The Footprints of Travellers Past

A museum in Antwerp records the story of migration, from prehistoric man and ending with refugee crises in countries like Iraq and Congo.

Published: 09th November 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th November 2014 06:11 AM   |  A+A-

Kajal Roy was just 15 when India attained independence. He was driven out of East Bengal after Partition by local Muslims and he travelled with 3,000 other people to a refugee camp called Cooper’s Camp, 200 km north of Kolkata, by boat. In 2007, he was still living there stateless, with his children and grandchildren never having attended school in their lives.”

I stand under a centerpiece multimedia globe, with its latitude and longitude lines projected with haunting black and white images of people on the move, and muse on the universal phenomenon of migration. On the walls is a timeline of migration, starting with prehistoric man and ending with refugee crises in countries like Iraq and Congo. The exhibit titled ‘Always on the Move’ is devoted to the history of immigration around the world, starting with the Mungo Man in Australia, 42,000 years ago, and personal narratives of 20 people on the move. People who escaped poverty, persecution or oppression and set out in search of a new life...  or those who simply left home in search of better opportunities.

Travellers-Past-1.jpgRusted hoists and towering cranes that pierce the sky, the glistening River Scheldt, the sprawling docklands of Antwerp in Flanders, Belgium, used to be a derelict part of the city. Today the area is being transformed into a vibrant locality, by a programme of regeneration backed by the city council. The just-opened Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp’s Eilandje is housed in three historic brick warehouses and customs sheds of the shipping company, which have been restored to their original glory. These buildings were actual medical and administrative warehouses where the immigrants underwent mandatory disinfections, document processing and individual examinations. The entrance to the museum has no fanfare or grand curving staircase—just the stark words in white on the red brick building.

The museum was designed by Beyer Blinder Belle, the New York architectural firm that designed the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The Red Star Line ships carried more than two million people between 1873 and 1934 to the US and Canada in the quest for a better life and almost a quarter of them were Jews. It is estimated that 30 million Americans have relatives who sailed on the famous Star ships. 

There’s history in every brick of the building. Walk on the original marbled floors into the high ceilinged building, past images of passengers on the walls. The first gallery, which is the old boiler room, showcases the history of the buildings and shipping company. The journey is divided into eight spaces starting with a fictitious travel agency, a train carriage, and moves on to Antwerp, getting on to the ship, the life aboard it, the arrival at Ellis island and life in the new country. Through diaries and letters, interviews and talks with families, descendants and a few living immigrants, the museum weaves a compelling tale of immigration.

Personal stories abound: one gets caught up in the plight of passengers who had to bid goodbye to loved ones without knowing when they would see them again… “Famous people travelled on the ships in search for a better life or to avoid persecution or Nazi oppression; few were fortune hunters or pioneers,” says Johan Vink, our local guide. There is the trademark picture of Albert Einstein in a crumpled suit and windblown hair who travelled on the Red Star Line to the US in 1933. On display is his resignation letter to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, which he wrote when he learned that the Nazis had confiscated his belongings. Fred Astaire’s father, Golda Meir, the former PM of Israel, noted composer Irving Berlin who composed songs like White Christmas (whose piano is on loan at the museum) all travelled on the Star ships. The museum also pays homage to many Jews who stayed back in Antwerp because they were deemed unfit to travel, or saw business opportunities in the city—today the city has a Jewish population of 15,000.

I walk through a narrow corridor designed to resemble a ship’s gangway that has passenger lists and photos from ever year of the Red Star Line’s operation. “The journeys were stories of great expectations as well as disappointments,” explains Johan. “Many of the passengers saved money for the trip for more than a year; others sold their possessions and homes,” he adds. “Before the journey, the passengers had to take hour-long showers with vinegar and benzene, had to be de-loused and their clothes were fumigated in large steam machines,” he explains. You can even smell the disinfectant that the immigrants had to use in the showers, in one interactive exhibit. An exhibit details the contrasting lives on board: the third class or steerage passengers were cooped up in communal cabins with little light, while the First Class passengers enjoyed elaborate dinners with gleaming silver and porcelain and jazz bands.

There are poignant glimpses into the life of the immigrants: from the crockery used on the ships to battered brown leather suitcases with the Red Star line logo, to even a cast iron Belgian waffle iron. The passengers had to subject themselves to stringent medical examinations. There are moving stories of immigrants: young Ita Moel was sent back twice because she had the dreaded trachoma eye disease and had to spend five years in Antwerp in the custody of a Jewish organisation before being re-united with her family in America.

Why the museum really makes me genuflect is that it’s an interactive one that chronicles human stories, rather than just facts and figures. Visitors are encouraged to leave their migration stories in the ‘digital warehouse’; descendants of immigrants can even trace their family histories on the database with more than one lakh files.

The museum visit ends in a dramatic observation tower, suggestive of a ship’s prow, and which replicates the chimney that existed in the olden days, which guided people from the station to the docks. Taking in the panoramic sweep of the Scheldt River, I travel to the past, when the giant ships set on their long Atlantic voyage and family and friends bid goodbye to loved ones.


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