Travels & Traditions: German Immigration to the US - #1104

BURT WOLF: In the year 1001, Leif Ericsson pushed his Viking longboat off the Greenland shore and sailed west. Eventually he landed on the northern coast of what we now call Newfoundland Canada. Tyrker the German, who was Erickson’s father was onboard.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Tyrker was the first German to set foot in the Americas and it was 500 years before Columbus, who by the way had a number of German multilingual translators on board. During the next 1000 years, millions of Germans followed Tyrker to America.

BURT WOLF: Like most other ethnic groups who immigrated to the United States the Germans came because they hoped to improve their economic condition, to find religious freedom and a safe place to live in peace. We tend to think that the largest groups to immigrate to America were from Italy or Ireland. But that is not the case. The greatest numbers of people to immigrate to America were from Germany. Today, over 60 million Americans consider themselves of German descent.

German - Americans introduced soil conservation and crop rotation. They developed the leading companies in food production, steelmaking, piano manufacturing, printing and publishing. They became leading educators, scientists and artists. Symphony orchestras and glee clubs came out of German culture. And, something especially dear to my heart --- the brewing of beer.

Famous German – Americans include Babed Ruth, Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the next half hour we’ll take a look at some of the places in Germany where German Immigrants came from, what those cities are like today, and why they’re interesting to visit.


BURT WOLF: In 1621, a group of German millwrights from Hamburg arrived at Jamestown and set-up a sawmill. Germans from Hamburg were also responsible for our first glass factory which became our earliest example of industrial production.

Today, Hamburg has a population of just under two million. It is the second largest city in Germany, right behind Berlin. Its seaport is the largest in the nation and dominated northern European trade for over four hundred years. It’s a media center and publishes half the newspapers and magazines in the nation. It claims to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in Europe.

In 1902, Albert Ballin the general director of the Hamburg - American shipping company built a small city near his home port. It had 30 one-story buildings, a church, a synagogue, a hospital, a cafeteria, dormitories and a playground. It was the point of debarkation for over 5 million people who immigrated to the New World including my grandmother and her one year old daughter --- my mother. Today, the memory of that city is honored with the BallinStadt museum. The original rooms have been recreated. There are documents and exhibitions that cover every aspect of an immigrant’s trip. Mannequins in the period costume are equipped with recordings that tell the story of individual immigrants.

I walked through it with .Myra Beerens the exhibitions coordinator

MIA BEHRENS (ON CAMERA): Between 1850 and 1934 at least 5 million people decided Hamburg as their last stay in Europe. This is a reconstruction of Albert Ballin’s office and as you can see it was a very profitable business, transporting migrants. This is a reconstruction of a dormitory of the former emigration halls of the HAPAG. 

European’s from all over Europe arrived here, especially Eastern Europeans. And waited for the ships to leave for the new world. In average three to five days, unless they were sick. In this case they were brought to the hospital. And were taken care of. The reason was the HAPAG didn’t want to take any sick passengers. Because those who were rejected, for example at Ellis Island had to be taken back by the ocean liner.

Those three colored in buildings are the ones we reconstructed and the museum is in today. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): And the buildings that are recreated are in the same spot where they were.

MIA BEHRENS (ON CAMERA): Yes they are standing on the same spot, they are the same size, and they look the same.

BURT WOLF: There are screens that show archival footage from the period. And visitors use a computer program to search their family history. I even found my grandmother. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There’s an advertisement here that says “Take your ancestors home with you.” I don’t know how I feel about that. 


BURT WOLF: Hamburg was a important departure point for European immigrants to the Americas. But just down river from Hamburg is the city of Bremerhaven and it was equally important. Its German Immigration Center contains an enormous amount of information on the subject and has become a major tourist attraction.

Bremerhaven was established as a seaport in 1827 and though it was originally planned as a site for commercial trade, it soon became a port for emigration.

The ships out of Bremerhaven had a reputation for being safe. The city also had a kind of boarding house that offered reasonable rates and was known for its sanitary conditions. It could take up to 2,000 guests at a time.

