Exploring the Museum of Emigration in Antwerp, Belgium

Visitors to the Red Star Line Museum in the Belgian city of Antwerp can experience the fascinating story of people in search of a new home in North America.

Commercial Poster for Red Star Line cruises
Commercial poster for Red Star Line cruises.

History of Immigration to the US

Immigration is a concept on which the United States was built, and one which today evokes heated discussion in Congress and amongst our citizens.  Since America’s earliest days, immigrants have been coming here, seeking a new home and working hard for a better life for their families. Immigration, however, did not begin with the United States.

At the museum, you will learn that human migration is recorded as early as 42,000 years ago. It is human nature to seek happiness and strive for a better life, even if it means uprooting ourselves and moving elsewhere. This pursuit of happiness is something we all relate to.

The first large-scale wave of immigration was during Colonial times. Later, from 1820-1880, the second wave brought emigrants mostly from the western European countries of Britain, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, as well as China. However, during the first decade of the 20th century, the third and largest wave of immigration, including almost nine million emigrants from Russia, Austria, Hungary and Italy arrived.

They brought with them few possessions but carried their languages, foods and customs, which have become part of our collective culture. Today we have newer Americans emigrating from Africa, India, the Middle East, Mexico and South and Central America, adding their words and flavors to make a more complex “stew.”

Those of us who live in New York City or have traveled there may have visited Ellis Island, the landing point for the majority of immigrants to America in the early 20th century.  When they arrived by steamship, most huddled in “steerage” class (the decks below the water) and entered New York harbor, they clamored upstairs to the deck to glimpse a view of the Statue of Liberty that they dreamed of.

In turn, she greeted the newcomers with her lighted torch and welcoming poem. Passing Lady Liberty, they alighted onto Ellis Island where their processing took place, and they began their new lives in “the Golden Land.”

But how did they get to this point? What impelled them to leave everything they knew behind? This is the story told at the Red Star Line Museum.

How Emigrants Traveled to a New Home

Leaving their landlocked homelands, residents of Eastern Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire traveled first by rail to port cities, and then on steamships across the Atlantic Ocean. For more than two million people, the American shipping company Red Star Line provided the passage, and their journeys across the ocean were via the port of Antwerp, Belgium. During the height of immigration, in this already bustling city of trade and culture, the shipping company began offering passenger accommodations to the United States and Canada. The Red Star Line’s connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad in the U.S. also facilitated land transportation westward, if required by the immigrants.

Who were these passengers? From 1873 to 1934 fewer than 200,000 Belgians took this journey on a Red Star Line ship.  However, over 1,800,000 residents of Eastern Europe, including Izzy Beilin (who later changed his name to Irving Berlin and, as an American, composed “White Christmas” and “God Bless America”); Golda Meir, an American who became the Prime Minister of Israel; dancer Fred Astaire; scientist Albert Einstein and, perhaps, some of your own ancestors emigrated to America on ships such as the Belgenland II, the Vaderland and the Lapland, all Red Star Line vessels.

Experiencing the Emigrant’s Trail

Antwerp city rooftops
Antwerp, Belgium seen from above. Photo by Thomas Konings on Unsplash.

In 2013 the city of Antwerp opened the Red Star Line Museum, where visitors can follow in the footsteps of these emigrants. It is located on the Eilandje by the quay where these steamships moored, just before the bend in the Scheldt River.

When the steam whistle announced an impending departure, the quay swarmed with activity and the Eilandje is still a popular place. Housed in the historic warehouses of the Red Star Line, the museum outlines the company’s origin, growth and demise, and presents eight thematic spaces which help to tell the story of the emigrants from a travel agency in Warsaw to a train carriage, the deck of an ocean liner and their arrival at Ellis Island. It is the step-by-step experience of the people who took a huge leap of faith to come to America.

Six “Star Witnesses,” along with their stories and their objects such as trunks, fragments of letters and household objects (such as, in the case of Belgian emigrants, their family’s waffle irons) are featured. Additionally, the museum welcomes contributions such as photos and other memorabilia from family members of emigrants who traveled on a Red Star Line ship. Visitors to the museum are invited to add their own personal stories to their growing collection, and to search for family members in the genealogical database.

Pain and Hope of Emigration Brought to Life

Original Red Star Line warehouse
Original Red Star Line warehouse is preserved today.

True emigrant tales, the centerpiece of the museum, add a personal touch and are presented in film footage, oral and written histories, photos, diaries and other objects, and help to tell the stories of people seeking the American Dream. The museum considers the practical aspects of the process, but also the emotional issues of the hopes, expectations, fears, uncertainties and disappointments of the emigrants.

The testimonies of these people give a face to their experiences and we learn that they left Europe for many reasons and, while most stayed, some, due to a variety of circumstances, did return to Europe.

After going through the exhibits, visitors are invited to walk to the top of The Tower, the museum’s showpiece. Shaped like the prow and funnel of an ocean liner, it offers a view of the city and its river, and visitors can imagine the experience of the passengers of long ago, standing on the bow of a steamship as they imagined their future across the Ocean.

Connecting back to their experience once they arrived in New York City, it is interesting to note that the Red Star Line Port Warehouses were restored by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, the same architectural firm behind the renovation and preservation of Ellis Island.

Planning a Visit to the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp

While there are many reasons to visit Antwerp — to explore its culture, indulge in its cuisine (think frites, chocolate, beer and waffles) and learn about its diamond and fashion industries, we can now add a visit to this fascinating museum where we can try to understand the immigrant experience, contribute to their collection, and research some of our own family’s stories to make connections with our past.

Information on tickets and tours is available at Red Star Line Museum.

For more information about the city and for tours and hotel recommendations, Visit Antwerp.

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