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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).
The Stuyvesant High School that my father attended was the breeding ground for FOUR Nobel Laureates [ Roald Hoffmann (1955), Joshua Lederberg (1940), Richard Axel (1963),Robert Fogel (1944)], the current Attorney General Holder, a handful of U.S. Senators, celebrities such as Telly Leung (this year’s commencement speaker), Lucy Liu, Tim Robbins, James Cagney (1918), jazz musician Thelonious Monk (1935), four-time Oscar-winning producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1924) and many other notables in a variety of fields.
“Stuy” continues to turn out great students (including my son). Each year approximately a dozen of its 800 grads go on to Harvard, another dozen to MIT, a few dozen to Cornell, a long list attend U. Chicago, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cal Tech, etc.
About 20 years ago, New York City decided to erect a NEW gorgeous, 10-story, state-of-the-art building to honor this “jewel in the crown” of public education. One of the building’s unique features are the escalators that move students two floors at a time, between even-numbered floor, and between odd-numbered floors. It houses an olympic-sized pool. Another amazing touch are the glass bricks interspersed around the halls and stairwells. Many contain artifacts donated by individual alumni or an entire graduating class. Others are empty, awaiting future installations. They are like little jewel boxes of memorabilia that add a sense of history to a modern building. Yet another charming touch was the re-cycling of an entire classroom from the “old building” to the new. That new room contains the old wooden desk sets with the lift up lid like my father may have sat in in 1937. History is now taught in this vintage room.
The school has photos and more info at its website, but its yearbooks can provide additional info about alumni, as shown in the image below.
I grew up in Philadelphia. My mother and her parents were born there, too. My dad? His parents met in this country after arriving at Ellis Island and took up residency on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That’s why Dad was born in New York City.
When I was little, we would make the semi-annual trek to N.Y. to celebrate holidays with my paternal grandparents, who had eventually “moved on up” from the L.E.S. to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. [This broad thoroughfare was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris but is considerably larger, four miles long, 180 feet wide, separated into three roadways by tree-lined dividers.] We’d usually detour into Manhattan to see Radio City Music Hall or to catch the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty (I got to climb up the whole height and into the crown long before the events of September 11 forced restrictions). In the 1960’s heyday of “West Side Story” I only wanted to see all the tenements and boarded-up buildings where the film was shot (the current location of Lincoln Center). I thought it so cool — there was nothing like this where I grew up!
My feelings as a child were always the same: New York was bustlingly loud, dark with the height of the buildings, and gave me a headache. It’s ironic that I chose to spend four years of college living in an idyllic isolated part of Manhattan, and never imagined returning when I left to go to graduate school. Life took its twists and I eventually accepted my first job offer (it was an offer I couldn’t refuse) in —of all places—midtown Manhattan.
While hunting for my first apartment, my half-sister took me to a neighborhood she just knew I’d love, because it resembled Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, one of the most charming quarters of my home town. Unbeknownst to me, this was just a short walk from where my father had gone to high school, and a little further from the very building where he was rocked as a baby.
I’ve asked my father many questions about his life, about his parent’s places of birth and the stories of how they came here, of how Grandpa served in the U.S. Army during WWI and was a barber cutting off the hair of all the soldiers, of their small dry goods store and how Dad used to stop at their suppliers on his way home from school to pick up needed merchandise. I never thought to ask him to show me the building where he first lived.
How thrilled I was,when I learned how to research census reports, to find that the first several places where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived and worked when they arrived in this country 100 years ago, were just a short walk from where I’ve lived for three decades!
If you want to know how long your ancestors’ voyages took, be on the lookout for travel schedules like this one. It gives you a sense of the patience people needed to have. If you missed this week’s departure, you might have to wait an entire week to catch the next ferry. In 1890, if you were in transit from Odessa, Ukraine to Alexandria, Egypt, this table shows that you’d leave Odessa on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. , arrive Constantinople on Monday at dawn, leave Constantinople on Tuesday at 5:00 p.m., arrive at the Dardanelles the following morning, Smyrna on Thursday, ultimately arriving at Alexandria on Saturday evening, a full week after the original departure.
When my son was in 4th grade his class did a unit on immigration. The teacher asked, “Who was the first person in your family to come to this country?” An innocent question, which prompted a phone call to my maternal grandmother’s younger sister (age 99): the last living member of her generation. I really had no idea at that point, about when my son’s great-great grandparents had arrived on these shores or which ports they had sailed from. I did know that since my maternal grandparents had been born here, the answer was to be found on my mother’s side.
Because we live in a large city with many ethnicities and recent immigrants, I thought my son would take pride in knowing that as a 4th generation American that his first ancestors came to the U.S. a long time ago, in 1898. As it turned out, the child who had the longest history of ancestors here, also had the shortest! His mother’s family had come here in 1620 on the Mayflower, and his father was a recent immigrant.
There’s a great deal of history to be learned from such an exploration into your past, isn’t there? Even a high school curriculum could bring history (my least favorite subject when I was in school) to an exciting crescendo when put into a personal context. Who wouldn’t be interested in knowing at least some of the following topics: What is your ancestral town? What do you know about the customs and culture there? Do you know the circumstances surrounding why your family came here (to escape a war, to marry) ? When your ancestor came here, did they leave anyone behind? Was it due to illness, business ties, lack of finances???
I wouldn’t have waited half a lifetime to start enjoying history if it had been taught in a way that was personalized.