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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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“America functioned as a magnet for Jews leaving Europe” during this period, Diner wrote in The Jews of the United States. Via email, she added: “The United States was the most dynamic economy in the world. It offered tremendous opportunity for white people who could take advantage of expanding economic developments.”

“Antwerp was not the leading port for Eastern European Jews,” said Barry Moreno, Ellis Island Museum historian, via email. Almost half of Eastern European immigrants traveled through Hamburg and Bremen, followed by Libau, with Antwerp as the fourth-most-popular port. Jewish migration through Antwerp is estimated at about 625,000 people in total, or one in four of the 2.5 million total immigrants on the Red Star Line. But Erwin Joos, curator at Antwerp’s Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum, told me that he believes the number was higher: Immigration centers didn’t keep track of religious affiliations, and letters from Jewish sojourners in Antwerp suggest that boarding houses were brimming with Jewish immigrants. As for the annual numbers, Moreno said that each year there were between 3,500 and 7,500 Jewish immigrants—until 1902, when the number climbed to over 15,000.

Yiddish schedule
Advertisement with schedule. (Grace Bello)

One benefit of setting sail for the United States aboard the Red Star Line was its low cost. Joos said that, because Antwerp’s line competed directly with Hamburg’s, the Red Star Line kept its prices modest. Diner said that family members already in the United States often purchased tickets for those back home to join them, so they were looking for the “cheapest, easiest to get to, least cumbersome port available” for their relatives back home. Joos noted that “Antwerp was very popular for steerage, for third class.” Through the 1890s, steerage meant traveling in “poorly lit, noisy, overcrowded” areas, according to the museum, though conditions improved in the ensuing years.

One big challenge in Antwerp was the lack of support for the travelers. Moreno said that, unlike the German ports, which offered lodging to emigrants, Belgian ports provided nothing. Jews and other emigrants stayed in sometimes expensive boarding houses; they were at the mercy of swindlers with scant protection from local authorities. Moreover, the lodgings themselves were often filthy and overcrowded.

Though in Fuentes’ case she was too young to remember her time in Antwerp, those who traveled as adults were often quick to bury this part of their histories. Joos said of the descendants of Red Star Line passengers: “Sometimes it’s the parents [who] didn’t want to talk about it to their children. They were traveling in such dire conditions that they were ashamed to tell them [about it].”

YIVO presented a panel discussion on the Red Star Line four years ago. “I think it came as a real surprise to people that Antwerp was a major immigration site for Jews,” said Brent, “and that the Red Star Line played such an important role in the Jewish world.”

Beelaert will give several talks in the United States in December, exploring the link between Antwerp’s transatlantic carrier and the history of Jewish migration. He will appear in New York City at the 92nd St. Y on Dec. 2, in Philadelphia at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Dec. 3, and in Detroit at the Adat Shalom Synagogue on Dec. 8. He said that after this “big, complicated, and sometimes difficult project, the dialogue with the audience is very exciting.”

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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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