By 1848, Bremerhaven was Germany’s leading port for emigration. And by the end of the 1800s Bremerhaven’s North German Lloyd steam Ship Company had became the world’s largest passenger company. Between 1830 and 1974, over 7 million people immigrated to the New World by way of Bremerhaven.

A great deal of material about Bremerhaven’s German Immigration Center can be found on their website.


BURT WOLF: A second major area of German immigration to the United States was Berlin. The area of Berlin has probably been inhabited for thousands of years. The first references show up in the 7th century and by the 1200s it was an important commercial center. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In 1539, the Protestant Reformation reached Berlin and the Hohenzollen rulers were big supporters. Not that they were so interested in reforming the church --- it was more the fact that when they got rid of a church they got the land.

BURT WOLF: Today, Berlin is the capital of Germany and one of its most vibrant cities. And one of the best ways to see it is on a boat tour. That’s the office of the German Chancellor. Like most important buildings in Berlin it has a nickname. In this case it’s the washing machine a reference to its shape. The area is open to constant public view --- a reflection of the idea that the people must be able to see what the government is doing. 

That building is a museum that represents the cultures of other nations. Its nickname is the pregnant oyster. 

And that’s the Berlin train station. The architect and the government are having an argument. The train tunnel is half the size of the one in the original plan because the government ran out of money. The architect says the tunnel must be completed because it is a work of art. The government says it’s a train station --- get over it.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: As a guest of your distinguished mayor who has symbolized.

BURT WOLF: On June 23, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of cheering Germans, declared, “ Ich bin ein Berliner”, I am a Berliner. It was the first time Kennedy had seen the Berlin Wall that divided the city between the communist east and the democratic west. He was deeply moved by what he saw and it permanently affected his view of totalitarian governments. Later that day, he said that it was one of the most important days of his life.

Since then the Kennedy’s have had a special relationship to Berlin, a relationship that is honored by Berlin’s Kennedy Museum. The museum contains hundreds photographs and objects that illustrate the private and political lives of the Kennedy family.

Kathy Alberts, the director of the museum took me on a tour.

KATHY ALBERTS (ON CAMERA): This was taken by famous photographer Will McBride who is a Berlin photographer, still alive. And it shows President Kennedy, Willy Brandt the Mayor of Berlin, and Konrad Adenauer the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Here on the western side of the gate. Kennedy was on a viewing platform. And he really wanted to see the place where the Adlan had been, because he stayed in the Adlan for two nights in 1939. And he wasn’t allowed to look into the East. As you can see in the picture, the East German Government had draped the gate with red drapes. See the red actually. And I the center the flag of the GDR. And then a propaganda sign right here. The wall still looks quite temporary. Kennedy at this point he really wanted to look into the east. It was a symbolic point and the cold war, and since we wasn’t allowed to do this, and it was the first glimpse of the wall that he received, this made him change his speech that he gave at city hall of Schöneberg later in the day.

So we also have an interesting document about Kennedy in Berlin. And this is this little index card with pronunciation help that Kennedy himself wrote as he was sitting in the mayors room in the city hall. You see the three sentences that he planned not to say in English, written in his own handwriting.

JOHN KENNEDY (ON CAMERA): As a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.

KATHY ALBERTS (ON CAMERA): And so the way he wrote them down the spelling is quite funny. Ich bin ein Berliner, I am a Berliner. The famous sentence. Civis Romanus sum, I am a citizen of Rome. And the last one is Lassen sie nach Berlin kommen. That is Let them come to Berlin. A sentence that he repeats quite a few times during the speech and then in the end he says it in German to emphasize is. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There was a lot of weird press about Ich bin ein Berliner. 

