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Antwerp, Belgium — Cohen left her home at 11 with her mother and five siblings in the hopes of reuniting with her father, a bankrupt beet farmer who had left years earlier. The Cohens spent three weeks in squalid dormitories with 1,500 passengers aboard the ship. At Ellis Island, they were quarantined for eight months because of scalp fungus. “Somehow the experience at Ellis Island had aged us, we didn’t want to sing anymore,” Cohen said in an interview before her death in 1993. “We were all grown up.”
Among the later refugees was Einstein, whose resignation letter to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, on display at the museum, was written on Red Star Line stationary.
The Jewish dimension is hardly overlooked in the two-story museum. But the exhibition “emphasizes the universal character of migration,” the city wrote in a statement. The official booklet on the museum describes it as “a universal human story about the pursuit of happiness, a story we can all relate to.”
That sort of universalizing of history has prompted protests from Jewish leaders who argue that it degrades the uniquely Jewish character of the Holocaust.
The opening last year of Belgium’s main Holocaust museum at Mechelen was delayed over criticism that its broad mission of defending human rights risked “obfuscation as to the scale of the Shoah and banalization,” according to Eli Ringer of the Flemish Forum of Jewish Organizations.
In neighboring Holland, the remembrance of German soldiers along with their Jewish and non-Jewish victims during memorial ceremonies for World War II victims led to acrimonious debates and legal action. In May 2012, a Dutch court, responding to a petition filed by a Jewish group, issued an injunction against the commemoration of German soldiers in the town of Vorden.
“Commemoration needs to draw lessons or it’s a sterile affair,” said Joel Rubinfeld, co-chair of the Brussels-based European Jewish Parliament and past president of Belgium’s main Jewish umbrella group. “There are lessons to be drawn from Jewish emigration from Europe, and presenting them as part of a larger population shift doesn’t help in a time when anti-Semitism is once more driving some Jews out of Europe.“
Bledsoe-Rodriguez takes a less critical view.
“No one died in my family in the Holocaust,” she said. “If not for Red Star Line, we might be in a different museum right now — a museum for Holocaust victims.”