"My family's voyage saved our lives"

Antwerp's new Red Star Line Museum opened its doors to the public this morning. The museum brings the story of how an estimated 2 million passengers, many of them from Eastern Europe, used the Red Star Line service between Antwerp and the United States between 1873 and 1934 to seek a better life. It includes a number of personal stories, including that of Sonja Pressman, Albert Einstein and the little Ita, among others.

Sonja Pressman (84) made the journey to the U.S. on board one of the ships of the Red Star Line when she was 5. Pressman was invited for the international press conference for the opening of the museum this week, where she was eager to give her testimony of what happened in the early 1930s.

Pressman was born in Berlin of Polish parents, who travelled to Antwerp in the 1930s to escape the Nazi regime. She can still recall the moment before their departure in Antwerp. "I was 5 and stood at the water's edge with my brother and parents", Pressman says. "My family's voyage saved our lives. It also allowed me to embark upon a new life."

It was clear that they had to get away as the Nazi regime was emerging in the 1930s. "From my brother's diary, I saw that he saw the threat that Hitler posed to the Jews. He urged my father that we needed to leave Germany, but my father wouldn't hear of it. (...) We would have been killed in Germany, if we had remained there, we would have been killed in Belgium, had we remained there, and we would have been killed in Poland if we had been deported there. And the Red Star Line saved our lives."

"I hesitated: should I write the museum or not?"

Pressman became a successful lawyer and one of the frontrunners of the second wave of women's rights as founder of the National Organisation for Women.

She first heard about the museum in 2009. "I was wandering: should I write to the museum and tell them my story? After all, millions of others also made the trip, so why should they be interested in my story? On the other hand, I thought: what have I got to lose? So I wrote the museum, and Mr Verheyen (the museum coordinator, red) soon responded, asking for more details. In 2010, we made a small film with an interview."

The museum hopes for many more personal stories once it opens its doors to the public.

Little Ita at the centre of a family tragedy

Another striking story is that of the Moel family. First, the father immigrates to America, leaving his wife and children behind in the Ukraine, which at that time was still part of the vast Russian empire. While the father left before the outbreak of the First World War, his family can only make the voyage in 1921, when enough money has been saved.

However, upon arrival at the immigration services on Ellis Island, it turns out that the little daughter, Ita, is suffering from trachoma, a contagious eye disease that does not exist in America and which was a reason to be sent back. Her mother has to make a difficult choice: does she return home with the whole family - and miss out on being reunited with her husband - or does she enter the United States, without her little daughter?

She chooses the first option. Ita receives treatment by the Jewish aid organisation Ezra in Antwerp, and returns to New York one year later. However, she is being sent back yet another time at Ellis Island. It's only 5 years later, at her 3rd attempt, that she will finally be able to enter the New World, to be reunited with her 3 brothers and her parents.

Albert Einstein, a frequent passenger

The Red Star Line carried a number of famous passengers, or people who would later become famous. Among them are the father of Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, the mother of Sam Fox - the former American ambassador to Belgium - Leo Baekeland, Golda Meir and... Albert Einstein.

Einstein, the famous physicist, travelled with one of the Red Star Line ships 3 times. In 1933, he returned from the U.S. on board the Belgenland II. He was travelling to Germany, when he heard that the Nazis had confiscated all his possessions. He decided not to return and stayed at the Belgian coast, in De Haan aan Zee, until the autumn of 1933. Later, he travelled back to the U.S., this time for good. Einstein is a perfect example of the brain drain in Europe caused by the Nazi regime.