KATHY ALBERTS (ON CAMERA): Yea, that is of course the most sentence and Jackie says that herself. The New York Times and Newsweek Magazine back then reported that the President had said he was a Jelly Donut. Because there is actually a kind of pastry like that, which is called Berliner, out side of Berlin. Not in Berlin itself, there it’s called Pfannkucken. Normally if you are from Berlin if you were born in Berlin you would say Ich bin Berliner, leave out the ein. But since the President wasn’t born in Berlin, but he wanted to metaphorically draw the connection between himself the free people in the world, and West Berliners, he had to use the little word ein. Using the little word ein the article a is perfectly correct. And the only correct way of saying it grammatically.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): It's never easy to emigrate from one country to another. I can understand a country having a policy to keep you out but when they want to lock you in, that's pretty strange. 

BURT WOLF: The most dramatic spot was checkpoint charlie and you can see it's history at the wall museum. Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt established the museum in 1962, just after the wall dividing east and west Berlin was built. It began as a two room tribute to those who made the crossing from east to west. Over 5000 people attempted escape and more than 200 were killed by border guards. Alexandra Hildebrandt runs the museum today.

ALEXANDRA HILDEBRANDT (ON CAMERA): It was not just a museum. It was an institution. Could it help the people who could escape. Could it help escape helpers. So they came here with escape objects and brought it here.

BURT WOLF: The museum is full of stories detailing the escapes.

ALEXANDRA HILDEBRANDT (ON CAMERA): These people they did want to escape and the woman made the uniforms, the Russian uniforms for them. They didn’t have the shoes. 

BURT WOLF: As long as they were in the car they were fine, the moment we got out and you saw them in sandals, you had a problem.

ALEXANDRA HILDEBRANDT (ON CAMERA): Here is a hot air balloon. With this balloon two families could escape from East to West Germany. And the man who did built it up, had nothing to do with aeronautics all his life. He did built it up from a book. This is he.

You can tell also today, they tell me, Alexandra we did escape not because of the better margarine, we did escape because we want our children to grow up as free people. Can you imagine how strong was the wish to be free. Stronger than the fear to die.

BURT WOLF: The walls are covered with pictures that illustrate the importance of freedom.


BURT WOLF: Berlin is also the home of one of the world’s great department stores, KaDeWe which stands for the department store of the west.

Unlike most stores KDW uses some of its prime window space to educate as well as sell. When I was in Berlin their windows illustrated the history of women’s fashion.

There’s a little number from the middle ages.

That’s the height of fashion from the 1700s --- a bodice top that women started lacing up in the

morning and tightened every hour as the day went on.

The Empire dress of the early 1800s --- a soft flowing short waisted chemise of silk or cotton. KaDeWe opened in 1907 and for over a hundred years it has been the largest department store in Europe and for many people the most interesting. Each day 50,000 shoppers come here and they can make their selection from over 400,000 different items.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): My favorite floor is the sixth, it’s know as the delicatessen. In the United States the word delicatessen is used to refer to a store that sells pastrami, and corned beef, and frankfurters, and sauerkraut. All of which came to the United States from Germany. As did the Hamburger. Much of what we think of as traditional American food is actually from Germany.

BURT WOLF: One of the big attractions is the seafood section with dozens of different cooked, smoked, dried and fresh fish.

Each week, a 20-ton truck arrives from Paris. It’s filled with mushrooms from Morocco, string beans from Africa, oysters from Brittany, chilies from Mexico and Pepto Bismol from Switzerland.


BURT WOLF: A third major region of immigration from Germany to North America was the Central Western Area. The best known city in the area is Cologne.

Cologne was built by the ancient Romans in 38AD at a point where the Rhine River crossed a major east-west trade route. It was an ideal spot for commercial development and by the Middle Ages, Cologne had become the largest and one of the richest towns in northern Europe. In 1388, Cologne founded the first city university in Europe. Today, it is home to the largest university in Germany with more than 60,000 students.

Since the middle Ages, Cologne has been a religious center and a destination for pilgrims. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to visit “Holy Cologne”. The city’s great pilgrimage site is its Gothic cathedral. Even today, over five million visitors come here each year, which has made the Cologne Cathedral Germany’s main tourist attraction.

