A TALE OF TWO CITIES (AND THREE MUSEUMS): THE RED STAR LINE AND EUGEEN VAN MIEGHEM MUSEUMS (ANTWERP), AND THE WOLFSONIAN (MIAMI BEACH)

Just yesterday, Vice Mayor Philip Heylen of the City of Antwerp made a special visit to The Wolfsonian. He brought with him several guests for a tour of the galleries, but also to meet with curator Silvia Barisione and myself to discuss possibilities of collaboration in a traveling exhibition about the Red Star Line. The Red Star Line was founded in 1871 as a joint venture between the International Navigation Company in Philadelphia, and the Société Anonyme de Navigation Belgo-Américaine of Antwerp, Belgium, and specialized in the transatlantic immigrant trade. The Wolfsonian has an especially rich collection of posters and smaller format print materials promoting travel by ocean liners, but has far less furniture and decorative arts objects from the ships—something that a collaborative exhibition with the Red Star Line Museum would remedy.

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The Red Star Line in Antwerp served as a major departure station for Europeans planning to restart their lives in the United States, and the museum has been focusing much of its energies in telling the stories of those millions of European-American immigrants. Between 1873 and 1934, more than half a million European Jews, (including composer Irving Berlin and scientist Albert Einstein) sailed from Antwerp to Ellis Island aboard Red Star Line ships, eager to make a fresh start in America, or desperate to escape anti-Semitism, pogroms, and Nazi tyranny in Europe. In the depression years, the Red Star Line continued operating under the ownership of Arnold Bernstein, a German Jew, until the liquidation of the Société Anonyme de Navigation Belgo-Américaine in 1935. In spite of earning the Iron Cross first class for his service to the Fatherland during the First World War, in 1937 Bernstein was arrested, tried, and imprisoned by the Nazis, who, under their appropriation policies, seized his property and sold off the Red Star Line service to the Holland Amerika Lijn. After paying a substantial ransom to secure his release, Bernstein and his wife fled Nazi Germany and ironically enough took passage on Holland Amerika Line’s S.S. Neiuw Amsterdam in 1939, arriving in New York on the same day that Germany invaded Poland triggering the Second World War and paving the way for the Holocaust.

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In 2001, the vacant and decaying warehouses of the Red Star Line were rescued from sale or demolition when the city declared them historical landmarks, and the architects responsible for restoring the edifices on Ellis Island were hired to convert them into a museum. The museum opened to the public in 2013 and has a permanent exhibition featuring Red Star Line objects and artifacts from the Robert Vervoot Collection. Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum curator, Erwin Joos was here with the Vice Mayor to talk to us about the work of Antwerp artist Eugeen Van Mieghan (1875-1930), who documented the emigrant experience at the company docks. While in town, Mr. Joos will be delivering a lecture titled: “The artist Eugeen Van Mieghem and the Jewish emigrants of the Red Star Line.” He will present that talk at 10:00 am on April 13th at the Jewish Federation 4200 Biscayne Blvd Miami, at 2:30 pm on April 17th at the Miami Pinecrest Library, 5835 SW 111th St, Pinecrest, FL 33156, and at 12 noon on April 20th, at the Miami Temple Beth Am, Miami. Mr. Joos was kind enough to present us with a copy of a 2005 catalog of the artist’s work, some of which can also be seen online.

The Wolfsonian’s holdings of Red Star Line materials focus on the more “glamorous” anniversaries and itineraries of the steamship company in the 1920s and early 1930s. The library, for example, hold a rare copy of a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the sailing of Vaderland in 1893 that inaugurated the Red Star Line service.

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The book also used the occasion to celebrate the inauguration of its newest steamship, the Belgenland in 1923.

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In addition to the transoceanic immigrant trade so well documented by the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, our own library holds some materials promoting the shipping company’s World Cruises. We possess, for example, a rare travel diary belonging to Mr. Roland C. Fenner of Philadelphia, PA, put together as a souvenir keepsake of his 1927/8 “around the world” cruise on the Red Star Line’s S. S. Belgenland.

 

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THE JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

The souvenir log book and photograph album is personalized throughout with black and white snapshots mounted on preprinted pages depicting tourist attractions and places of interest. A pocket in the inside back cover contains a postcard, a cruise newsletter, and a ticket.

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THE JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

After the cruise was complete, the company also published a standard memory book that could be purchased as a memento of the voyage.

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GIFT OF LAURENCE MILLER

The library also holds a beautiful Art Deco designed menu for the S.S. Arabic dated August 10th, 1929.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

A particularly striking Red Star Line publication in the collection is Strange Places & Strange Faces Seen on the Belgenland World Cruise. Promoting the Red Star Line’s “Around the World” itinerary for 1930/1931, the book’s “Orientalist” illustrated cover pictures an elderly Egyptian smoking a hookah with a collage of architectural landmarks and monuments appearing through the Islamic keyhole-shaped doorway behind him.

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THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

Between the covers, the book is profusely illustrated with black & white photographic illustrations of the ship, its amenities, and the various ports where passengers could disembark and explore during their trip.

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THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

The Wolfsonian library also holds a copy of the 1936 tourist class deck plan of the Red Star Line’s Westernland.

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GIFT OF LAURENCE MILLER

~ by "The Chief" on April 12, 2014.

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