History is a long period of time but when looked at as a series of lifetimes it doesn’t seem that far away. At the Tenement Museum in New York City, the visceral and palpable meaning of this nearly overwhelmed us. The museum founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson purchased 97 Orchard Street in the lower east side, built in 1863 and condemned since 1935. Over its life, it was home to nearly 7000 immigrants. The reason that it had not been torn down was because of several businesses which occupied the first and second floors of the building since then.
The staff of the museum researched the actual people who lived in the apartments and renovated them to look as closely as possible to the spaces these actual families occupied. They have collected over 2000 artifacts in the renovations and continue to acquire antiques from other sources. These apartments have only three rooms– 325 square feet. It’s hard to imagine 5 or more people in these spaces. In walking through these rooms, I really felt drawn back into another time. And the guide was well-spoken, passionate, bright, and intelligent, which made the tour incredibly moving and meaningful.
The dark hallway of the entrance way to the building removed us totally from the present. We climbed the flight of stairs to the first apartment of the Gumpertz family, a German-Jewish family who came to this building in 1869. We learned of the disappearance of the husband Julius in 1874 as he struggled to find work during the Panic of 1873 (which lasted 10 years.) His wife Natalia, left with four children, who obviously needed to survive, opened a small business as a dressmaker in the front room of her apartment. The museum staff did an incredible job of research using census data, court records, and photos (passed around for our perusal) to flesh out the story of the Gumpertz family (and the other families on the tours).
We learned of a letter Natalia received from her husband’s family in Germany sharing that his father had died and that there was an inheritance of $600.00. However, Natalia could not get that money unless she could prove that her husband was dead. She went to court and neighbors, even the landlord, even her oldest daughter, testified about looking for Julius and never finding him. Everyone thought he had drowned in the river, distraught over not finding work and being unable to provide for his family. She was awarded the $6oo.00 and moved to a middleclass German neighborhood a distance away from the lower east side. When Natalia died she left $1000 to her girls. (Her only son died when he was a year and a half.)
Our docent shared that the middle daughter, Nannie (?), was the only one to get married and had several children. And those children grew and got married. Her great (great?) grandchild grew up to be a fireman (Reisman) and was killed in the World Trade Center in 2001. His widow had his memorial service in the three small rooms at 97 Orchard Street saying that if Natalia could survive, so could she.
Just over a year ago, our docent continued, another guide was giving the tour and one of the people on the tour sheepishly raised her hand saying she thought that a Julius Gumpertz was related to her and had fathered a family in Cincinnati. The museum staff researched all the information this woman gave them and it turned out to be the very same Gumpertz who left Natalia and their four kids in New York. The web of all of our lives are so incredibly connected and interwoven in ways beyond our imaginations.
I won’t share an equally remarkable story of the Baldizzi family in the adjoining apartment in the late twenties. Suffice it to say that the power of story to magically connect us to the times and people and history was compelling and transformative. And of course, stories work to help us remember our own. They unleash reminiscences we long thought were lost.
The Tenement Museum’s commitment to immigrants today is equally remarkable. They teach English classes to the immigrants in the neighborhood, using the stories of the former occupants of 97 Orchard Street to trigger the sharing of their own personal stories of migration and the obstacles in finding their way. The museum is involved in lots of activism around immigrant issues and concerns.
The museum’s mission:
To promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gateway to America.
This is a remarkable museum which pushes the notion of museum beyond the limits of exhibition into visceral experience and opportunity for activism. And a museum which makes history tangible by reminding us that everyone has a story which weaves into the broader context of time and web of interconnections.