Belgian museum celebrates the immigrant experience


ANTWERP, Belgium — One became a prime minister. Another a songwriter whose compositions included “White Christmas.” And a third became an Angeleno who married, raised a family and became a social worker.

All extraordinary in their own ways, all on an extraordinary journey poignantly recounted at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp.

The emigration experiences of Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister; Irving Berlin, whose song Bing Crosby famously crooned; and Bessie Cohen, who moved to East Los Angeles in 1937, are among those of the 2 million immigrants who came to the United States from Europe from 1878 to 1934 on ships operated by the Antwerp-based Red Star Line. Their stories come alive in the newly opened museum in the harbor of this port city.


Emigration museum: In the Jan. 12 Travel section, an article about the Red Star Line Museum in Belgium misspelled the last name of Nathan Akawie, an ancestor of a woman who attended the opening, as Awakie. —

I visited the museum shortly after its formal opening by the king and queen of Belgium, and found it extremely moving. I literally traced the footsteps of emigrants — one quarter of whom were Jewish — who passed through these buildings, and saw evidence of all the stops on their journeys — from the time they left their homelands, to the often-arduous trips to Antwerp, to the often-humiliating processing they underwent before sailing, to their often-trying sea journey, and to their first encounter with the United States, not always welcoming, upon arrival at Ellis Island. And I learned first-hand about the emigration experiences of many people — some of whom, such as Berlin and Meir, went on to greatness, and others, such as Cohen, who led ordinary lives. For the vast majority, the Red Star Line provided a way to escape poverty and, often, religious persecution, from pogroms in Russia and Poland, and later Hitler’s regime.

The museum is in the line’s three original buildings, constructed between 1894 and 1921 and used for medical examinations and legal processing of prospective emigrants, as well as to store goods and baggage. Despite its Antwerp headquarters, the Red Star Line was bankrolled mainly by Americans. After its liquidation in the 1930s, its buildings sat vacant, on and off, from World War II until early this century. The city purchased them in 2005, and after an extensive restoration and a $25.5-million investment, the museum opened in late September.

Antwerp officials hired New York-based Beyer Blinder Belle to handle the restoration, no doubt because of the American firm’s expertise in the field: It helped restore the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Grand Central Terminal, also in New York.

Its brief here, museum officials said, was to bring the Red Star Line buildings back to their original condition and restore historic elements wherever possible.

The main exhibition explores “human stories, not objects,” said Luc Verheyen, the museum’s coordinator. “We started with a collection of stories and then found objects linked to them. We’re illustrating a universal story, and the challenge today is to tell the story in a way that everyone understands what it was like. We were looking for the universal experience and emotions linked to the journey, what it was like to leave behind what you love. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro- or anti-immigration, it has had an impact on people’s lives. We come to no political conclusions; the human issues are the same.”

To collect and illustrate these stories, museum officials did extensive research at the Ellis Island museum; the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York; and other institutions in Europe and elsewhere, amassing a priceless trove of archival film, photographs and other objects that bring to life the emigrants’ experiences.


The corridor leading into the main exhibition is lined with striking, life-size, black-and-white photographs of Red Star Line passengers with their tattered luggage, shown where the images were actually taken. This is followed by a huge, abstract globe containing a multimedia timeline of the history of man’s migration. Much of the rest of the exhibition illustrates the trips of Red Star Line passengers, from their home countries to Ellis Island and beyond.

A display of colorful posters and other documents explores the Red Star Line’s extensive marketing campaigns throughout Eastern Europe — where it employed agents to represent its interests — to lure passengers, the majority of whom traveled in third, or steerage, class, though it also offered first- and second-class accommodations.

Another section uses videos, documents and other artifacts to describe the journeys of individual Red Star Line passengers, including Albert Einstein. When Hitler gained power in 1933, Einstein and his wife, Elsa, were sailing on the Red Star Line’s Belgenland II from New York to Antwerp, planning to continue on to Berlin. When he learned on the ship that the Nazis had confiscated his possessions, Einstein decided not to return to Berlin, and he wrote a letter of resignation to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on Red Star Line stationery; this letter is on display at the museum through March 9, after which it will be replaced by a facsimile. When the Einsteins moved to the United States permanently in late 1933, they sailed on another Red Star Line ship, the Westernland, traveling in second class in solidarity with other Jewish refugees.

Museum visitors can also trace the emigrants’ experiences through paintings done by Belgian artists and reproductions of photographs of Antwerp during the Red Star Line’s heyday, of hotels where emigrants stayed and of agencies created to help them.

Particularly painful is the explanation of processes through which emigrants were examined by doctors and cleaned, by lengthy showers; their belongings were also fumigated in a bath of carbolic acid. The Red Star Line made every effort to ensure that emigrants were healthy: If they were rejected at Ellis Island, it had to pay for their return trip to Europe.

Other sections explore the sea journeys of all classes of Red Star Line passengers. Over time, the line operated 23 ships, built in Glasgow, Scotland; Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, with a rich sea-faring history; and Philadelphia, or bought or chartered from other lines. Its first ship, the Vaderland, accommodated 70 first-class and 800 third-class passengers, while the later Belgenland II carried 600 first-class, 350 second-class and 2,000 third-class passengers. In the beginning, passengers in steerage stayed in communal sleeping quarters, ate in small dining rooms and had limited sanitation. Second-class cabins eventually were added, though these did not resemble the luxurious first-class facilities, which could include cabins divided into sleeping and living quarters, plus a dining room, a smoking lounge, a library, a bar, a shop , a nursery room, a sports hall and even a swimming pool.


The final section of the exhibition focuses on emigrants’ arrival on Ellis Island and their journeys once they passed inspection there. Here are a map that shows the distribution of settlements by various nationalities across North America; a display of songs and newspapers typical of the emigrants’ new communities;and a transposing piano once used by Berlin — born Israel Baline in Russia — on long-term loan by his family.

In a phone interview from Paris, one of Berlin’s three daughters, Linda Emmet, repeated a story that her mother had told about her father: When he was 5 and sailing in steerage from Antwerp to New York, he was hit in the forehead with a penknife belonging to a passenger in the bunk above, and scarred permanently.

Emmet, who is 81 and attended the museum’s opening, said her father never discussed his childhood in Russia. Her family lent his piano, she said, because it represented his work. “One could say the Red Star Line gave him that chance to be successful in the United States, along with the intrepid decision taken by his parents,” she added.

Ellen Bledsoe Rodriguez — a 72-year-old grandmother from Westlake Village and the daughter of Cohen (whose first name was changed from Basia when she arrived on Ellis Island in 1921) — also attended the museum’s opening. She said it made her realize “what a hardship, how difficult it must have been, the endless number of steps (Cohen) had to go through over two years just to get on the ship, to get to America.”

Cohen fled Russia and scraped by with her family for two years before arriving in Antwerp. She lived in Brooklyn for 16 years after landing on Ellis Island, then moved to East Los Angeles, where she met and married Nathan Awakie and settled in Silver Lake, raising her family and doing social work.

Bledsoe Rodriguez said her mother “always spoke about her experiences in Europe and her journey to get here in the most positive terms. She didn’t dwell on the terrible hardships she went through; she spoke about them in a very matter-of-fact way. She had tremendous love and respect for her parents and felt they sacrificed greatly and loved their children greatly.”


Arriving in Antwerp by train — as her mother had decades ago — reduced Bledsoe Rodriguez and her family to tears. “It was so emotional to walk through the station, to see all my mother had walked through. It made me realize what a hardship she had gone through, how difficult it must have been,” she said.