Via Antwerp. Emigration with the Red Star Line, 1873-1934

We got to the Belgenland, which was docked nearby, just before seven o’clock. A huge crowd had formed, consisting of hundreds of emigrants but also lots of people selling things and sightseers who had followed us. Several wagons came by loaded up with straw mattresses, which stevedores carried onto the ship. They were intended for us steerage passengers. [...] The pushing and shoving now started again, as everyone wanted to be first. There was no end to the shouting, jostling and crying. It was worst for the children."

These are the memories of Reinhold Liebau, a Red Star Line passenger in 1887. Reinhold said goodbye to his wife and children and set off from the Saxon village of Leulitz in eastern Germany on 11 August. He was travelling to the United States to buy a farm. Armed with his Red Star Line ticket, he took the train from Leipzig to Antwerp, where he boarded the ship to America. Reinhold was one of over two million European emigrants who made the same voyage between 1873 and 1934. As he travelled, he noted down in his diary his impressions, events and the prices of everyday items. Having boarded the SS Belgenland I, he took a final look at Antwerp docks and the European continent:

"There were hundreds of spectators on shore waving their hats and handkerchiefs and calling out, before they quickly faded from sight. I admit to feeling very emotional at that moment. When I thought of my loved ones back home, my eyes filled with uncontrollable tears. Would I ever see them again?"

Reinhold Liebau’s story is just one of the many hundreds collected in recent years by the team at the Red Star Line Museum, housed in the beautifully restored buildings where third-class passengers like our diarist were checked prior to departure for America. The oldest building dates from a few years after Reinhold sailed. In his diary, he mentions a brief inspection in the open air, immediately before boarding. A vaccination test was also carried out in steerage. A more thorough examination did not follow until arrival in Manhattan at Castle Garden (the Ellis Island facility did not open until 1892). Like the stories and testimony of all the other passengers in the decades that followed, Reinhold’s diary offers a fascinating record of the obstacles, adventures and emotions that marked the journey from Europe to America.

The Red Star Line Museum brings his story and dozens more to life. Together they form a unique piece of local and world history. The aim of the museum is to give this somewhat overlooked history the renewed attention it deserves. The museum has deliberately opted for a broad approach: immigrants’ stories from all over the world, past and present. Emigration back then might have been different to now, but the human story behind it is universal and timeless.