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Transit to America (1881–1914)

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Montage: JMB
© YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Photo Archives/Foto: Alter Kaczyne; Hapag-Lloyd AG, Hamburg; ullstein bild-Archiv Gerstenberg

Eastern European Jews traveled in their hundreds of thousands on appointed paths through Germany to reach the ships to America in Hamburg and Bremen. Fleeing poverty and pogroms, the "golden country," the USA, promised a better life.

More than seven million Jews lived in Eastern Europe around 1900. They suffered from poverty, discrimination, and persecution. Many chose emigration to America as a last resort. Around two million Jews left the Russian Empire to go abroad between 1881 and 1914. On their way, they had to traverse the German Empire.

Map: The official routes of the Jewish emigrants through Germany

The official routes of the Jewish emigrants through Germany

The German government together with the shipping companies "Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft" (HAPAG) and "Norddeutscher Lloyd" endeavored to control the flow of Eastern European emigrants by confining them to strictly specified paths. Control checkpoints were set up: the Eydtkuhnen checkpoint at the Prussian-Russian border, the emigrants' station Ruhleben near Berlin, and the emigrants' city of Hamburg-Veddel.

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Mary Antin (1881-1949) was born in White Russia and emigrated to USA at the age of 13. Here she describes the degrading disinfection measures at Ruhleben station (Speaker: Megan Gay)

Foto: Jewish emigrants

Jewish emigrants in the HAPAG emigrants' city of Hamburg-Veddel around 1907 Illustration from "The Hamburg-America Line: In the 6th Decade of its Development," Hamburg 1907

The emigrants were registered and inspected and their luggage disinfected there, the latter for fear of epidemics. They were not permitted to leave their accommodation until the departure of their train or ship.

When they had finally managed to board one of the ships, an arduous crossing awaited them. They reached Ellis Island, not far from Manhattan, after 10-16 days. Only after passing the medical examination by the authorities – just healthy immigrants were permitted entry – did they arrive in the "golden land."

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