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.
Up a flight of stairs, doctors awaited, to check if the passengers were healthy enough for entry into the United States.
Some 2 percent of migrants were rejected here; Red Star had to bring back any who were turned away at New York’s Ellis Island terminal.
Nine-year-old Ita Moel was one of those turned away from Ellis Island in New York in 1922, because she had the infectious eye disease trachoma. Her brother Morris recounts in a video how their mother made the painful choice of sending her back alone.
Ita tried and failed again a year later. Only in 1927, at her third attempt, was she finally reunited with her family.
Not all were so lucky. Six-year-old Ethel Belfer was turned away from America in 1923 because she was mentally disabled. She returned with an aunt to Romania, then Russia, and died of starvation in 1929.
Between 1815 and 1930, some 60 million people left Europe to settle in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.
Red Star Line, together with the Canadian Pacific and Cunard Lines, carried some 2.5 million of them from Antwerp to Philadelphia and later New York, Boston, and Halifax in Canada, most enduring the typically 10-day crossing huddled on the deck or sleeping in cramped conditions below.
Antwerp city culture senator Philip Heylen, a driving force behind the museum whose great uncle took the Red Star Line in the 1890s, says some 40 million people now in North America can trace their history back to the port.
Albert Einstein travelled to and from the United States on Red Star liners, finally emigrating on the SS Westernland in 1933 after learning the Nazis had confiscated his possessions.
The museum displays his letter of resignation from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, written on Red Star Line stationery.
Other notable passengers included a young Golda Meir, who would one day be Israel’s fourth prime minister; the father of Fred Astaire; and the 5-year-old Israel Baline, later to become the songwriter Irving Berlin.
“The trip my dad did from Antwerp to New York probably inspired him in his composing career,” said Berlin’s daughter Linda Emmet, before playing a tune on one of his few remaining pianos, now housed at the museum.
“This place is the beginning of his life.”
Addition reporting by Yves Herman; Editing by Kevin Liffey