of the most remarkable buildings is the fascinating Holy Ghost Hospital, founded by the wealthy residents of the town in the 13th century. The hospital was a home for the poor, the sick and the aged, similar to the Hotel Dieu in Beaune, France. Beds were placed so that the patient had a view of the church, but about 1820, the rows of beds were removed and cabinlike rooms were constructed. Part of the hospital is used as an old people’s home. The hospital is also the venue for the annual Lubeck Christmas Market.

Across the square from Holy Ghost Hospital is the historic Mariners’ Society building (Schiffergesellschaft), now a charming restaurant with good food, churchlike pews of dark wood and models of sailing ships dangling from the high ceiling. Women were not permitted into the building from its construction in 1535 until 1870. That problem has been eliminated.

Another delightful restaurant is the Ratskeller Lubeck in the cellar of the City Hall on the market square side. This truly is a ratskeller, for the name literally means cellar of the City Hall (rathaus in German). Along one side of the restaurant are booths formerly reserved for the city’s favorite sons, including Mr. Mann, whose booth is decorated with photographs and letters of the author.

Lubeck’s chief claim to fame lies not in its architecture or medieval splendor, but in a confection — marzipan. Although legend has it that marzipan originated in the Lubeck famine of 1407 as Marci pane (St. Mark’s bread), this delicacy found its way to Lubeck from the Orient via Venice.

Marzipan, made of ground almonds and sugar, originally was used for medicinal purposes, and as late as the 18th century, apothecaries were vested with sole rights to produce and sell it.

After the cultivation of sugar cane in the New World, the price of sugar dropped, and marzipan became available for the middle class. Lubeck became an active production center. The leading manufacturer today is Niederegger’s, in business since the 18th century, which continues to make marzipan in all the shapes and designs of yore.

Upstairs in the Niederegger shop is a display of molds used in making marzipan and an explanation of the process, as well as a tableau made of marzipan. Downstairs are pastries, sweets and ice creams, most of which contain marzipan, such as a marzipan pancake and marzipan coffee.


Wismar in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is a Gothic town with a pretty port and one of the best-preserved medieval town centers in northern Germany. The city’s wealth derived in part from its 182 breweries.

The Thirty Years’ War saw the end of Wismar’s golden age. From 1648 until 1803, Wismar was under Swedish rule, and the Swedish influence can still be seen in the numerous wooden “Swedish head” sculptures around town.

In the center of Wismar’s large market square is a beautiful 16th-century Wasserkunst (waterworks), which provided the city with drinking water until the mid-19th century. The square is framed with elegant old gabled houses and the imposing city hall.

The twisted streets of Wismar’s Old Town were used by filmmaker Friedrich Murnau in his 1922 horror film, “Nosferatu.” One of Wismar’s most interesting buildings is the Church of the Holy Ghost, a rectangular, naveless church with a lovely painted baroque ceiling depicting scenes from the Old Testament. In the rear of the church is a wooden executioner’s stall. Because of his unpleasant occupation, the town executioner was not permitted to sit with the rest of the congregation facing the altar but had to sit apart and face sideways.

Wismar’s picturesque harbor is reached by the Water Gate, the only remaining gate of the original five in the city wall. During the 18th century, entry to the harbor would be barred by floating a log across its entrance during the night and whenever danger threatened.

Rostock, not far from Wismar, was built in the 13th century on the eastern bank of the river Warnow, where it curves and broadens into a delta and flows into the Baltic Sea. As Rostock controlled access to the open sea, its influence grew; its prosperity was based on shipbuilding, trade and crafts.

Rostock was severely bombed during the war because of its wartime armament factories, but much of its Old Town has been rebuilt. The oldest house, built in 1490, is the Tree House, so named because its roof is supported by a tree trunk that rises through two floors.

Markets, concerts and other happenings take place in the large town square. Not far into the Old Town is St. Mary’s Church, where daily at noon an amazing astronomical clock built in 1472 strikes the hour and figures of the saints move across its face. The clock has a calendar extending to 2017.

Warnemunde, the city’s seaside resort at the mouth of the Warne River, is a charming old fishing port with a wide, clean, sandy beach and a Victorian lighthouse. Unlike most beaches, at Warnemunde, the beach is not covered with umbrellas in the summer. Beachgoers seek protection from the Baltic winds in brightly colored straw baskets, which sunbathers can rent when the weather is good. It’s the best way to enjoy the warmth of the sun without being blown to pieces by the wind.

A stroll along the seafront and the side streets leading to the shore is a nostalgic promenade into prewar summer resorts, when moneyed city dwellers enjoyed the town casino and the elegant 19th- and 20th-century villas.

The Hanseatic League cities are not overrun with tourists and offer a visitor history, art, architecture, river and seaside recreation as well as lovely countryside. Beginning in 2005, the new museum in Bremerhaven will enable many who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe to glimpse into the past and trace the journey of their forefathers in a new and exciting way.

Easy Frankfurt connections

Lufthansa and United Air Lines fly nonstop from Washington to Frankfurt; from Frankfurt, Lufthansa has frequent connections to Hamburg and Bremen.

The Steigenberger chain of hotels has an excellent hotel with a superb dining room in Hamburg. The hotel often has very reasonable weekend rates.

In Wismar, the renovated Steigenberger is on the market square in the center of town, as is the Rostock Steigenberger zur Sonne, an old hotel that has been renovated and luxuriously appointed. The hotels are all first class with excellent service and are highly recommended.

German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168; phone, 212/661-7200; fax, 212/661-7174; www.germany-tourism.de

Routes to the Roots, Inselstrasse 6, 27568 Bremerhaven, Germany; phone and fax, 49 471 49095 or Research and Travel, Dr. Wolfgang Grams, www.routes.de

Hamburg tourist information: visit www.hamburg-tourism.de

Cuxhaven’s History of Passenger Travel: visit www.hapag-halle-cuxhaven.de; phone, 49 47 21 50 14 24; fax, 49 47 21 50 14 88

Lubeck: visit www.luebeck-tourismus.de

Rostock: visit www.rostock.de

Wismar: visit www.wismar.de

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