From 1873 to 1934, nearly two million immigrants - many Eastern European Jews - traveled west across the continent by train to the port of Antwerp. Escaping economic woes and religious prejudice, they boarded Red Star Line ships bound for New York Harbor and the Ellis Island immigration station.
In 1892, the father of legendary dancer Fred Astaire arrived in America from Austria-Hungary aboard the Red Star Line’s S/S Westernland. Composer Irving Berlin-who would become famous for songs like “White Christmas” and “God Bless America”- arrived here from Russia as the five-year-old Israel Isidore Beilin. Golda Meir, another young passenger, would one day become Prime Minister of Israel. In the 1930s, the great physicist Albert Einstein escaped the Nazis aboard one of the “Star Ships.”
The story of the Red Star Line passengers “is a story about the ancestors of Americans, about their roots and how they made it to America,” explained Philip Heylen, Antwerp’s Vice-Mayor for Culture. “But first and foremost, this is a universal story. Millions of people all over the world left, and continue to leave, the familiar behind, looking for a new future elsewhere.”
Above the Ellis Island museum’s cavernous Great Hall, “Via Antwerp. The Road to Ellis Island” covers five rooms of the third-floor Dormitory Galleries. Divided into thematic areas, the exhibit traces the immigrants’ journey from the travel agencies that recruited them, their arrival by train in Antwerp and their shipboard journey to their arrival at Ellis Island. Artifacts include Red Star Line advertisements, train tickets, vintage photographs and colorful Belle Epoque posters.
“Via Antwerp” offers a provocative foretaste of the much larger Red Star Line Museum, opened in 2013 in the Montevideo neighborhood of Antwerp’s trendy Het Eilandje docklands district. Overlooking the River Scheldt and housed in three enormous warehouses where third-class passengers received health checks, the high-tech Red Star Line Museum was designed by Beyer Blinder Belle, headquartered in New York and Washington, D.C. In 1990, BBB also restored the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum.
For information on “Via Antwerp. The Road to Ellis Island,” visit www.libertyellisfoundation.org. For Ellis Island ferry tickets from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan or Liberty State Park in New Jersey, contact Statue Cruises at www.statuecruises.com
For information on the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, log on to www.redstarline.be, www.visitantwerpen.be and www.visitflanders.com