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Next stop was America

Antwerp museum explores the stories of some of the emigres who journeyed to new lives in the U.S. aboard Red Star Line ships.

January 12, 2014|Jane Levere

ANTWERP, BELGIUM — One became a prime minister. Another a songwriter whose compositions included "White Christmas." And a third became an Angeleno who married, raised a family and became a social worker.

All extraordinary in their own ways, all on an extraordinary journey poignantly recounted at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp.

The emigration experiences of Golda Meir, Israel's first female prime minister; Irving Berlin, whose song Bing Crosby famously crooned; and Bessie Cohen, who moved to East Los Angeles in 1937, are among those of the 2 million immigrants who came to the United States from Europe from 1878 to 1934 on ships operated by the Antwerp-based Red Star Line. Their stories come alive in the newly opened museum in the harbor of this port city.

I visited the museum shortly after its formal opening by the king and queen of Belgium, and found it extremely moving. I literally traced the footsteps of emigrants -- one quarter of whom were Jewish -- who passed through these buildings, and saw evidence of all the stops on their journeys -- from the time they left their homelands, to the often-arduous trips to Antwerp, to the often-humiliating processing they underwent before sailing, to their often-trying sea journey, and to their first encounter with the United States, not always welcoming, upon arrival at Ellis Island. And I learned first-hand about the emigration experiences of people -- some of whom, such as Berlin and Meir, went on to greatness, and others, such as Cohen, who led ordinary lives. For the vast majority, the Red Star Line provided a way to escape poverty and, often, religious persecution, from pogroms in Russia and Poland, and later Hitler's regime.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 15, 2014 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Emigration museum: In the Jan. 12 Travel section, an article about the Red Star Line Museum in Belgium misspelled the last name of Nathan Akawie, an ancestor of a woman who attended the opening, as Awakie.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 19, 2014 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
In an article about the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, in the Jan. 12 Travel section, the last name of Nathan Akawie, an ancestor of a woman who attended the emigration museum's opening, was misspelled as Awakie.

The museum is in the line's three original buildings, constructed between 1894 and 1921 and used for medical examinations and legal processing of prospective emigrants, as well as to store goods and baggage. Despite its Antwerp headquarters, the Red Star Line was bankrolled mainly by Americans. After its liquidation in the 1930s, its buildings sat vacant, on and off, from World War II until early this century. The city purchased them in 2005, and after an extensive restoration and a $25.5-million investment, the museum opened in late September.

Antwerp officials hired New York-based Beyer Blinder Belle to handle the restoration, no doubt because of the American firm's expertise in the field: It helped restore the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Grand Central Terminal, also in New York.

Its brief here, museum officials said, was to bring the Red Star Line buildings back to their original condition and restore historic elements wherever possible.

The main exhibition explores "human stories, not objects," said Luc Verheyen, the museum's coordinator. "We started with a collection of stories and then found objects linked to them. We're illustrating a universal story, and the challenge today is to tell the story in a way that everyone understands what it was like. We were looking for the universal experience and emotions linked to the journey, what it was like to leave behind what you love. It doesn't matter if you're pro- or anti-immigration, it has had an impact on people's lives. We come to no political conclusions; the human issues are the same."

To collect and illustrate these stories, museum officials did extensive research at the Ellis Island museum; the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York; and other institutions in Europe and elsewhere, amassing a priceless trove of archival film, photographs and other objects that bring to life the emigrants' experiences.

The corridor leading into the main exhibition is lined with striking, life-size, black-and-white photographs of Red Star Line passengers with their tattered luggage, shown where the images were actually taken. This is followed by a huge, abstract globe containing a multimedia timeline of the history of man's migration. Much of the rest of the exhibition illustrates the trips of Red Star Line passengers, from their home countries to Ellis Island and beyond.

A display of colorful posters and other documents explores the Red Star Line's extensive marketing campaigns throughout Eastern Europe -- where it employed agents to represent its interests -- to lure passengers, the majority of whom traveled in third, or steerage, class, though it also offered first- and second-class accommodations.

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