Familiar immigration tales in Antwerp

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Model ships and other exhibits at the Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp.
Model ships and other exhibits at the Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Armed with a Eurail pass, destinations editor Eric Moya is on a weeklong rail journey from London to Luxembourg.

I've lived in the New York tristate area for a total of nearly 15 years, but I've never made it to Ellis Island. It hasn't been a priority for friends and family who were visiting, and if I'm being honest, I suppose I haven't felt compelled to go since it wasn't part of my family's immigration story.

That starts in 1958 with my dad enlisting in the U.S. Navy, like many Filipinos post-World War II, and becoming a U.S. citizen. During his 20 years of service, his family would eventually move to the U.S., too, and while he was stationed in Singapore he'd meet my mom, who would give birth to a pair of Navy brats, in San Diego (my elder brother) and Groton, Connecticut.

During our press trip group's stop in Antwerp, Belgium, on this Eurail-sponsored media fam trip, one of the suggested attractions was the Red Star Line Museum. Our itinerary noted that from 1871 to 1935, 2 million passengers traveled from Antwerp, the line's principal port in Europe, to North America. I'd seen reproductions of the Red Star Line's Victorian-era advertisements, with their aspirational images of well-heeled passengers gazing toward the horizon, and so I was intrigued by the idea of seeing some of these artifacts of a nascent travel industry. It was also a 20-minute walk from where our group had had lunch in the city's historical quarter, which sounded like a good way to burn off some frites while the sun was cooperating on an intermittently rainy spring afternoon.

First, a few general observations about the museum, which is located within a Red Star warehouse building. Its technology is top-notch. Exhibits are rich in audio-visual content, and touch-screen features are fairly intuitive.

Clearly, great attention went toward making translations natural-sounding and engaging; I never felt like I was reading something that had been spit out of a translation app. Prints and postcards of the aforementioned ads are among the souvenirs available in the modest gift shop.

The two-floor museum's narrative and layout mimic the stages of the boarding process: Visitors start with the journey to Antwerp (an arduous one for many Europeans), then learn about medical checks and disinfection ("they had to rub hot vinegar and benzene ... into their skin and wash their hair with it," according to a museum brochure) and move on to life onboard ("If we are lucky, the passengers on the upper decks throw food down to us," reads one passenger's account from 1921).

As the Antwerp tourism board's website notes, "Do not expect endless rows of glass cabinets full of 19th-century trinkets or ship's parts. ... Above all, [the museum] collects and archives stories." Particularly moving was the story of the Moel family, who made the journey from the Ukraine to Antwerp to Ellis Island in 1922, only for daughter Ita to be rejected for medical reasons. As her brother Morris recounts via video, their mother was presented two options: return to Antwerp with all of her children or send back her daughter. Ita would not reunite with her family for another five years.

The museum's stories actually don't stop with Red Star. Toward the end of the exhibit, modern-day Antwerp residents share their immigration tales: journeys in search of opportunity, to escape oppression in their home countries, or for love.

One that tugged at my heartstrings was the story of Mei-Lan, who after a whirlwind romance followed her new husband from Taiwan to Belgium in 1991, only to divorce him just a few years later. I won't spoil how it all turns out, except to say that I shed a tear or two of joy by the time she was finished.

That's the museum's strong point. The tales of arduous journeys and heartbreaking decisions, whether they took place on Ellis Island in the 1920s or in Antwerp in the 1990s, were entirely relatable for someone whose family's immigrant story began in the Philippines two decades after Red Star's demise. I imagine that'd be true, too, for a wide variety of visitors, and for those who are leaving their homelands today in search of opportunity, or freedom, or love.

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