A handwritten letter on Red Star Line stationery penned by Albert Einstein, tendering his resignation from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, rests in a case. Irving Berlin’s piano sits nearby.
These are among the new Red Star Line Museum’s exhibits related to passengers who left the port of Antwerp, Belgium, between 1873 and 1934. The museum, which started in 1992 as a petition for a plaque to commemorate the shipping line, opened in Antwerp on Sept. 28. Its collection fascinates those whose ancestors immigrated through Antwerp on Red Star Line ships, and others just curious about what their immigrant ancestors endured.
For genealogists, the museum can shed light on their families’ hopes and ordeals. “This is a museum of hope,” says Phillip Heylen, Antwerp’s Vice Mayor for Culture. About 2.6 million passengers sailed on Red Star ships, mostly in third class. Why was Antwerp such a popular port? It had good railroad connections, Heylen says, and the people were known to be friendly to outsiders. Ships sailed first to Philadelphia, then also to New York and Boston. “The United States would have looked a lot different if it hadn’t been for the Red Star Line,” Heylen says.
Museum visitors enter an original 1893 brick building—De Loods or the Shed—where passengers’ luggage was stored. The exhibit begins by explaining how mass violence escalates in many cultures, often starting with bullying. An enlarged photo shows immigrants, many fleeing persecution and poverty, purchasing tickets at a Warsaw travel agency. Other photos illustrate the journey by train to the 1905 Antwerpen-Centraal railway station.
About a quarter of passengers departing from Antwerp for the United States and Canada were Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, Romania and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Later, they escaped the Nazi regime. Other refugees from Belgium, Germany and Poland also sought better lives in the Americas.
Before boarding their ships, third-class passengers were separated by sex (children were sorted with the women) and undressed. They, their clothing and their luggage were disinfected. Medical inspections followed; a film demonstrates the eye examinations for conditions such as trachoma. Between two and four percent of passengers were rejected here. Any immigrants who didn’t pass inspections at arrival ports in America would be returned to their departure ports at the shipping line’s expense. Heylen tells of the Moël family, whose youngest member, 9-year-old Ita, was returned to Antwerp in 1922 because of trachoma. When she tried again to immigrate a year later, she once more was deported. Finally, however, in 1927, she rejoined her family in America. The museum located a surviving son, who recounted in a video the painful decision to send Ita alone back across the ocean.
Visitors can follow along with emigrants’ journeys through passenger lists, portraits, photos of steerage and first-class dining rooms, and artifacts such as dishes and menus. A model of the ship she traveled on moved Sonia Pressman Fuentes to tears. Now a women’s rights advocate in Sarasota, Fla., she was 6 years old when her family left Antwerp in 1934 to escape deportation by Nazis. “My family’s voyage saved our lives,” Fuentes says.
Exhibits focus on the stories of six passengers both ordinary and famous, including Einstein. He’d traveled on the Red Star Line to lecture in America and wrote his resignation in 1933 on the return trip to Europe, after learning Nazis had raided his home in Berlin. After a stay in Belgium, Einstein and his wife moved to the United States for good that year.
A young Irving Berlin left Belarus with his family after a pogrom in 1893, traveling on the Red Star Line to New York City. After an impoverished childhood, he went on to write 1,500 songs—including “God Bless America.”