Antwerp, Belgium — (JTA) — With the confidence befitting a septuagenarian grandmother, Ellen Bledsoe-Rodriguez briskly leads her family past the beer stalls and DJs that dot the Flemish capital’s historic port on sunny autumn days.
Bledsoe-Rodriguez is uninterested in such diversions. She and nine of her relatives had traveled 5,600 miles from California for last week’s opening of a museum devoted to the Red Star Line, the maritime travel company that nearly a century ago transported her mother and 2 million others from war-torn Europe to Ellis Island.
“I knew this would be an emotional experience, but I underestimated how emotional it would be,” Bledsoe-Rodriguez told JTA while retracing her mother’s footsteps into the red-brick terminal she had passed through in 1921 as a third-class passenger from Russia, fleeing the pogroms and persecution that preceded the near annihilation of European Jewry.
To Bledsoe-Rodriguez, the Red Star Line is symbolic of her mother’s will to survive. But to city officials in Antwerp, which funded the $25 million museum, it is a reflection on the “universal quest for happiness” and a response to growing interest in general immigration trends.
“For Belgians, the Red Star Line is reminiscent of the belle epoque, but it means something very different to Jews,” said Michael Boyden, a Belgian literary historian at Sweden’s University of Upsala, who published a critical Op-Ed about the museum in the Flemish-language De Morgen daily. “The museum seems to me like a missed opportunity to research these different narratives more deeply.”
Debates over whether European history is properly understood in particularist or universalist ways are not new in Europe. In recent years, several commemoration projects in Belgium and Holland have been marred by conflict between those seeking to engage wide audiences with universal themes and activists who argue that the fading memory of the Jewish genocide requires specifically combating the anti-Semitism that made it possible.
Luc Verheyen, the museum’s project coordinator, said the museum does not skirt the “tragic element” of European emigration. But it also aims to celebrate the contributions of notables such as Albert Einstein, who boarded a Red Star Line vessel in 1933 bound for New York.
“The museum helps illuminate a forgotten story of 60 million Europeans who left for all kinds of reasons,” Verheyen said.
The Red Star Line operated from 1871 to 1934, a period that coincided with some of the worst anti-Semitic persecution in history. During the line’s 63 years, Jews accounted for at least a quarter of its passengers taken across the Atlantic Ocean in dozens of ships. Historians say the actual percentage may have been much higher.
The first wave of Jewish passengers — including Bledsoe-Rodriguez’s mother, Basia Cohen — were escaping pogroms in czarist Russia. Later waves were fleeing anti-Jewish agitation and the rise of the Nazis. For many years, the Red Star Line offered kosher food to its Jewish clientele.