The Red Star Line Museum: A Story of Immigration

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, hundreds of thousands of Jews left their European countries of birth and immigrated to North America. Many of these Jews traveled from the alter heim (old country) to the United States via the Red Star Line (RSL), a transatlantic passenger ship line operating from 1873 to some time in 1934. During this time period, about 2.6 million passengers sailed on RSL ships to the US and Canada, about one-quarter of whom were Jewish. The list of notable Jews who immigrated through the RSL includes Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Irving Berlin, and my mentor and National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Sonia Pressman Fuentes. All but Einstein came as children.

Sonia was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928. Five years later, Hitler rose to power. Sonia’s 18-year-old brother Hermann realized that Germany would not be a safe place for Jews and had the foresight to flee the country. In May of 1933, he traveled alone to Antwerp. His parents refused to go with him as they had lived in Germany over twenty years and were well established there.  They thought Hitler and the Nazis would shortly blow over. Two months later, his parents and five-year-old sister Sonia joined him. Hermann spent nine months trying to obtain permanent residence permits for the family to remain in Belgium, but was unsuccessful. Threatened with deportation to Poland, the family managed to book passage on the RSL’s SS Westernland.  They arrived in New York City on May 1, 1934, safe from Nazi brutality.

Many Jews, like Sonia and her family, traveled on the RSL to escape Hitler’s oppression or earlier anti-Semitism and pogroms. Others left to escape poor economic times or for the opportunities for advancement they believed lay in the goldene medine (golden land). Some traveled for pleasure.

Although the RSL ceased operations some time in 1934, its history is still alive almost eighty years later. On September 28, 2013, the RSL Museum will be opened in Antwerp dedicated to immigration and the RSL. It will include exhibitions about Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest seaports, and the passengers on the RSL. One exhibit will be about the journey Sonia and her family took from Berlin to their temporary residence in Antwerp and then to their permanent move to the U.S. The Museum will also show a documentary film it commissioned about Sonia.

“[The Museum is] a story about ships, but more importantly, it’s a story about people,” said Philip Heylen, Antwerp’s vice mayor for culture and tourism in an August 6, 2011, speech to Sonia’s congregation, the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Sarasota, Florida. The Museum’s motto, “People on the Move,” underscores this point. The Museum is intent on preserving the stories of its passengers who traveled on RSL ships to find a better life.

~ Talia Weisberg

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