In The Emigrants Sebald's narrator recounts his involvement with and the life stories of four different characters, all of whom are German emigrants (to England and the United States). As with most of Sebald's work, the text includes many black and white, unlabeled photographs and strays sharply from general formats of plot and narrative.
Dr. Henry Selwyn is the estranged husband of Sebald's landlady. Selwyn fought in the First World War and has a propensity for gardening and tending to animals. He confides in Sebald about his family's immigration to England from Lithuania, and suspects that it is this secretive, alien past that contributed to the dissolution of his relationship with his wife. He commits suicide.
Paul Bereyter was the narrator's childhood teacher in a town referenced in the text only as "S". A quarter Jewish, he found employment difficult in the period leading up to the Second World War, although he eventually served in the Wehrmacht. Teaching in the small school after the war, Bereyter found a passion for his students while living a lonely, quiet life. In later years, his eyesight began to fail and he moved to France, where he met and spent much time with Mme Landau, from whom the narrator obtains most of his information about Bereyter.
The narrator's great uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, was the travelling companion of an affluent young aviator gifted with much luck at gambling and a wayward attitude towards life. In his youth, he accompanied this man across Europe, and into Turkey and Asia Minor, before his companion fell ill and was sent to a mental institution. Afterwards, Adelwarth was the butler of the young man's family, living on Long Island until their death.
As a young man in Manchester the narrator befriends an expatriate German-Jewish painter, Max Ferber. Years later the artist gives the narrator his mother's history of her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the East and death. This section is written as a gradual discovery on the narrator's part of the effects of the Holocaust on Ferber and his family.