‘Under One Roof’ with the Immigrant Families of the Tenement Museum

Posted on: October 4th, 2017 at 5:03 am by

Saez Living Room Window. Photo courtesy of The Tenement Museum.

With the topic of immigration dominating the national conversation, we were extremely interested in the press preview of a new exhibit at the Tenement Museum “Under One Roof” is a permanent exhibit immersing visitors in the real-life stories of modern era immigrant, refugee and migrant families from different parts of the world.

Based on oral histories of living family members, “Under One Roof” tells the stories of three families from different parts of the world, all of whom lived at 103 Orchard Street during the decades following WWII. The Epstein family, Polish refugees and Holocaust survivors, lived in the building with their family from 1955 – 1961; the Saez-Velez family, who lived there from 1964 – 2013, came here from Puerto Rico; and the Chinese Wong family lived at 103 Orchard from 1968 – 2014.

This is the museum’s first exhibit about modern immigration enabling access to full oral histories from those who lived in the building. In those interviews, family members talked about their vivid memories of living here, recalling in particular the sounds and smells coming from the stairways and from other apartments. They also provided family photos, and allowed the museum to recreate sections of the homes that existed between the 1950s and 1970s.

The Saez-Velez kitchen. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

“Engaging Americans about the role of immigration and migration in our country’s past, present, and future is more important than ever,” said Kevin Jennings, President of the Tenement Museum. “’Under One Roof’ promises to foster a deeper understanding of how newcomers from all parts of the world make our country stronger and more dynamic.”

We found the tour quite powerful and emotional. Kathryn Lloyd, our guide, took visitors through an apartment that had been subdivided into three sections, representing rooms from each family.

Epstein bedroom. Photo courtesy of The Tenement Museum.

Starting with the Epstein home in the late 1950s, we toured their dining room and daughter Bella’s bedroom. We heard about parents Kalman and Rifka Epstein, Holocaust survivors who had met in a displaced person’s camp. As with each of the families, there were struggles to get here. In Kalman and Rifka’s case, they arrived after WWII. (The US wasn’t initially accepting refugees during the war and it wasn’t until afterward that President Truman signed the executive order to allow refugees into the US in a brief period between the end of 1945 and 1947. You had to have family or a corporate sponsor to come here, and they were able to get both.)

Our tour then moved to the 1960s décor of the kitchen and living room of the Saez-Velez family. While walking through their rooms, we listened to a soundscape of the street from the era. Ramonita Rivera Saez arrived with a language barrier, finding work in the garment center and supporting her children as a divorced single mother. (Puerto Ricans, who had been US Citizens since the 1917 Jones-Shafroth Act, started to come en masse to New York in the 1940s.)

We then entered the 1970s bedroom of the Wong daughters. The Wongs were the second Chinese family to move into the building. Mr. Wong came to New York alone in the mid-1950s and for five years while he was trying to bring them to the US, the family had to live apart. (In 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, which opened the doors to immigration from Asia and other parts of the world. For the first time, the Chinese immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers.)

Wong bedroom. Photo courtesy of The Tenement Museum.

Throughout the tour, we heard recordings of stories from family members, recalling how they earned a living, raised their children, and created new lives while they were living in one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods. There were common threads running through each, along with connections and impressions of neighbors. We heard about how the Wongs recalled their neighbor Ramonita, and how Ramonita’s sons remembered seeing Jewish neighbors with tattoos on their arms, but not understanding at the time what they meant. We heard how Bella Epstein was best friends with Rosetta, an Italian girl in the neighborhood. Bella described the delicious smells of Rosetta’s Sunday family dinners coming through her window, but couldn’t partake, since the food was not kosher.

Since each family had one parent who worked in the Lower East Side garment industry, the tour ends in a recreated workshop, complete with sewing machines and interactive exhibits. Patrons could touch a sewing machine, a rice cooker, or a children’s toy, and a video would pop up to give a personal story. There were also projections on the walls citing statistics about the garment center and the immigrant culture of the time, along with a video and a bulletin board depicting a garment workers strike. Women in the garment industry at the time were very involved in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the union helped advocated for childcare and health benefits, which most of them would not have had otherwise.

Garment workroom. Photo courtesy of The Tenement Museum.

In each room, we saw and heard about personal details. In the Epstein family section, the doorway to the apartment featured the original mezuzah the Epsteins had hung in 1955. In the Epstein girls’ bedroom, there was a portable record player with Paul Anka’s “Oh, Diana” album cover, along with a photo of Anka on the wall. We listened to a recording of Bella Epstein Seligsohn, now 69, remembering the music with such fondness. “The Paul Anka song, Epstein Seligsohn said, “made me an American.”

In the Saez-Velez family’s living room, we saw furniture with clear plastic slip covers (something that this reporter remembers very well, from her own parents’ decor), along with photos of the family’s two sons: Andy, who served in the Vietnam War, and Jose, who helped the family earn money early on in his life by becoming a “shabbos goy,” getting paid to turn the lights on in a local synagogue during the Sabbath. As an enterprising young boy, Jose would also buy pastries at Gertel’s bakery and re-sell them on the street for a profit. He then became the 103 Orchard’s super at age 14. The many residents of varied backgrounds thought of single mother Ramonita as the building’s matriarch.

The apartment portion of the tour concludes in the small bedroom of the three Wong sisters, whose mother supported the family by sewing in Chinatown garment shops. Mrs. Wong’s work enabled all of her children to go to college, and she wore a red dress, to represent good luck, at each child’s graduation.

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