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Walking in Babcia's Footsteps: The Port of Antwerp

by Professor Jonathan D. Shea, A. G., New Britain CT

In the course of our genealogical research many of us have a desire to see and visit the places our ancestors had contact with during the course of their lives. Many who have moved away from the ancestral homestead in the U. S. make trips from places such as California or Arizona to mill towns in Massachusetts or coal towns in Pennsylvania, to see where our grandparents or other family members lived, worked and died. (For me this was a short trip, as I live in the town I was born in, and my family still lives in the house where my grandparents lived for 70 years.) In addition to seeing these places in the New World, many of us have traveled back to Europe to plant our feet on the family farm where our families may have lived for centuries.

But these American and European homes are not the only places our ancestors walked. Their long journey to America makes the ports they passed through on the way from the Old World to the New significant places in their lives.

An overwhelming majority of immigrants entered the U. S. in New York, although your family may have come through other popular ports such as Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia. A visit to Ellis Island is something many of us have already done or plan to do in the near future. However one piece of this odyssey is missing: visiting the port from which our families departed, the last place they walked on European soil.

For me this place was Antwerp in Belgium. Both my grandparents departed from Antwerp in 1911, in April and July, respectively. My opportunity to see their last stop before boarding the ships of the Red Star Line came in July of 2002 as part of a European vacation.

The author at the Antwerp dock area from which his grandparents Zofia Kruezczunska and Jan Bryzgiel departed 91 years ago.

Antwerp (called Antwerpen in Flemish and Anvers in French) is Belgium's second largest city and its largest port. It is located on the River Scheldt, approximately 55 miles from the North Sea. Antwerp's fortunes have risen and fallen throughout its long history. It was first settled by the Frisians in the second and third centuries. They were followed by the Franks. After the demise of the Empire of Charlemagne in the 800s the city was under the con- trol of various rival groups in the following centuries. In the 1300s the Count of Flanders took control of Antwerp, and through marriage it became part of the holdings of the Dukes of Burgundy. By the mid-16th century Antwerp had reached the height of its prosperity as a port and center of trade, having a population of 100,000. As the Reformation took hold in Europe with its numerous religious wars and conflicts, Antwerp steadily declined. By the time of Napoleon its population had dwindled to less than 40,000 inhabitants. By the mid- 1800s the port city had been in some part rejuvenated and was ascending in importance as a major European port. Another decline took place, however, during World Wars I and II, when the city was occupied by German forces. Today Antwerp's population is nearly half a million people, and the prosperous and trendy city is the second largest port in Europe.

Among the vessels using the Port of Antwerp in the 1800s were ships carrying immigrants to the New World. At the turn of the century numerous Eastern Europeans were passing through the port on their way to a new life in the Americas aboard the ships of the Red Star Line. The steamship company was founded in 1872 and operated until 1939, at which time it was bought by the Holland America Line. Prior to the founding of the Red Star Line, sailings for America had been taking place long before that on other vessels. It is estimated that between 1843 and 1905 approximately one million passengers departed from Antwerp. Unfortunately none of the archives of the Red Star Line has survived to the present day, and the only passenger list which exists is for the year 1855 (available on LDS microfilm), a date too early to be of use to Eastern European researchers.

I had known before I left for Belgium that there were no extant passenger lists, but I wanted to see the docks and the buildings of the Red Star Line. I wanted to see the place where babcia and dziadek boarded the ship to Ellis Island. I began my explorations at the Steen, the Nationaal Sheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum), a castle fort built in the 1200s, later used as a prison and now a museum. The museum's main exhibit at the time of my visit was fortuitously themed "Emigration to America." On display were an array of documents (including replicas of U. S. and Canadian naturalization papers, steamship tickets, various passports and other documents); photographs of the dock areas as they were at the turn of the century, and photos of departing emigrants (including Polish); as well as ships' menus, navigational instruments, maps and other artifacts. There were also replicas and models of the ships' dining areas and quarters; the steerage cabins were exactly as my grandmother had described them to me, and I could imagine her sitting on the hard bench-like bed as she crossed the ocean. Another small room housed a modest collection of books on immigration and the Red Star Line. The museum staff had also set up the Ellis Island database for museum visitors to try their luck at finding an ancestor.