Construction of Cologne’s Cathedral began during the 1200s and did not finish up until 1880, a time span of over 600 years. It’s the largest Cathedral in northern Europe and when it was completed it was the tallest building in the world. The towers go up 515 feet. The architecture style is Gothic in imitation of the great Cathedrals of France.

The stained-glass windows date to the 1300s and are considered to be some of the finest in the world. The choir area was carved in 1322. The Gero Cross that hangs in a chapel on the north side of the choir was carved during the 900s and is considered to be the oldest large-scale crucifix in the Western world. The Cathedral’s greatest attraction for pilgrims is the gold shrine, said to contain the remains of the Three Kings.


BURT WOLF: A fourth major region of immigration from Germany to North America was the Southern Area. The first German settlers to the US came from here. In 1683 they settled in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia.

One of the major cities in the southern part of Germany is Munich. It is one of the most important cultural centers in the nation. It is also a city of great corporate wealth. The wealth combined with the culture and the natural beauty of the area make Munich a major tourist attraction.

Beneath Munich’s commitment to its culture and its corporations is an even greater devotion to its local customs and its everyday pleasures. Munich has a big-city intellect with a small-town heart.

For centuries the local rulers were into music and they made Munich a great city for music lovers. The National Theater is one of the finest opera houses in the world, with a special interest in the works of Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Down the block from the theater is a statue of one of the rulers of this region, Maximilian I. He was hoping to be shown on a horse, but the sculptor felt that for the long haul he’d be more comfortable in a nice chair. The word around town is that his hand is directed to the cafe across the street and that he is gesturing for a waiter. Along with everyone else.

A few blocks down the pedestrian street from Maximilian is Marienplatz, which is in many ways the center of Munich. The area is named after the statue of the Virgin Mary that stands in the middle of the square. The Town Hall contains a mechanical clock which goes into action every day at 11am, noon, and 5pm. The figures are performing the “Coopers’ Dance.” During the early 1500s there was a great plague in Munich. The first group of people to realize that the plague was coming to an end were the barrelmakers, who were known as coopers. In 1517 the coopers came out into Marienplatz square to perform a dance of thanks to the Virgin Mary, marking the ending of the plague and cheering up the city. And they are still cheering up the city.

A tour of Munich should include a visit to the outdoor food market. This may be the spot where Munich began over a thousand years ago when a group of Benedictine monks founded a monastery nearby. Many of the present-day stalls have been in the same family for generations. The square feels like a village marketplace, a gathering spot for hanging out, as well as eating and shopping and drinking beer.

We know that for at least eight thousand years, people have been making beer. There are paintings on the walls of the ancient Egyptian tombs and artifacts in Babylonia and Samaria that illustrate the process.

For most of our history, beer has been the alcoholic beverage of choice in the United States. English and Dutch colonist brewed beer but in the end it was the Germans who came to dominate brewing in North America. Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Coors, Anheuser and his son-in-law Busch--- are all families that came here from Germany.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In order to find a new source of revenue, the chief accountant for the Duke of Bavaria suggested that instead of buying beer from an out-of-state brewery, a royal brewery be set up right in Munich. And it was a great idea -- kept all the cash in town and resulted in the introduction of the first Hofbrauhaus.

BURT WOLF: The beer is served in a liter mug called a mass. If you are the designated driver you might skip the mass and have a radler, which was designed for people going about on bicycles. It’s half beer and half lemonade.

Gastronomically, the Germans introduced recipes that became as American as apple pie. Hamburgers, frankfurters, potato salad and jelly donuts were once specialties in the German immigrant kitchen. And next time you put ketchup on your hamburger, please bear in mind that H.J. Heinz came from a German immigrant family.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): As I researched the material for this program I was constantly surprised. I never realized that German immigration to the United States was so significant or how much of our culture was imported from Germany. And as I traveled around Germany filming the program, I came to realize how much fun a trip like this could be.