In August 1845, Johann Heinrich Germer left his home in Sichte, Germany, accompanied by his wife and four children, including a son who was also named Johann Heinrich (Junior). The family traveled to the port city of Bremerhaven, where they boarded a sailing vessel headed for America. A shoemaker by trade, Johann Heinrich Senior believed – as did many of his countrymen – that a better life awaited them in the New World. But the journey was risky. It meant spending 6-8 weeks at sea in steerage class, where the poorest of passengers were packed into small cabins almost like prisoners. Where illness and food poisoning would claim some lives along the way. Where the ship might take on water during a storm and sink, in which case all lives would be lost. And where, as they finally laid eyes on Baltimore’s Harbor and descended the gangway to the land of their dreams, they might have been refused entry or run into immediate legal or financial troubles.
Fortunately for Johann Senior, none of those tragedies befell his family. They settled in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood (a walkable distance from our condo) and lived in a house that is now a popular bistro we frequented long before George discovered we were eating in his ancestors’s living room!
Years later, Johann Heinrich Germer Junior beget a son, John William, who grew up to be a Baltimore City police officer at the turn of the last century. John William beget William, a Baltimore city fireman, and he in turn beget John Edward, a Baltimore history teacher who married another schoolteacher, Mary, in November 1960. John and Mary had a happy and loving marriage until John’s untimely passing at the age of 56. Along the way they brought four wonderful people into the world, the third of which, their second son, is our very own George. Which means that Johann Heinrich Germer Senior, the man whose family courageously embarked in Bremerhaven on an uncertain and potentially dangerous voyage to a strange new world, was George’s great-great-great grandfather.
And so we traveled to Bremerhaven too, though in the comfort of our nifty Ford Focus, to visit the old pier there, which was eventually christened the Baltimore Pier because so many ships made that same journey back and forth. 170 years later to the month, we stood at the very spot where Johann Senior and his family stood in line while waiting to board the vessel that would take them away from their German home forever.
George looked at me and said, “I’m getting chills.”
Meanwhile another Johann, our new friend the marine biologist, stood beside us. Johann commutes each day from his home in Bremen to an office building in Bremerhaven that looks out on the Baltimore Pier. Johann was excited for us, and also had exciting news of his own. Back in Baltimore, his wife Laurie’s father had just visited a different old German Lutheran church (at George’s suggestion) and was able to locate the burial record of one of Laurie’s great-great grandfathers!
It was a beautiful day in Bremerhaven, warm and sunny, with brilliant shades of blue both in the sky above and the water that surrounds this quaint old port town. We visited the famous Auswandererhaus (Museum of Emigration) where the stories of countless other people and families just like Johann Senior’s are retold in vivid and imaginative ways, so that you almost feel you have joined them on that unpleasant and sometimes frightening journey in the bowels of a ship. It’s a moving experience, one every American traveling through Germany should try to make time for.
Afterwards we meandered along the newer piers, gawked at the regatta of sailing ships that were in town for a special event, and enjoyed a quick bratwurst lunch. Then it was back to Bremen for another delicious al fresco dinner, this time at a lovely local spot that, as far as we could tell, does not permit smoking even outdoors. (At last!) We also learned about the Bremen “town musicians” – a donkey, dog, cat and rooster who are the protagonists of a Grimm fairy tale and Bremen’s beloved mascots.
Our time in Bremen wrapped up with a long day trip to Hamburg, a much larger port city than Bremerhaven. In fact, Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany after Berlin, and the second largest port in Europe after Rotterdam. There were no ancestors to discover here, at least none we know of, though it’s certainly possible that someone related to George (or even me – you never know) was once a regular face in one of the many historic churches and squares we visited. Hamburg has a lot of beautiful waterfront too, bordering both the River Elbe, which leads to the North Sea, and several inland lakes. And no trip to Hamburg would be complete without trying one of the local varieties of – drum roll please – a hamburger! Hamburg may not actually be the precise place where the meat patty sandwich was invented, but it’s widely accepted that it did originate somewhere in the vicinity, and was popularized in America by those brave German immigrants who undoubtedly were doing whatever they could to make their lives in the new world feel a bit more like their old lives back home.