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Museum in Antwerp Recalls the Ships That Brought Einstein and Irving Berlin to America

The Red Star Line carried half a million Jewish refugees from Europe as they fled pogroms, anti-Semitism, and the Nazis

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Steerage on the Red Star Line, 1925. (Courtesy of Red Star Line Museum)
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Sonia Pressman Fuentes was born in Berlin in 1928 to Polish Jewish parents. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, her brother Hermann fled to Antwerp, where she and her parents reunited with him a few months later. Unfortunately, no one in her family was legally allowed to stay in Belgium. The Belgian national security bureau prepared to deport them back to Poland, where her parents had been born—though they hadn’t lived there in about 20 years.

“Had we been deported,” Fuentes said, “we would truly have gone to our deaths.”

Luckily, the family gained visas to go the United States, and on April 20, 1934, they boarded the Red Star Line’s Westernland and arrived at Ellis Island on May 1. If not for securing those visas and taking that fateful voyage, Fuentes would not have gone on to become a women’s rights leader, co-founding the National Organization for Women and working as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Pressman family
The Pressmans. (Courtesy of the Red Star Line Museum)

Fuentes is just one of the influential Jewish émigrés for whom Antwerp was a gateway to the New World. Thanks to the new Red Star Line Museum, which opened this fall in Antwerp, the story of how the company’s steamships ushered Eastern European Jews to the United States, and how those immigrants changed the face of the nation, can finally be told.

The Red Star Line’s other iconic Jewish passengers include Albert Einstein, who fled Nazi Germany aboard the Westernland in 1933; he wrote his resignation letter to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on Red Star Line letterhead. And the Red Star Line didn’t carry just those who were fleeing Hitler; it had already been bringing Jews to America for about 60 years. In 1893, for instance, 5-year-old Israel Isidore Baline and his family left Russia for the United States via Antwerp on the SS Rhynland. He changed his name to Irving Berlin, and in his newly adopted country, he later penned some of the most iconic American songs of all time, including “God Bless America.” As Antwerp’s Vice Mayor Philip Heylen said at a preview event for the museum in September, “There would be no ‘White Christmas’ without Red Star.”

The Red Star Line served as an escape hatch for over half a million Jews seeking sanctuary from 1873 to 1934. The narrative of Jewish immigration from Europe to the United States often overlooks the importance of these ships. “None of the migration would have happened without the development of lines like Red Star,” said Hasia Diner, professor of Jewish history at New York University, via email.

Einstein newspaper clipping
The Einsteins. (Courtesy of the Red Star Line Museum)

“I am of course grateful and fortunate beyond words to have been one of the millions of passengers who traveled to the United States and Canada on Red Star Line ships,” said Fuentes in a speech at the new museum in September, standing on the same ground where she set sail for the United States 80 years ago. “My family’s voyage saved our lives.”

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Thirteen years ago, the Red Star Line’s historic buildings stood empty and in peril and were slated to be sold off. But in 2001, they were saved when, following much lobbying, the Belgian government deemed the structures protected monuments. The same architects who restored the structures at Ellis Island—Beyer Blinder Belle—were hired to rejuvenate the buildings.

Historian Bram Beelaert was brought on to curate a new museum in the space where passengers once gathered. Beelaert and his team needed to imbue the museum’s walls with personal stories to illustrate the ocean liners’ history and portray the immigrants’ journeys. “How do you evoke the hope, expectations, fear, disappointments in a credible way?” Beelart asked.

Unfortunately, the transoceanic line shut down in 1934; many of its adult passengers are no longer alive. Any remaining passengers traveled as children, like Fuentes, and often didn’t recall their time aboard the ships. So, the Red Star Line Museum partnered with the Ellis Island Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. “We got life stories and oral histories of immigrants who took the boat in Antwerp from their collections,” Beelaert told me via email. His team also enlisted a genealogist to track down descendants of passengers: “[We] gained access to their families’ archives and did research … in Krakow, Warsaw, and Moscow.”

Thanks to a 2009 article in the Forward about the creation of the new museum, Fuentes reached out to the curators, thinking, “What have I got to lose?” Beelaert said that the museum had extensive contact with Fuentes since then: “[We] went together with her to the archives here in Belgium” to research her lost personal history. Fuentes said, “Much of the information they gave me I had never known before,” including her family’s close call with deportation and Fuentes’ brief time living in the Orthodox district of Antwerp before leaving for the United States.

In addition to showcasing personal stories like Fuentes’, the museum also features its prized pieces: Irving Berlin’s piano, Einstein’s handwritten letter of resignation, and artwork by artist Eugeen Van Mieghem depicting Red Star Line voyagers. The exhibit recreates the experience of leaving one’s motherland for the New World, from the travel agency to the city of Antwerp to the steamship to the Ellis Island processing center. Photos and personal artifacts abound, all within the historic walls where the original journeys took place.

Though the museum focuses on more than Jewish migration, the Jewish stories make up a significant part of the material. As Irving Berlin’s granddaughter Caroline Emmet-Bourgois said while visiting the museum in September, “We tend to forget how hard it is to emigrate. You are leaving behind your identity. … You are trying to give a future to your children, and you are willing to lose what you already have to start anew.”

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The first big wave of Jewish immigration from Europe to the United States began right before the pogroms of the late 19th century. “Jews from particularly Lithuania had been immigrating from the 1860s onward,” Diner said. Then in 1882, as violent anti-Semitism became widespread across Eastern Europe, more and more Jews fled persecution. “It was the first awakening,” YIVO CEO Jonathan Brent told me, “to the fact that the Jews no longer had a real home in Eastern Europe.”

“The turn of the century produced all the upheaval that led to, and was devastating in, the aftermath of WWI,” Brent noted. “This simply provided confirmation to what people thought in 1882: that Jews have got to get out.”

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Museum in Antwerp Recalls the Ships That Brought Einstein and Irving Berlin to America

The Red Star Line carried half a million Jewish refugees from Europe as they fled pogroms, anti-Semitism, and the Nazis