Red Star Line Museum: The Final Stop Before America
Antwerp — Ellis Island is well known as the entry point for millions of European emigrants who came to America at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, but have you ever considered what was their last stop in Europe?
For those who traveled aboard the ships of the Red Star Line, it was Antwerp, Belgium. From 1873 to 1935 the Belgian-American shipping company transported over two million European emigrants from Antwerp to America, predominantly to New York but also Philadelphia. Today, the company’s former warehouses along the Antwerp harbor house the Red Star Line museum, which opened in 2013.
“Chicago is Poland, but in perfection. You can hear Polish hymns in church” wrote Sophie Nadrowska to her parents in 1890. This letter, accessible through a digital touch screen, is part of the museum’s permanent exhibit which focuses on the stories of emigrants, their travel aboard the Red Star Line and their reactions upon arrival to America, as well as on the broader theme of emigration itself. The artifacts and testimonials reflect the voices of people from all over Europe who traveled via Antwerp to America, including Poles. In addition to giving voice to the huddled masses, the museum also profiles some of the most well-known individuals that emigrated to America aboard the Red Star Line, such as Albert Einstein and Irving Berlin.
Visitors who tour the museum can take part in a virtual role-playing game where they retrace an emigrant’s journey from Warsaw to America. At each step of the way, decisions have to be made, including whether to attempt to cross the border between the Russian and Prussian empires at an official checkpoint and risk being turned away, or to sneak across under the cover of darkness. This simulation makes it clear that sailing aboard a transatlantic steamer was just one part of a many leg journey, filled with risks, uncertainty, and difficult decisions.
Although Antwerp, located on the Western coast of Europe, would appear to be a distant port for travelers from Polish lands, the city did have extensive train connections. Also, because Antwerp was competing for travelers with other ports such as Hamburg, the Red Star Line offered attractive ticket prices, and had ticket offices in many Polish cities at the time. It is important to remember that over a third of emigrants had their tickets purchased by family members already in America, a practice known as chain migration, and therefore simply traveled to whatever port the ticket stated. For these reasons, many people from across Central and Eastern Europe traveled through Antwerp on their way to America.
The most interesting element of the museum is the site itself. When the shipping company operated, the warehouses which now house the museum were used as medical and disinfection facilities. Prior to boarding the ocean liner, travelers underwent extensive medical examinations provided by the shipping company. It was in the interest of the Red Star Line to only transport passengers deemed fit to enter America, because anyone turned away at Ellis Island or other American ports of entry would have had to be taken back to Europe at the expense of the shipping company.
“Everything for passengers is done free of charge in this building” read a sign translated into Polish, Yiddish, German and Slovak which was meant to calm nervous travelers about parting with their possessions in the warehouse. As passengers took hot showers, all their clothing and possessions were placed in large steal chambers where they underwent a disinfection procedure. As you walk through the museum, you can see where these facilities used to be located, and it is easy to imagine the hall bustling with people as they made their way to the nearby ship.
Today some 30 million people in North America can trace their family lineage to the Red Star Line, including Polish-Americans and perhaps even readers of PAJ. Whether a relative traveled via Antwerp or not, a visit to the Red Star Line Museum helps evoke vivid imagery of the emigrant experience from 100 years ago. It is part of a growing list of institutions which address emigration and the immigrant experience, such as Ellis Island, New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and of course the Emigration Museum in Gdynia, Poland.
This article was published in the May 2019 edition of the Polish American Journal
The below poem entitled For Kattyna Szysz was written by the official city poet of Antwerp, Bernard Dewulf, and is on display at the Red Star Line Museum. It is dedicated to a 13 year old girl from Galicia, who traveled alone to Canada in 1905.
Something grand inside her stares
towards the end of the extended water.
A Canada awaits her there.
She has folded up her Poland,
It will clothe her there.
For there she will become a woman,
Mother in a strange language,
Gathered into two lives,
ever residing on the other side
and staring as it’s getting later
in the rooms of Canada
something grand in her each day
towards the end of the extended water.