Albert Einstein on the RSL (The Belgenland) - Photo credits RSL Museum

The Red Star Line brought over two million European migrants to America. All of them contributed to American society. Some of them went on to achieve great things. Here's the story of two 'famous passengers".

Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin - Visit Flanders New York

Among the two million Europeans who traveled to America on the Red Star Line was a five-year-old boy from Russia. That boy’s name was Israel ‘Izzy’ Beilin, and he would grow up to gain worldwide fame with songs like White Christmas, Puttin’ on the Ritz and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

“My father didn’t take off by himself”, says Mary Barrett, Irving Berlin’s daughter, who still lives in New York. “He traveled with his parents, five sisters and a brother. They had fled to Antwerp from Tyumen, a little village in Eastern Russia on the border with Siberia. Their house had been set on fire during the pogrom of 1893 – the violent persecution of Jews, which caused hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews to flee. Many went to America.”

During the great crossing little Irving got a tangible reminder of his Red Star Line adventure. "A passenger on a higher deck accidentally dropped his pocket knife", Mary relates. "It landed on my father's forehead and left a scar. He often showed it to me. He seemed to be proud of it: it reminded him of his European roots."

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein - Visit Flanders New York

The physicist Albert Einstein, whom Time Magazine proclaimed ‘Man of the Century’ in 2000, was a regular passenger on the Red Star Line. Einstein was Austrian by origin and lived in Berlin, but he had family in Antwerp and was a good friend of Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, the painter James Ensor and other Belgian personalities.

In the summer of 1932, the Reichstag elections made Hitler’s Nazi party the largest in Germany. This was followed by violent riots and Einstein, who had called for resistance to the Nazis, was advised to leave Berlin until calm was restored. He travelled to Belgium and while there decided to take up the offer of a part-time appointment at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. His intention was to divide his time between Germany and America.

When Hitler came to power in Germany on 23th March 1933, Albert Einstein and his wife Elza Koch were on their way back from the United States to Berlin. While onboard the Red Star Line’s Belgenland he learnt that the Nazis had confiscated all his possessions and had unleashed a proper witch-hunt against the Jews. They decided it was not possible for them to return to Germany. After the Belgenland arrived in Antwerp (March 28th, 1933), the couple travelled on to the Belgian coast. Queen Elizabeth was fearful for Einstein’s safety and ordered the gendarmerie to keep him under constant protection.

All this fuss about him did not prevent Einstein from giving several talks and receiving friends such as the painter James Ensor and the writer Aldous Huxley. It was probably the Nazis' murder of Professor Theodore Lessing in Czechoslovakia on August 31st 1933 that convinced Einstein of the danger he was in. Shortly afterwards he left as inconspicuously as possible for London. A few weeks later Elza also left Belgium, via Antwerp, on board the SS Westernland. Einstein himself boarded the ship in Southampton to accompany his wife to America. They sailed into New York on October 17th 1933.

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