I walk past shadowy figures muttering a cacophony of words that I can barely understand. They are carrying bundles of sparse possessions they will take with them to the New World.
But it is the large photo at the end of the corridor that catches my eye. A group of emigrants, dressed in massive coats and hats, stand or sit on upturned cases beneath a corrugated roof. I look up. I am standing under the same roof and in the same spot from where the emigrants in the photograph embarked in 1926. Between 1873 and 1934 two million people left Antwerp on the Red Star Line in search of a new life. Many were fleeing poverty, war, persecution and discrimination. 25% were Jewish.
This former warehouse of the Red Star Line shipping company was opened as a Museum in 2013. It is full of people’s stories, letters, photographs, graphic posters, objects people took with them, model ships, menus, tableware and the like. The Museum invites visitors to go on an, ‘exciting journey in the footsteps of the migrants.’ Perhaps it was exciting but it was hard too. People were leaving family, friends, homes, possessions and sometimes livelihoods.
Many emigrants travelled by train from across Europe, some from as far away as Odessa in the Ukraine. People sat on wooden benches and in crowded, smelly fourth-class compartments. At Antwerp station they could be turned back by health officials. Those with tickets were accompanied to hotels. Others had to find their own way through the bustling city where emigrants were the target for thieves and subject to abuse.
Once people arrived at the Red Star Line offices health inspections began in earnest. Before WW1 these were held in the open air but then Red Star Line built a special wing for the purpose. People undressed, showered, had their hair shaved or finely combed and were examined by doctors.
Their luggage was disinfected in carbolic acid. Red Star Line was keen to root out people who might fail the health authorities on Ellis Island as the company would have to pay the return passage.
One such case was Ita Moel from Poland who, with her mother and three brothers, set off on the Lapland to join their father in America. Ita was stopped at Ellis Island as she had trachoma despite having passed the inspection in Antwerp. Her mother was faced with an agonising decision. Should she return to Antwerp with her daughter and three sons? She decided ‘no’. Ita, just nine years old, travelled back on her own and was taken in by a Jewish charity in Antwerp. She tried to return a year later but was turned back once again. Ita writes to her friend.
One day they say I can go home, the next day that I am sick. Now I don’t believe them any more, I have always been brave until now, but no longer.
In 1927, at the age of 14, and after five years of living in crowded, dirty accommodation in Antwerp, Ita finally joins her family. Morris talks about his sister’s experience in one of the oral histories. When the family was reunited no one ever spoke about Ita’s separation from her family.
Childhood memories feature strongly in this Museum, no doubt because many older adults who travelled on the Red Star Line are no longer alive.
These memories are both charming and poignant. Max Masonszhnik, from the Ukraine, thought the boat was going to sink when he flushed the toilet but kept his fears to himself. Irene Bobelin aged six, enjoyed her passage no doubt because her parents in the US had paid for her to travel second class. She was accompanied by a governess who got seasick but this did not hamper Irene’s enjoyment. She ‘could go anywhere’ unlike the people below deck who were incarcerated although the company made an exception at Christmas.
And all the little Poles were allowed up on deck to celebrate Christmas with us. But not the grown ups, just the little ones.
Irene settled well in the US. There were lots of Flemish people in the community in Illinois where her father was a factory worker and there was a Belgian club where she could play Flemish games. She attended American school and learnt English. She thought the clothes were more colourful and the food more varied. Her family had all mod cons – a big boiler and a refrigerator and she was taken to school by car. But when the Great Depression took hold Irene and her family returned to establish a farm in East Flanders. This was a shock for Irene.
When I got back here they all seemed like old women, all dressed in black, with knee length socks.
For the rest of her life Irene talked wistfully of her three years as a child in the US.
One of the most famous passengers on the Red Star Line was Israle Baline, or Irving Berlin as he came to be known. As violence against Jews increased in Belarus, the Baline family left for New York. It was 1893 and Israle was just five. He sold newspapers on the street corners of Lower East Side, became an assistant to a blind singing beggar and a singing waiter, playing the piano after hours. Irving’s story is the epitome of the American dream. Cheek to Cheek, White Christmas, There’s No Business Like Show Business and God Bless America were just some of the 3000 songs he wrote.
Another famous passenger was Albert Einstein. He travelled widely between 1920 and 1933 lecturing on his Theory or Relativity and quantum physics. Hitler’s regime forced Einstein and his wife to emigrate permanently to the US on the Westernland in 1933.
In the 1920s, when US emigration rules tightened, the Red Star Line tried its hand at luxury cruises. The wealthy sailed to India, Singapore and South Africa and enjoyed booze cruises to Bermuda during the Prohibition era. But this did not save the company. It was sold in 1934.
My friend Artem and I have sat on wooden train seats, watched film footage of people having their heads shaved, smelt the disinfectant, looked through the port holes and finally arrived in New York, or so the museum signage suggests. Artem is not convinced.
“This doesn’t look or feel like New York. There are no skyscrapers, yellow cabs or the Statue of Liberty welcoming us. And where is the music?”
And yet he enthusiastically tests his IQ. He is successful but I fear he has less chance than me of getting accepted.
It is the 1920s and Nativism, an anti-immigration movement, has gained momentum. The newspapers are full of aggressive cartoons. Migrants devour Uncle Sam.
Established, wealthy former migrants have pulled up the drawbridge to new, poorer migrants. An annual quota system has been introduced. The US will accept 62,458 British migrants but Artem is from Russia, a country that has only 1792 allocated places. And Luxembourg, where Artem now lives, has only 100 places. His undoubted intelligence may not be enough.
Despite the immigration restrictions the diversity of the migrants is impressive. There are portraits of Russian children whose mothers were killed in a massacre; a Serbian Gyspy family, an English Jewish family and three women from Guadeloupe. America’s ‘melting pot’, a term popularised by the play in 1908 by Israle Zangwill, is alive and kicking.
The last section of the Museum is dedicated to immigration. We explore stories of people such as Kidane.
I had no choice: staying in Eritrea and die, or take my chances and leave in 2009. One day I was able to take the plane to Italy. I had a fake passport.
Faking passports is not new. In 1912 Sophie Klebanskaya, a 17 year old minor from Belarus, borrowed her sister’s identity to get to the United States.
We use the inter-actives to learn more about Zohra, one of the first migrants from Morocco who worked in a bottle factory.
At that time the Belgians were happy with us and they treated us good.
There was no halal meat at that time so she washed and blessed the meat seven times.
Alex and his sister, Maria, are more recent migrants from Romania.
Alex only wants to go back for holidays but Maria is keen to return to Romania.
‘What I miss most are my friends and my grandparents’.
We are all invited to contribute our story, on the web, by letter or in person. If your story is of particular interest then you will be invited for a more formal interview that will be incorporated into the Museum’s collections,
It is time for some fun. Artem and I stand in front of cameras to have our portraits taken. We watch as we are mutated into migrants, walk up the gangway of a Red Star liner, play cards with dubious companions in steerage, arrive in New York and send a post card home with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
The shaky film arrives in my inbox. A light hearted reminder and a highlight of our visit to the Museum.
The ‘real’ journey to New York might not have been that funny.