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June 2004

Going, going, gone

Why North America is still such a draw for many Germans

In August 2001, while visiting New York, I took a boat out to visit the former immigration center at Ellis Island. The upstairs walls of the old immigration building were lined with pictures and tales of people who passed through the place on their way to a new life in America. And what poignant documentation it was. Of families so poor that their borrowed suitcases were stuffed with newspapers to give the owners a semblance of respectability and credibility. Or of a Russian girl who, after waiting three or four years to join her family in America, finally received the fare and, when standing in line to collect her naturalization papers on Ellis Island, espied the man of her dreams waiting beyond the barrier—a man who turned out to be her father.

While, as we have said before, at MUNICH FOUND we aim to steer clear of a thematic approach to issues, sometimes a subject—in this case immigration—crops up repeatedly, apparently more by coincidence than design. So, for example, we thought our readers would like to know about Bavarians who emigrated to the United States, often enduring ordeals similar to or more dramatic than those mentioned above. “Amerika, Please,” our feature on page 31, is about an exhibition dealing with this topic that opens in Nördlingen at the end of the month. Then Sebastian Strube, who has written for MUNICH FOUND in the past, visited our offices a few months back after a stint working for Aufbau in New York. This newspaper, founded by German-Jewish exiles in 1943, was on its last legs when Strube began his internship there. And it occurred to us that many English-speaking “immigrants” in Munich would like to know more about this historic newspaper (see page 30).

While scanning the aforementioned feature on Bavarian emigration to America, I was suddenly brought up short by a sentence, the significance of which had somehow escaped me on previous readings: “… the 86,000 Germans that have emigrated [to America] over the past ten years.” Call it British insularity, but I had not been aware that many Germans are still seeking a better life in the Land of Opportunity. Emigration, it seems, is not an outmoded 19th-century concept, but is alive and currently filling transatlantic flights from Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich.

Ever a reliable point of reference, the online archives of the Süddeutsche Zeitung threw up an interesting article on the subject by Wolf Lepenies, a professor of sociology in Berlin, published in August 2003. According to Lepenies it is not the number of Germans who have already left or are intending to emigrate that is worrying, but that increasingly the emigrants are Germany’s academic elite. One in seven German students who have completed a doctoral thesis up sticks and goes to America to find work, and 20,000 young German scientists currently work in the United States, according to Lepenies. Careers in Germany, particularly in scientific research, are mired in bureaucracy and dead-end jobs. Universities and research institutes in the US, on the other hand, are more flexible and willing to reward excellence. The consequence, writes Lepenies, is a brain drain that will have dramatic and far-reaching effects on Germany’s economy.

Better career opportunities, though, are not the only reason why people feel the need to emigrate. An acquaintance and her husband, both qualified professionals, recently considered moving to Canada, to give their two adopted Asian children a better future. They were tired of the curious and sometimes rude reactions to their “international family” and hoped that they would find greater acceptance and become better integrated on the other side of the Atlantic. If you are German and considering emigration, why not write and tell us about your reasons for leaving?

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