Telling Immigrants’ Tales, The Old And The New

Telling Immigrants’ Tales, The Old And The New

Born in Kazakhstan, Morris J. Vogel knows firsthand the immigrant experience conveyed in the expanded Tenement Museum.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Morris J. Vogel, a social historian, has been president of the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side since 2008. A first-generation American, like many of the people whose stories are told in the museum’s exhibitions, he was born in Kazakhstan; his parents escaped there during World War II to avoid the Nazis. After living in a displaced persons camp in Poland, the family moved to the United States in 1949.

Last month, the museum announced plans for a major expansion of its site, to highlight the stories of those who moved to the Lower East Side after World War II, including Holocaust survivors, Puerto Ricans and Chinese families. Permanent exhibitions will be installed on the upper floors of 103 Orchard St., at the corner of Delancey, where the Visitor’s Center is housed at street level.

The exhibits at 97 Orchard St. tell the stories of families of different immigrant backgrounds who lived there between 1863 and 1935. The Jewish Week caught up with Vogel recently in his museum office. This is an edited transcript.

Q: What led to the decision to expand?

A: We tell the story of immigration past as a way to more deeply engage our visitor in immigration present — two different elements of the same issue. At 97 Orchard, our story really ends in 1935 [when the building was condemned]. We had been looking for a way to make the present come more powerfully alive.

After we bought the building at 103 Orchard, we researched everything about it. To our delight — not to our surprise — we found absolutely fascinating stories of more modern immigration in that building. The most powerful of those stories is that of Kalman and Regina Epstein, survivors of Bergen-Belsen, who met and married in a DP camp and were brought over by HIAS. They wound up living at 103. They were allowed into the country after a presidential directive in December 1945, allowing 1,000 survivors of death camps to come into the U.S. We’re telling the story of the first admission to the U.S. of refugees, and the story of survivors making new homes.

Will these exhibits be in the same spirit as those at 97 Orchard, with rooms curated in the style of its residents?

Yes. As part of the exhibit, you’ll enter the Epstein living room set for the second night of Pesach, which they had in this tenement. It’s an immersive environment. Their story is the story of the seder itself.

What other family stories will you include?

The Epstein story is the core of the exhibit, and we’ll also have rooms to tell the stories of a Puerto Rican family — we’ll tell the story of the rise of the largest Puerto Rican community on the mainland — and a Chinese family. The rise of the largest Chinatown in the Western hemisphere is the story of the end of race-based quotas on immigration.

How many visitors do you get?

More than 210,000 a year — and we turn away tens of thousands due to space limitations.

What is the budget for the project?

Eight million dollars. We have in hand $3 million, from a combination of private donors and the city. We have a half-million challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities — the largest in New York State — that requires a 3-to-1 match. That will get us close to $5 million.

What’s the timing of the expansion?

Our plan is to begin construction in 2016. We will document everything that’s there, figure out what the apartment was like, and then pull out what’s there — except for the things we’re going to leave as is — and put in new floors.

These buildings weren’t great temples. They put them up cheaply. It’s a miracle these buildings have stood — they stood because of hope, as the neighborhood did.

How is historical understanding enriched by these stories of everyday people?

These are stories of people who bought their dreams to this country, raised their children here and built their families. The separate stories we tell reach people but the larger story is what we hope moves them. What we are telling is America’s story. If we don’t tell this story now, the story disappears.

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