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The main exhibit in the museum simulates the immigration experience. Museumgoers will first visit a fake Warsaw travel agency, then proceed to the interior of a train carriage which takes them to the simulated city of Antwerp. Steerage passengers go through a screening process and then board a mock ship that takes them to Ellis Island or an immigrant intake center in Philadelphia.
The Red Star Line museum also pays homage to the Jews who stayed in Antwerp rather than continue on to the United States, either because they were deemed unfit to travel or because they saw business opportunities in the city. Today, Antwerp’s Jewish population is around 15,000; many have family ties to the diamond business.
The Red Star Line Museum is but the latest in a growing number of immigration museums in Europe. London’s Museum of Immigration and Diversity chronicles the waves of Huguenots, Irish, Eastern European Jews and Bangladeshis who came to England. The BallinStadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg, Germany is named for Albert Ballin, the Jewish owner of the Happag shipping company that transported millions of Europeans to the United States. There are also immigration museums in Bremerhaven, Germany; Cobh, Ireland, and Cherbourgh, France.
“There’s been a growing interest in Europe in immigration, because we are confronted by lots of immigration,” said Luc Verheyen, the Red Star Line Museum’s project coordinator in Antwerp. With the new institution, he said, “we tried to give immigration new meaning for a wider public, an example of a global phenomenon.”
Molly Arost Staub is a freelance writer and the former editor of Palm Beach Jewish World.
This article was updated on June 12 to clarify the identity of the founders of the Red Star Line and to correct the contents of the timeline and historical exhibition.