Between 1873 and 1934, 2.6 million people left the port of Antwerp, Belgium on Red Star Line ships, bound for Canada, Philadelphia and New York. (1 million of them were Jewish, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Irving Berlin and my grandmother.) Last night I had the opportunity to hear a talk on the artist, Eugeen Van Mieghem, who grew up and spent his life in the shadows of the docks from where these ships departed. EVM (that’s how he signed some of his work if you’re ever lucky enough to spot it at auction) sketched and painted the steerage class emigres, en route from distant European shtetls, and the elegant folk from the cities who would travel first class. Erwin Joos, curator of the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum in Antwerp, explained that most of EVM’s subjects were poor, too poor to buy or commission works of art. But he kept on drawing….hundreds of drawings that depict what the life was like during the period between leaving the shtetl and landing on the Lower East Side.
This fall will see the opening of the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. Their website explains:
The Red Star Line Museum tells many stories.
It is an Antwerp story, about the city and its port, about the new and the old Eilandje District, about Antwerp as the last stop on a journey to happiness and a better life.
It is a Belgian story about people who embarked on the Red Star Line ships, to escape poverty, but also driven by the pursuit of adventure. About people who travelled to America full of expectation, often in search of a new and better life.
It is a European story, about how people from all over Europe came to Antwerp and embarked on a journey to a new life.
It is an American story about the ancestors of Americans, their roots and their origins.
The Red Star Line is also a universal story about dreams of a better life, about saying goodbye, about discovering the unknown and about the search for a new home.
And when you visit, keep an eye out for my grandma’s portrait (although it’s not by EVM).