Trail of the unexpected: Antwerp's new port of call

The Red Star Line Museum, Belgium's transatlantic landmark, charts the history of emigration to America

Between 1873 and 1934, more than two million European emigrants passed through three sheds on the quayside of Eilandje, the dockland on the River Scheldt in Antwerp, before setting off on a transatlantic voyage to the US and Canada.

These simple red-brick buildings were there for processing third-class passengers, disinfecting their luggage, and checking they weren't importing any non-American diseases such as TB and trachoma. Fred Astaire's parents came through the warehouses of Red Star Line (the ocean passenger company) in the pursuit of a new life, so did Neil Diamond's grandparents. Albert Einstein travelled on ocean steamers to New York on the Red Star Line too, but he managed to bypass the sheds. Because he could afford to travel first class, it was assumed that neither Mr Einstein, nor his luggage, needed a medical.

The new Red Star Line museum opened on the site last month, after a €20m programme of renovation. It was decided early on that the museum would not just be a memorial to a shipping line or to the few famous people who went on to live the American Dream. "Red Star Line: People on the Move" is a memorial to all those who have chosen – or been forced – to be migrants. For this reason its lower floors are as much about the experience of departure as the business of arriving in Halifax or Ellis Island.

We tend to underestimate Antwerp: a big, brash sister to the two quasi-medieval ports of Ghent and Bruges. But after Mother Nature repeatedly redefined river access along the coastline of Flanders, Antwerp was left as the only serious Middle Ages port on this lucrative stretch of coastline. The city's affluence knew no bounds. In the 16th century, the decorative demands of its merchants attracted Peter Paul Rubens to Antwerp who set up a studio here. A visit to the home of just one of his patrons, Nicolaas Rockox, on Keizerstraat, makes clear that Antwerp's businessmen could buy anything in the world they wanted, as well as employ people such as Van Dyck and both the Bruegels.

The Spanish royal family loved Antwerp, a city they ruled by dint of marriage and that, in the 16th century, brought in seven times more money than all their South American colonies combined. They lost the Eighty Years' War in 1648 and had to agree with the Dutch that Antwerp would cease to trade with the rest of the world in order that Amsterdam could prosper. The blockade of the River Scheldt was lifted only briefly when Napoleon decided to use the port to menace England. But his defeat at Waterloo meant Antwerp's recovery as a port failed. The Emperor is commemorated now only in Antwerp's Napoleon Dok, the big brick berth that he built prior to his planned invasion of England.

So it wasn't until the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium and the establishment of the Red Star Line's regular sailings to the New World in 1873 that Antwerp got back its maritime mojo.

The new museum majors on the personal accounts of people whose lives were changed beyond recognition when they passed through Antwerp. One witness is Sonia Pressman who, now in her 80s, attended the museum's opening. The last time she was here was in 1934, after her family had decided Hitler was making life in Berlin uncomfortable. Another story was told to me by Philip Heylen, Antwerp's vice mayor for culture and tourism. He said: "In 1922, the Moel family sailed to New York, the mother, her sons and nine-year-old daughter Ita. On Ellis Island, the doctors found that Ita had trachoma and she was sent back. Ita tried again and was sent back again. In the end it took five years for her to be reunited with her mother and her brothers."

Mr Heylen gets very emotional about these stories. This museum is his project and he has spent years tracking down descendants of people like the Moels, who as a result have donated letters and photos to the exhibition.

As well as detailing the migrant experience, the museum devotes several rooms to the story of the 10-day Atlantic crossing. Photos and artefacts are used to draw comparisons between life in steerage in the 1870s and the life of a flapper travelling first class in the 1920s. But then this is a museum clearly dedicated to those who threw themselves upon the mercy of the US and Canada, the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" in the words of Emma Lazarus. Flappers and Nobel Prize winners didn't get inspected for trachoma on Ellis Island. They simply shook the captain's hand and disembarked.

The last room deals with the experience of arrival in America. Even here there is the reality check of Ethel Belfer, a six-year-old Russian girl who was sent back from Ellis Island in 1923 by dint of being judged educationally subnormal. She ended up in Romania where she died of starvation during the Second World War.

The museum ends on a happier note, with Irving Berlin's piano. According to Philip Heylen, his family donated it to Red Star rather than to the Smithsonian. Heylen is unashamedly enthusiastic about what he sees as the museum's ultimate role. In the guide book he urges us to think about migrants who come to Flanders today and to celebrate Antwerp as a great port that always welcomed outsiders, not just processed them for departure. "This has always been a city that thrives on immigration," he insists. "Flanders is the new New York."

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) which offers fares from London St Pancras to Antwerp from £79.

Visiting there

Red Star Line Museum (00 32 3 298 27 70 ; redstar line.be). Admisson €8.

Rockox House (00 32 3 201 92 50; rockoxhuis.be). Admission €6.

Rubens House (00 32 3 201 15 55; rubenshuis.be). Admission €8 (all three are closed on Mondays).

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