Kaiserslautern: Museum tells story of German emigration

A room representing a portal on a ship from Germany to America resembles a ship’s bulkhead.



The history of America is a history of immigration. But what did it mean centuries ago to those leaving their homeland and emigrating to America? What motives drove them, and how did they arrange to leave their home country forever?

For those who ever wanted to get a close and personal look at emigration to the New World, the Theodor-Zink-Museum in the center of Kaiserslautern, Germany, offers an interesting exhibition.

"Departure to America From 1709–2009: 300 years of Mass Emigration from Rhineland Palatinate" is the name of an exhibition that the museum of local history is presenting through Aug. 2.

Old suitcases, wooden boxes, letters, coffeepots and personal notebooks — many of the artifacts presented in several display cases tell a part of their former owners’ history. Often it is a history of suffering, of personal struggles, of escape from suppression — but also sometimes of a courageous pursuit of happiness.

The exhibition, spread over two floors, shows how people prepared themselves for their emigration. It describes their departure, their journey across the ocean, their arrival and the start of their new lives in America.

"Economical, political, religious but also private reasons led many to the decision to take the pains of a new start in a foreign country," says Helmut Schmahl, who provided several of the artifacts and works for the department of history at Johann Gutenberg University in Mainz. According to Schmahl, there are more than 500 exhibits in the museum. Some are provided by the Institut für pfälzische Geschichte und Volkskunde in Kaiserslautern.

Even though the exhibition focuses on Germans, it is still a great chance for Americans to get in touch with the history of their forefathers. Dr. Jens Stöcker of the museum said, "If there is a request, we will certainly be able to offer some guided tours in English."

But the Theodor-Zink Museum offers more. Since it is a museum of local history, visitors also can see a permanent exhibit that deals with the history of the city of Kaiserslautern and the region. It illustrates the area’s most important events and epochs, from the first traces of settlers to the present.

In chronological order, the exhibition shows visitors how Kaiserslautern and the region developed. They will see how the city walls of Kaiserslautern were built and how the Reformation and the so-called Bauernkrieg, a 16th-century rebellion by common people against feudal landlords, changed the history of the region.

The museum was created by educator Theodor Zink, who collected a large variety of local artifacts for many decades. In October 1934, the first local-history museum in Kaiserslautern opened, but it closed during World War II because of air attacks. Its artifacts were taken to a secure place in Bavaria.

After the war was over, some of the inhabitants of Kaiserslautern came together to open the city’s museum anew. After all of the artifacts were brought back, the museum opened in 1978.

Directions: Exit Autobahn 6 at Kaiserslautern-Centrum and follow Route L395 through the city. The best parking is at a city center parking lot since the museum is located in the pedestrian area (Fussgängerzone) at Steinstraße 48.

Times: The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It is closed Mondays.

Costs: The permanent exhibition is free. The cost for "Departure to America" is 3 euros for adults and 2 euros for students with a student identification card. A guided tour with a maximum of 20 people costs an additional 40 euros. The price for guided tours outside the regular hours is 55 euros.

Food: The museum is right in the city center, where there are several bars and restaurants for visitors to get something to drink or eat.

Info: There is a section on Theodor-Zink Museum on the city of Kaiserslautern’s main Web site; access it at www.theodor-zink-museum.de. Information is in German only. The museum’s telephone number is 0631-365-2327. Parts of the museum can also be rented for private activities as long as they do not interfere with the operation of the museum.

Examples of the possessions that German immigrants would have taken to America are on display in a small glass case included in the exhibit “Departure to America From 1709-2009: 300 years of Mass Emigration from Rhineland Palatinate.” The exhibit is at the Theodor-Zink-Museum in Kaiserslautern, Germany, through Aug. 2.

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