Retracing Immigration – The Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, many millions of people left everything behind in Europe and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life in America. More often than not, those people were poor farmers from Central and Eastern Europe who struggled badly due to urbanization and industrialization. Sometimes, however, they were also rich people looking for opportunities in the New World. Whatever their motives, their journey was both thrilling and nerve-wrecking, both exciting and tough. The Red Star Line Museum Antwerp, Belgium, retraces the steps of the millions of migrants who made the journey with this company and its iconic ocean liners.

Red Star Line Museum Antwerp
Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp

Red Star Line Museum Antwerp: Following Migrants’ Footsteps

The Red Star Line, founded in 1871 by entrepreneurs from Philadelphia and Antwerp, was an ocean passenger line between major ports Western Europe and North America. Its first premier ports of call were Antwerp in Belgium and Philadelphia and New York City in the United States. Later on, the ships also called at Liverpool and Southampton in the United Kingdom, Halifax in Canada and Baltimore and Boston in the United States. The company was sold to the Holland-America Line in 1935, during the Great Recession and after the United States had put restrictions on immigration.

The names of the Red Star Line’s ships were characteristic, most of them ending with –land. Examples are Finland, Vaderland, Westernland and the flagship Belgenland, which also was used for a 133-day world cruise as early as 1924. That cruise was advertised as “the largest ship to circle the globe” and was one of the longest cruises ever done by a luxury ocean liner.

Note: the Red Star Line was a sister company of the White Star Line, which was the owner of the unfortunate Titanic and operated ocean lines between the United Kingdom and North America.

Albert Einstein

The company’s main route ran between Antwerp and New York City, a line that brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to America. Most of those travelers were from Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. A quarter of them were Jews, among them Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein's travel journal
Albert Einstein’s travel journal

Einstein, in fact, used the Red Star Line regularly to travel between the two continents. After, upon arrival back in Antwerp, learning that his possessions had been confiscated by the Nazis, he decided to return to the United States immediately. His letter of resignation from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, as well as his travel journal, are displayed at the Red Star Line Museum Antwerp.

Antwerp Immigration Checks

The Red Star Line Museum Antwerp is housed in the former warehouses of the company, the very places where people had to shower and were inspected by doctors before they were allowed on board. (If passengers were found to be ill or carry diseases upon arrival in the United States, they were sent back immediately at the expense of the Red Star Line—so people were checked in Antwerp, before boarding the ships.)

Red Star Line Museum Antwerp: Photos of passengers, Red Star Line Museum
Photos, lists and letters of passengers

Nowadays, the buildings house a superb collection of memorabilia, such as suitcases, letters, journals, tickets, ship models and photographs. It is designed to offer visitors the chance to follow in the footsteps of those people who made the journey and learn about their hardships, worries, undeniable uncertainty and excitement.

Antwerp played in major role in the heyday of immigration between Europe and North America, the Red Star Line transporting no fewer than two million people across the Atlantic Ocean. The Red Star Line Museum Antwerp is a must-visit place for anyone who is interested in history, in getting to know a less-known part of the city of Antwerp and in mass immigration.

Check out this blog post for other ideas for things to do in Antwerp.

For more information about visiting the museum and Antwerp, I would like to refer to their respective websites: Red Star Line and Visit Antwerpen.

About Bram


Bram is a Belgian guy who's currently living in the USA. For over four years now, he has been wandering the globe, with jobs here and there in between. So far, his travels have taken him to four continents and twenty-two countries. Bram likes to try different styles of travelling: from backpacker and adventurer to tourist and local, he has been all those stereotypes and probably will be many more in the future. You can follow his adventures on his travel blog, on Twitter and on Facebook.

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