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Americans can learn more about themselves at Antwerp’s Red Star Line Museum

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Are the clues to your family’s history in Antwerp, Belgium? There’s a very good chance – if they were European emigrants in the late 19th or early 20th century -- they are. Antwerp’s Red Star Line was one of the main conduits taking people to Ellis Island and a few other ports in North America. For many, Antwerp wasn’t merely a connection point; due to finances, illness, lack of citizenship documents, Antwerp became a home for sometimes months or years. Many people who later became illustrious persons contributing so much to the world came by way of the Red Star Line: Irving Berlin, Golda Meir, Albert Einstein.

Two million people fleeing war-torn and financially depressed Europe – including one million Jews – came from Eastern and Central Europe by train and by foot to meet their ship. Startling to comprehend is the fact that one of the main train stations where people in Eastern Europe boarded to get to Antwerp was at Oswiecim, Poland . . . now forever known by its German name, Auschwitz.

It can be very difficult for Jews to trace their ancestry for a number of reasons. Jews don’t have baptismal records that would be stored by churches. For centuries, Jews were not allowed to use surnames. In the early part of the 19th century, due to Napoleonic wars, taxation/financing and conscription, Jews were then quickly required by the nations of Eastern and Central Europe to register a surname. Artificial names of occupation, birthplace, physical attribute or merely pleasant names make for a difficult genealogical search. Even more challenging is the fact that many Jews were fleeing pogroms that destroyed their little shtetls. Add on top of that, the fact that names were frequently changed at Ellis Island, that transliteration from Cyrillic or Hebrew into English was not uniform, etc., it’s easy to understand why most searches ended at the Port of New York . . . until now.

After years of fundraising, preservation and careful architectural planning by the firm that restored Ellis Island, there’s a Red Star Line Museum! I was very happy to be hosted to be able to experience it.

The museum is located in what was the marshaling area for the 3rd class passengers: the only building still surviving at the port. Modern conveniences such as restrooms were built underneath, so as to not disturb the authentic and now vintage, atmosphere of the place.

Until the days when the immigration tide had ebbed, 3rd class travel was difficult and in many respects, demeaning. The museum does a good job of highlighting the differences between 1st and 3rd class travel – they even have a smelling station to let you know what it would have been like to be fumigated for hours with benzene! The differences between the classes at mealtimes were perhaps even starker. Quotes of Golda Meir regarding her food in 3rd class are on the walls. My dad’s uncle was briefly engaged to Golda Meir and thanks to Ukrainian longevity, I got to know a bunch of that ancient crew. We like our gourmet foods, to be sure! I’m sure Golda was not happy.

The museum has lots of rare artifacts, such as Irving Berlin’s piano that his family donated, china, newspapers and ship manifests. At the end of the exhibits, there are computers to assist with tracing families through www.ancestry.org. This museum is sure to become one of the important destinations for Americans visiting Europe.

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