His mother Fejga (Fanny) and his sister Esther sailed from Antwerp to Boston on 10 February on a Red Star Line ship. There they joined Fox’s father, Michel Fuks, who had left their home near Kiev seven years earlier.
My father’s story
Probably more so than is the case for most people, the story of my life is very closely related to that of my parents. And it undoubtedly is also part of the story of the United States of America.
My parents’ story starts in Koretz, a “shtetl” or Jewish village in Ukraine. There my father was drafted into the tsar’s army for two years of military service. At the end of this two-year period, when my father was about to be discharged, the tsar said, “And now let’s add another two years of service”.
My father knew what this meant. In a country where killing Jews had become somewhat of a national sport, he realised that two more years of service would send him to his death. He was strong, tough man, but he had already has a few narrow scrapes with death and he also realised that he would soon run out of luck. So he decided to desert… and was arrested.
When he was released, he and the woman who would subsequently become my mother made a difficult decision. He would leave. Not just Koretz, not just Ukraine, but even the Old World. In 1914, he arrived at Ellis Island in the port of New York. He did not speak a word of English at the time and has barely a penny to his name.
But something wonderful happened to my father on Ellis Island. He arrived as Michel Fuks, a member of a despised minority. And he walked out as Max Fox, thanks to the English translators in the immigration office. He was a free man in a country that had declared that “all men are created equal”.
The name meant the world to him. He idolised the USA. To him, his new name symbolised freedom and equality... life itself even.
He found a job as a milkman, then went to work in a shoe factory in St. Louis. He did not like the big city that much so he bought an old horse and set out. When people asked him how on earth he ended up settling in Desloge, Missouri, with a population of 1,500, he simply answered: “That’s where my horse died”.
Seven years passed before my father had earned enough money to have my mother and sister join him.
The Red Star Line
First my mother and sister travelled to Warsaw, where a Jewish aid organisation helped them plan their journey. Then they ended up in Antwerp.
At the time, millions of immigrants, including many Jews like my parents, left from Antwerp on the ships of the Red Star Line. They include Irving Berlin and Albert Einstein – people who have since become part of American history and who have left their mark on the twentieth century.
My mother and sister travelled on the SS Zeeland, in the forecastle, and did not have any luggage with them. They had sewn the little money they had into their clothes. After 11 days at sea, they arrived in Boston on 21 February 1921.
There they left on the long journey to Desloge, crossing half a continent. That is where I was born in 1929.
My parents never really discussed their life in Europe. Like most immigrants of their generation, they mainly focused on their new life in the new world. And life in America could be quite challenging. But above all, they were extremely grateful to their new home country.
Many years later, I returned to Belgium as the American ambassador. I can imagine that my parents would have been surprised and proud.
When your museum opens, I will literally be able to follow in the footsteps of my mother and sister. And I will be able to visit the city where they spent several days before embarking on their amazing journey. I believe this will be quite an emotional experience because the story of my family – and to a certain extent the story of the United States of America – in effect is so hard to believe. Our family has finally come full circle.
Does your family have a Red Star Line story? We would love to hear more about it.
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