Ports, Passages, Homes

I was in Hamburg this past weekend and very much wanted to go to the Auswanderungsmuseum – Ballin Stadt (Emigration Museum). Unfortunately that did not happen. The focus of the main exhibition, as I learned online, is with the history of Hamburg as a port of embarkation. Many 19th and early 20th century European immigrants had to travel to Hamburg to board their ship to points further West, like the United States.

Throughout my work, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that immigration/migration link various national histories together. This is tied to the conclusion I hovered around in my last post, which advocated for a more fluid approach to history – one that eschews rigid nationalism and thus makes room for more stories.

The website for the museum in Hamburg makes reference to Ellis Island as the next stop for many who left from Hamburg, thus connecting both museums and two chapters of a longer journey. As far as I remember, there is very little mention at Ellis Island of Hamburg. The museum (which the man on the train next to me going back to Berlin described as “surprisingly self-critical for an American museum) focuses primarily on the experience of arrival and the early transition into American life. I find it a moving museum – an emotion I am wary to admit as I grapple with the history I was brought up with – one that celebrates the narrative of American immigration, and with the history I have come to learn – one that points out the flaws of the American Narrative (capital N!). The museum at Ellis Island – an “authentic” place, as it is located at the historical site – brings together stories of homeland and arrival to the new home. Origin, language, and identity are important themes. What is not dealt with (as far as I remember, and I could be wrong) are the details of the passage in between Home and New Home.

Immigration histories – particularly of the 19th and early 20th century – are not clear-cut point A to point B narratives. One of the questions asked in a class I was taking last semester was: when does immigration begin? Is it when the first leg of the trip has been traveled? Or is it when the bags are packed? Or is it when the thought of leaving is first entertained? I think that when one thinks of immigration, one thinks often of continuous movement. But there are so many stories of waiting – whether at “home” for the right documents to arrive and/or be approved, or in some city along the way, for the money to come through so that one can travel further.

This year I have been focusing on Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe living in Berlin during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During those decades Berlin witnessed a large influx of Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms in the East. For many, the goal was to reach points beyond continental Europe, namely the United States and Palestine. For numerous reasons (travel restrictions, insufficient funds, contentment etc.) many found themselves rooted in Berlin where they opened prayer rooms, Yiddish-theaters, Hebrew bookstores, kosher restaurants, printing presses, tailor shops… the list goes on.

How, then, does the relationship between such people and such spaces get represented? The problem that I am working through now is how to define these Jewish migrants. Their temporal connection to the city, their non-belonging, is often what dominates the literature. They are not written into the identity of the city, although their presence there was felt – at one point Berlin became a veritable center of Jewish cultural and religious life. It was the second in the world for the production of Yiddish-language books, for example. Many of these travelers/immigrants/residents/what have you did not get the chance to go further. Those who were around – either out of will or necessity – as the Nazis gained power did not survive. But for those who temporarily made Berlin their home and traveled onwards to Hamburg – what becomes of the memory of their time there and all those other spaces that lay between Minsk and New York?

Cities like Berlin and Hamburg can tell a different immigration history – different than European hometowns and American cities. I say “can” because it is not necessarily what is done. For instance Berlin, in regards to Jewish immigration, has the opportunity to play a role in the new historiography of that experience by writing it as a series of belongings, of mobility that is not always characterized by movement. It is not a concrete path that begins in one place and ends in another.

Germany is described often as a Durchgangsstation – a passage or transit station – a description that I don’t think encapsulates the myriad ways in which travel and movement affect identity, both individual and “national.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries millions of individuals left their home cities, towns, countries – a staggering movement of people. Each person carried with them memories of landscapes, deposited them across other borders, and recounted them in mother and second languages, blurring the boundaries between remembered and lived spaces, between “home” and “home” and “home.” I can’t say when immigration begins – and I certainly could not say when it ends, if ever. Can ports and passageways thus become homes? Or perhaps I am playing too much with the notion of “home” – tying it to spaces both indifferent and hostile in an attempt to decentralize certain histories…


One comment on “Ports, Passages, Homes

  1. Barb Ettington says:

    “Home” is where the Mother is. Or… “Home” is where the toothbrush is…. depends on who is asked.

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