Does your family and military heritage include Antwerp? It just might! [classic article]

As first seen in GI Money magazine


Antwerp, Belgium holds great importance to veterans and their families, as well as civilians proud of their American citizenship. “What does a country in Europe have to do with being an American,” you may well ask. Many Americans don’t realize that their ancestors may have stopped in Antwerp – some, for a period of a few years – on their way to Ellis Island and other North American ports. Additionally, Antwerp had great military significance during WWI: the year 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of what was called “The Great War”.

There’s a very good chance that Antwerp holds clues to your family’s history if they were European emigrants in the late 19th or early 20th century. After years of fundraising, preservation and careful architectural planning by the firm that restored Ellis Island, there’s a Red Star Line Museum. Antwerp’s Red Star Line was one of the main conduits taking people to Ellis Island and a few other ports in North America. For many, Antwerp wasn’t merely a connection point; due to finances, illness, lack of citizenship documents, Antwerp became a home for sometimes months or years. Many people who later became illustrious persons contributing so much to the world came by way of the Red Star Line: Irving Berlin, Golda Meir, Albert Einstein.

The Red Star Line Museum is located in what was the marshaling area for the 3rd class passengers: the only building still surviving at the port. Modern conveniences such as restrooms were built underneath, so as to not disturb the authentic and now vintage, atmosphere of the place. The museum has lots of rare artifacts, such as Irving Berlin’s piano that his family donated, china, newspapers and ship manifests. At the end of the exhibits, there are computers to assist with tracing families through http://www.ancestry.org.

Another fascinating look into that era is at the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum. Mieghem was a woefully unappreciated artist who sketched passersby on their way to the Red Star – at his own expense. He captured the harsh, often gritty life of the waterfront, as well as emigrants of all social classes.

During the first weekend of October, 2014, get into the feeling of crossing a pontoon bridge yourself by crossing the Peace Bridge, over the River Scheldt. Antwerp was the capital of Belgium during WWI, thus a strategic location. There were an incredible number of refugees in the area, the country was the 5th most powerful country in the world and 4th most important economic power. The pontoon bridge that’s being recreated was used by the Belgian army under King Albert I and the British Expeditionary Force under Winston Churchill, when he was a young Lord of the Admiralty. The bridge was built across the river to help the British cross it; Holland didn’t want it. Churchill moved many British troops on the iconic red double-decker busses. It was blown up on the 9th of October, 1914, to prevent Germans from crossing it. The bridge is not currently needed as a domestic security measure, but of course, it’s strategic to be able to cross bridges in times of war.

Antwerp’s Applemans Brasserie is a good place to get an authentic Belgian meal. Dress is casual and there’s a stripped down to a former era vibe: exposed ceilings, brick, copper. They have lots of local beers on tap. As to their famous Belgian steaks, since Belgium doesn’t allow any hormones or whatever in their beef, it is tougher. Perhaps because of that, at Appelmans (and other places in Belgium), you get to pick a rich sauce for your steak, because the meat is so lean. Very traditional is the Béarnaise sauce, generally flavored with tarragon and lots of it. Appelmans serves a generous portion in a gravy boat.

Antwerp has been quite the multicultural city for hundreds of years. There are all kinds of ethnic neighborhoods with a world of exotic cuisine! The city has a very thriving Orthodox Jewish community around its Diamond District. Hoffy’s is not only popular with the Orthodox community, it’s the “in” place for younger people to go for fun, ethnic cuisine. It’s strictly Kosher. Dress is business casual or classic Orthodox black and whites. This is deli food, but in a much more upscale style than most Americans are familiar with.

Watching the kitchen hand-pull noodles for your dish at Bai Wei  in Chinatown is fun! There are all kinds of small plates and affordable noodle dishes listed on the menu. The restaurant accepts cash only.

Belgium is known the world over for its chocolates. The best of the best is surely Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line. Persoone is quite the bad boy of chocolate: he’s supplied the Rolling Stones with chocolates, including a chocolate-ginger powder that they snort up their noses. Some people might go for “Cannabis,” complete with hemp seeds. There’s also a dark chocolate lipstick. The Antwerp store is located in what was a real palace, Palace on the Meir. In days gone by, it housed Napoleon, Princes of Orange and King Leopold II.

One of the finest hotels in the city is also one of the most convenient. Across a plaza from the Central (train) Station is the Radisson Blu Antwerp. If you need to get to the outlying areas of the city, the subway is next door. Bring your swimsuit: they have an indoor pool, hot tub and sauna. They also have deep bathtubs, which is pretty uncommon for a European hotel. In the morning, the hotel’s restaurant is set up for their substantial breakfast buffet, where floor-to-ceiling windows offer a scenic vista onto the train station and city square.

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