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The success story of Irving Berlin

The well-known composer and musician Irving Berlin was born in Belarus but fled to New York at the age of five because of his Jewish origins. He did not have to wait long for his major breakthrough in the music world.

Born in 1888
Travelled to New York on the SS Rijnland in 1893
Item in the museum’s collection: piano
Header picture: Linda Emmet, the middle of Berlin's three daughters


A better future

For millions of migrants, the Red Star Line was a lifeline to a better future. Many hoped to make it in the States, but after so many decades, we only know the names of a few of them. Famous composer Irving Berlin was one of them. Five-year-old Irving, whose real name was Israel Isidore Baline, travelled from Antwerp to New York with his parents, brothers and sisters. Their original home was a small village in Belarus, but bloody pogroms compelled the Jewish family to flee.


Breakthrough and success

Once they settled in the Lower East Side, an immigrant neighbourhood, the large family no longer feared death but they were barely able to support themselves. Little Israel did his share and became a newsboy. He did not go to school very often; life in the multicultural neighbourhood where he grew up was a source of inspiration for his life as a musician and songwriter. He did not have to wait long for success. Israel ‘Izzy’ Baline changed his name to Irving Berlin and became one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.


God bless America

Although he was a shining example of rags to riches, his private life was more difficult. His first wife died five months after their marriage. He found happiness with Ellin Mackay 14 years later, but her rich Irish, Catholic father was not pleased to have a Jewish immigrant as a son-in-law. After a richly filled career – he wrote the evergreens ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘White Christmas’ – Irving Berlin died at the age of 101 in his beloved New York. God bless America, land that I love.

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