Belgian museum tells tale of huddled masses steaming to America

Thu Sep 26, 2013 12:15pm EDT
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By Philip Blenkinsop

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - They were the ships that took Albert Einstein and Irving Berlin to America, two of the millions who set out from Europe around the turn of the 20th century hoping to leave behind poverty or persecution.

The steam liners of the Red Star Line, commemorated in a new museum in their Belgian home port of Antwerp, carried about 2 million migrants across the Atlantic between 1873 and 1934, a quarter of them Jews, and all seeking a better life.

The vast majority arrived by train from central and eastern Europe. Those who came from imperial Russia were usually fleeing hardship, pogroms, or military service that could stretch to 20 years. In the final years, many were fleeing the Nazis.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, one of the few passengers still alive, was five when she boarded the SS Westernland in 1934 with her Polish-born parents and 19-year-old brother, leaving behind their men's clothing store in Berlin.

After struggling for nine months to survive in Antwerp, they chose the promise of America.

"When we were on the ship I later learned ... the federal police came to our apartment in Antwerp to deport us to Poland," she told Reuters television. "My family's voyage saved our lives."

But that promise was not without its own hardships and perils.

From Saturday, visitors to the museum can see where third class passengers dropped off their bags to be sterilized in steam chambers, then took showers lasting up to 40 minutes with vinegar and benzene to be cleaned and purged of lice.   Continued...

The shadow of a visitor is seen while he watches a movie showing emigrants at the "Millions of People, One Dream" exhibition at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman