Antwerp’s New Red Star Line Museum Brings History of Belgian - U.S. Immigration Alive

The new Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium // All photos by John Stone

The new Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium // All photos by John Stone

Antwerp Deputy Mayor Philip Heylen welcomes guests to Red Star Line Museum opening.The city of Antwerp, after an arduous 11-year, $20-million-plus planning and reconstruction process, has brought to life its new Red Star Line Museum, which opened to the public on Saturday, September 28. The project was undertaken with the financial support of the Flanders Government, Visit Flanders, the Belgian shipping companies CMB and Gosselin Group Belgium, and other prominent Flemish corporate sponsers.

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The Red Star Line Museum is housed in the same three waterfront shipping warehouses from which 2.6 million people departed from Antwerp for New York and Philadelphia beween 1872 and 1934. The work for the major reconstruction was spearheaded by project coordinator Luc Verheyen and Antwerp’s Deputy Mayor for Culture Philip Heylen. Heylen revealed that he only discovered during the project planning that some of his own relatives had emigrated from Antwerp to New York on the Red Star Line.

“We have been working on this for 10 or 11 years,” said Heylen during the press preview that included prominent dignitaries with family emigration experiences recounted in the museum. “It is quite emotional for us to finally be in this building after so many years.”

Red Star Line passengers arrived in Antwerp through Central Station's stairway.

Red Star Line passengers arrived in Antwerp through Central Station's stairway.

Eastern European Immigrants

Red Star Line Museum emigrants during the facility’s 60-year operating history were primarily from Eurpean countries outside of Belgium, including Germans, French, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians and others escaping economic hardships and religious persecution, especially in eastern regions, during the early years, and fleeing from the rise of the Nazi party in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. According to shipping records collected at the museum, about 25 percent of the emigrees taking the Red Star Line were Jewish and only 10 percent of all the emigrees were from Belgium. Genealogical records and assistance are available for visitors wishing to trace family histories.

Many of the Red Star Line passengers, arriving with tickets purchased from the company’s branch offices across Europe, arrived in Antwerp by train and spent time in the city before passing through to the port for departure. After 1905 they arrived in – and passed through – the majestic Antwerp Central Station constructed by King Leopold II as a symbol of Belgium’s economic prosperity, a function it still fulfills as a visitor highlight in the city and one of the world’s most architecturally opulent railway stations. This is Antwerp’s answer to New York’s Grand Central Station as the Red Star Line Museum now takes its place as Belgium’s counterpart to New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Red Star Line ship artifacts at Van Mieghem Museum

Red Star Line ship artifacts at Van Mieghem Museum

The Red Star Line Experience

The museum experience for visitors walking through the Red Star Line Museum is designed to convey the emotions of the emigrating third-class passengers who passed the same corridors and rooms before boarding the Red Star Line ships to America. Large vintage photos on exhibits' entry walls show the lower-class passengers boarding the gangway to a ship or waiting in a processing room with bags containing all their worldly possessions. Visitors pass through the areas where passengers gave up their bags for mandatory disinfections, went through document processing, took showers to be rid of possible lice or other infections before being allowed onboard, and underwent individual examinations by a trio of doctors from New York, Antwerp and the Red Star Line to be declared fit for travel. Heart-rending stories are told of passengers denied boarding due to an illness contracted prior to arrival, separated from other families continuing on to America, and left only with the hope they would soon be well enough to board a delayed ship passage to be reunited with their loved ones in the new country.

Other exhibits in the Red Star Line Museum include histories and models, with archival photos, of the ships themselves, a realistic display of life on board the vessels in both steerage and first class, and a review of many of the world’s current emigration movements, many involving the same escapes from war, persecution and economic privation that drove the passengers to Red Star Line’s passages to America.

Irving Berlin's photo with daughter Linda (left) and granddaughters.Celebrities and Irving Berlin

There are also compelling stories of celebrities who traveled on the Red Star Line, including composer Iriving Berlin, Israeli Premier Golda Meier, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover, and Albert Einstein. Linda Emmet, daughter of Irving Berlin, appeared with her daughter Caroline Emmet-Bourgois and niece Emily Fletcher, Berlin’s granddaughters, to view the exhibition for the first time during the media preview. Berlin’s own piano, donated by the family as a gift to the museum, is a centerpiece display near the conclusion of the Red Star Line Museum visit.

Daughter Linda Emmet declared her first experience of the Red Star Line Museum as “incredible,” and said her father was an eternal optimist who had no memory of his early childhood experiences in a Russian village or his passage on the Red Star Line at age five. “But someone dropped a penknife on my father’s forehead from a sleeping berth on the ship during the passage, and he had that scar for the rest of his life,” she noted.

Granddaughter Caroline Emmet-Bourgois said one of her grandfather’s musical friends once declared “there would have been no White Christmas without the Red Star Line.” Berlin’s second granddaughter Emily Fletcher said, “I find this space very moving. To see where grandpa came from and how he arrived where he got…I am very moved.”

Lawyer Sonia Pressman Fuentes emigrated to New York at age 5 on the Red Star Line.New York Ellis Island Connections

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, an American lawyer now in her 80s and one of the founding partners of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in which she is still active, described her own experiences as a young child passenger on the Red Star Line. Pressman Fuentes’ family left Berlin in 1933, when she was five, after her 19-year-old brother convinced their father to flee the emerging persecution of Jews by the Nazi party. Pressman Fuentes noted that only much later did she realize that her brother had saved the family from the death camps. “The most moving experience for me in the exhibit was seeing the photos of the Westerland, the ship my family sailed on to America,” said Pressman Fuentes.

The Antwerp partners in the Red Star Line Museum project helped solidify the museum’s modern connection to New York and the U.S. by hiring Beyers, Blinder and Belle, the same architects who worked on the reconstructive creation of the Ellis Island Museum in New York harbor.

“When work started in 2009 the buildings were rotted, there was graffiti, rust, and leaky tin roofs,” said Richard Southwick, one of the Beyers, Blinder and Belle architects on the project. “Basically it was an open-air space where both vandals and pigeons were having their way.” 

The architects used techniques for drying and preserving old stonework to prevent collapse as learned on the Ellis Island Museum and other projects undertaken by the firm. Now hailed as a miraculous outcome in Antwerp, the Red Star Line Museum includes a converted seven-story smokestack above the warehouses that now serves as an observation deck with a commanding view of the city. Not to be missed on the nearby waterfront is the Van Mieghem Museum, a sister museum that contains artifacts from the ships, and sketches by its local documenting artist Eugeen Van Mieghem, who lived in a cafe opposite the Red Star Line warehouses during their operating years. The artist observed and sketched poor third-class passengers moving day-by-day to the shipping buildings. His work in the Van Mieghem Museum, a stunning former waterfront mansion, is not to be missed by any visitor serious about understanding the meaning behind the history recounted in the Red Star Line Museum.