Prologue: Immigrants have been a major emphasis during Donald Trump’s first years in office. A series of administration travel bans have been halted by Federal Judges. The president continues to promise to build “The Wall” to stop immigration from Mexico and Central American countries. Trump sees immigrants as a threat to the nation, especially Muslims and Hispanics. What a contrast with President John F. Kennedy who wrote , “A Nation of Immigrants”.
One of the most interesting immigrant experience that my husband and I have taken part in was when we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City some years ago. It was a travel back in time to the years when immigrants were welcomed into our country from nations all over the globe.
Where did the immigrants go, once they passed the stern uniformed inspectors, the daunting tests and disembarked onto the dock in New York Harbor? How did they live — this generation that Oscar Handlin described so brilliantly in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Uprooted ? What was the quality of their lives?
The immigrants were risk takers, leaving generations of ancestors behind them to venture over thousands of miles of ocean into a completely new life. Of the 12 million immigrants who came through Ellis Island, 8 million left the area with destinations pinned to their lapels. They climbed aboard trains and traveled to distant places across the country on the huge network of railroads. However, by 1900, most of the newcomers settled in four industrial states: New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Illinois. In New York City, they lived in ethnic enclaves on the Lower East Side. For the surge of eastern and southern European immigrants, the crowded tenements were a vast change from the villages they left behind in Belarus, Ukraine, Poland or Italy.
Today, at 90 Orchard Street on the corner of Broome Street in New York City, you can visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and enter the world of your ancestors who came and settled there. It is a fascinating and very personal experience to move with the tour guide through the building that was one of the actual tenements where immigrants lived. To walk into a cramped, dark three room apartment of 300 square feet and hear the history of the family who ate, slept and often worked there.
In 1920, Lazarus Salamon, A Hungarian immigrant wrote, “I feel like I had two lives. You plant something in the ground. It has its roots, and then, you transplant it where it stays permanently. That’s what happened to me.”
In a strange city, with streets jam-packed with pushcarts and trolley cars, the immigrants had to learn fast. Where to find work? Where to go to the butcher? Where to send the children to school? There was little time for contemplation or leisure. Each day brought new challenges and problems to solve. New questions to be answered. New hardships. And of course, a new language to learn. The children who went to school learned the fastest and became interpreters for their parents.
“It was very, very different and very peculiar. We looked around and didn’t know what it was all about. A different world with different people. And it’s hard to adjust.” Helen Wolraich, a Polish immigrant, 1920.
At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, three different tours bring the past to life. “Piecing It Together: Immigrants in the Garment Industry” takes you to two apartments, the Levine family in l897 who ran a garment shop in their home and the Rogarshevskys who are in mourning for their father, Abraham, who worked as a presser in a factory before succumbing to tuberculosis in l918. Almost every generation of immigrants to the Lower East Side had some connection to the garment industry.
A second tour, “Getting By: Immigrants Weather The Great Depressions of l873 and 1929” centers on the homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family (l870’s) and the Sicilian-Catholic Baldizzi family (1930’s). How they found work during hard times is vividly told as you stand and absorb their furnishings and treasured possessions brought from the old country. A tape by one of the descendants tells the personal story of each family. And the pictures, the faces looking out over the years are very powerful.
“My mother brought her candles, the ones you use on Friday nights. She brought her Bibles. She brought the things that were near and dear to us which were not very important to anybody but us. To us, they brought back memories.” Sam Auspitz, a Czechloslovakian immigrant, 1920.
A third tour is to the “Confino family Apartment”, the recreated 1916 home of a Sephardic family from Kastoria. A costumed guide acting as Victoria Confino welcomes you and invites you to touch items, try on period clothing and dance to music played on a wind-up victrola. The museum describes this tour as “ perfect for families”. Children are welcomed on all the tours which run approximately one hour. There is also a walking tour, “The Streets Where We Lived.”
“Most dear to me are the shoes my mother wore when she first set foot on the soil of America. You must see those shoes to appreciate the courage my parents had and the sacrifices they made giving up family and security to try for a better life, but not knowing what lay ahead. We came to this country as many others did. POOR! My mother’s shoes tell the whole story.”
Birgitta Hedman Fichter, a Swedish immigrant in 1924.
Visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Take your children. It’s a very human experience. And it tells an inspiring story of “ The Uprooted” and the new life they made here in America — for us. Museum hours are Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information and reservations for all tours, phone 1-212-431-0233. Fax 212-431-0402. Website: www.tenement.org
…………………………………………….Joyce S. Anderson