The UK’s first museum dedicated to telling the story of mass immigration to Britain and beyond, including the journeys of thousands of Jews, is the brainchild of a Merseyside Jewish leader.
Max Steinberg says research for the £12 million International Migration Centre Liverpool has highlighted Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn among those who travelled to the New World from the city. Another was comedian Henny Youngman, whose jokes were heard by three million callers to the New York Telephone Company’s Dial-a-Joke line. There will also be stories on the ancestors of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who passed through the Merseyside docks on their journeys to America.
Another feature will be on the man behind the Beatles, Brian Epstein, who was descended from Jewish immigrants who stayed in Liverpool.
Work on the building — which Mr Steinberg hopes will rival attractions such as New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum — will start next year.
The port was the major transatlantic gateway for migrants in the 20th century, with over 100,000 steerage passengers in 1907. From 1882, Jews escaping Czarist Russian antisemitism and extreme poverty came through Liverpool in their thousands. The Mansion House Relief Committee, convened by the Lord Mayor of London and supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Darwin and others, raised what in today’s terms would be millions of pounds to assist the journeys of Jews to America.
An 1882 report by a Liverpool group appointed by the relief committee stated that in just three months, more than 6,000 Jewish passengers were helped to travel, nearly half of them children.
People lodged in a hall capable of holding 400 and were provided with kosher food, clothing if needed and money. Many stayed, building Liverpool into at one time the most populous regional Jewish community. For others who passed through, preserved kosher meat was sent on to steamships for passengers — and letters of thanks in Hebrew for the good treatment the Jews on the boats received were presented to captains.
As chief executive of Liverpool Vision, which leads regeneration in the city, Mr Steinberg is considering three sites as possible homes for the centre. Like Ellis Island, the undisclosed waterfront locations are original buildings which were used to process the nine million-plus migrants who pased through the docks between 1870 and 1930.
Mr Steinberg’s family migrated from Russia around the turn of the 20th century. He is a former Liverpool King David High governors’ chair, as well as the man David Cameron has charged with delivering the UK’s largest international business festival since the 1950s, which will be held next year. “Germany, America, Israel, Belgium and France all have centres which record and celebrate the whole question of migration,” he noted.
“The UK is one of only a few countries in Europe which doesn’t have such a place to tell its story. Mass migration is such a facet of what has formed the United Kingdom to this day.
“It’s absolutely clear that cultural diversity made Britain the strong nation it is. What we lack is the centre which tells the story.”
The exhibition will draw from the University of Liverpool’s archive of the Cunard Line, which was part-founded in Liverpool. Passenger lists from almost every global ship company, including White Star Line, the Titanic’s operator, will contribute, alongside the Liverpool Record Office. A digital database of every recorded passenger is also planned, allowing visitors to search for their own travelling ancestors.