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Hamburg: gateway to the world

from Robin Lustig

On 13 April 1939, my father boarded the SS President Roosevelt and sailed from Hamburg to Southampton. Three months later, my mother (they didn’t meet until 1943) made the same voyage on board the SS Washington (pictured above).

They were both fleeing from the Nazis, and they escaped in the nick of time. My father was 20; my mother was 18. Both of them, looking back many years later, said they regarded their emigration as an adventure. “I was quite looking forward to it,” my mother wrote. “I liked the idea of leaving Germany, I liked adventure, and the whole thing didn’t worry me one bit.

“The first thing I did on the ship was buy some lipstick, because my mother never allowed me to wear it. It was a wonderful feeling: I felt free, I was out of Germany and I was responsible for myself.”

She left behind her mother (who was shot by the SS in 1941, see story here) and a fiancé – but she quickly broke off her engagement once she settled in England and the last she heard of him, he was living in Shanghai.

So now I’m in Hamburg, once known as the Gateway to the World, from which between 1850 and 1939, an estimated five million people set sail for the Americas, the UK, or South Africa. But the Hamburg of today – thanks in large part to the work of Allied bombers in 1943 – bears little resemblance to the Hamburg that all those refugees left behind.

On a 60-minute tour of the harbour, which I had fondly hoped might help me imagine the scene as my parents steamed out of port in 1939, all I saw were new luxury apartment blocks being built along the waterfront and the vast steel hulls of Chinese container ships.

At the Ballinstadt museum of emigration, they have access to data bases listing the details of countless refugees who have passed through the port over the past 150 years. Passenger manifests, immigration forms, census returns, births, marriages and deaths. But my parents’ voyages don’t show up anywhere – the passenger manifests don’t go beyond 1934, and the UK immigration data lists only those people who arrived from outside Europe.

Stu, on the other hand, has had more luck. (He’ll be writing his account in the next day or two.) And in an odd way, this is where our two families’ stories come together – because his grandparents also embarked from Hamburg, just as my parents did a generation later. They all were fleeing from danger – and although their journeys were not without risk, the fact that Stu and I are here to tell the tale suggests that their gamble paid off.

Our stories aren’t over yet – in less than a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking my Dad back to a place that he hasn’t seen since 1940 (hasn’t wanted to see, indeed, for reasons that will become clear) and then next month I’ll cross the Atlantic to join up with Stu again to see how his family managed once they had made it to the New World. The journey continues …

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