Upon exiting the museum I decided to inquire about any other records or documents relating to immigration that may have survived, as well as about information relating to the actual location of the old docks. The gentleman on duty informed me that he could not answer my questions, but that I was very fortunate that the president of the local historical society was visiting the museum that very moment, and perhaps I would like to speak to her.

A few minutes later she arrived, and she was a walking encyclopedia of information on Antwerp and its seafaring history. I learned from her that most of the old docks had long since been destroyed and only one edifice from the Red Star complex still survived, the disinfection building. She added that the building was abandoned and in bad shape, and that it was not open to the public. So much for standing on the actual dock where grandma and grandpa once stood ... As we parted ways this kind woman handed me a pamphlet in Flemish on immigration resources held at various Belgian archives.

Flemish ... Hmmmm, I could see that my knowledge of Polish, Spanish, French and Russian would not be a big help here. Never one to shy away from a linguistic challenge, and armed with a year of college German, my native English, and a mediocre dictionary, I began to slowly-very slowlyplow through the four-page leaflet. Below is summarized some of the information contained in it on the records held in local, provincial and national archives repositories.

Antwerp City Archives

Many immigrants in transit through Antwerp stayed in hotels (the wealthier passengers) or boarding houses. Some of the registers from these lodgings have survived, although they are not alphabetized. The hotel registers span the period from 1801 to 1898, but, unfortunately, with large gaps. The boarding house registers exist for the period 1811-1979. However the key years for Eastern European immigration are missing (1886-1924). The records contain all or part of the following information: name and surname, occupation, birthplace, place of residence, place of issue of the lodgers' passport, and destination.

Another record group is referred to as "Files of Foreigners." These files relate to people who stayed in Antwerp longer than the expected time to board a ship. The brochure did not specify the length of time one would have needed to stay in the port waiting for a ship to qualify to have a file. But in other European port cities processing large amounts of immigrants, this time could be as brief as several days. This group of records covers the years 1840-1915. Records less than 100 years old are restricted from public use. However the brochure intimated that a form could be filled out for access to the restricted records. It further stated that the decision if a person could view the records or not was a joint decision of the archivist and a representative of the office of Antwerp's mayor. (European bureaucracy is alive and well in Belgium). There is a 10-volume alphabetical index for this record group as well as a numerical index. Thus it seems possible that, depending on the length of stay in Antwerp by a departing immigrant, one might be able to locate an ancestor in these records if they were in the city longer than normally expected.

In my case, my grandfather would more than likely have no record, as his departure was routine and problem-free. Grandma, however, was a different story. Her train arrived late and she and her brother and cousin missed the ship's sailing. She recounted stories of having to stay in a home for immigrants for at least a week, and how a young Polish-speaking man would come get them to take them to Mass each morning in a local Catholic church. Because of these circumstances I am hoping that there will be files on grandma and the two relatives travelling with her.

I was not able to visit the archives in person, as it was too late in the day and they were closed, plus we were leaving the next day. When combining vacation and genealogy projects, here's a piece of advice: Don't leave the genealogy project until the last day of your visit! Unexpected things can and will happen. In this case I was not prepared for research, as my reading prior to departure on the subject of available records indicated that there weren't any. The unexpected discovery of possible researchable records via the information in the brochure took me by surprise. And the administrative hoops that had to be jumped through (e. g., filling out the form described above and waiting for permission) would certainly have called for advanced preparation.

National Archives of Belgium in Brussels

The aforementioned brochure also discusses a record group of potential value to researchers kept at the National Archives of Belgium. These records are to be found among the records of the National Ministry of Justice, Police for Foreigners Division. The time frame for these records is 1830-1914. According to the brochure, many of these files refer to persons who were refused entry to the U. S. and were deported back to the port of embarkation.

Thus in conclusion, even if departure lists aren't available for your ancestor's port of departure, there may be other records such as those described above that may yield information on your relatives' journey from the old world. It may be well worth your while inquiring at various archives in the port of departure about records other than departure lists relating to the immigration process. And take a good dictionary with you. Who knows, someone may give you a brochure written in a language you can't really read ....

Useful Archive Addresses

Antwerp City Archives Stadsarchief Antwerpen Venusstraat 11 B-2000 Antwerpen BELGIUM

National Archives of Belgium Algemeen Rijksarchief Brussel Ruisbroekstraat 2-6 B-1000 Brussel BELGIUM

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Last Updated on October 7, 2012