On what was probably a steamy day in August, 1913, the S.S. Argentina pulled into New York harbor. Among the hundreds of steerage-class immigrants on board was 11-year-old Victoria Confino. Victoria and her family were soon settled in a cramped three room apartment at 97 Orchard Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side. To honor the anniversary of her arrival, the actresses who portray Victoria Confino (we call them the Vickies) have shared their favorite memories of interacting with visitors in the apartment. This is the first installment in a three-part series.
But first, a bit more about our beloved Victoria. As a new immigrant, she had a great deal of adjusting to do; she was a Sephardic Ladino speaker in a predominantly Ashkenazi community, the only girl in a house full of boys, and a greenhorn in a crowded metropolis. Bright, witty and lively by nature, Victoria had never been to school, and was soon enrolled in kindergarten (at the advanced age of eleven!). But after just two years, Victoria was taken out of school to “pull threads” in her father’s apron factory.
The family left 97 Orchard Street in 1917. Victoria got married, moved to Brooklyn, and had two children of her own. She lived to be 87 years old, passing away in 1989. From the day she got off that ship, New York was her home; she never saw Kastoría again.
Today, Tenement Museum visitors– including 17,000 school children and hundreds of adult English language learners–meet with costumed interpreters portraying 14-year-old Victoria in her recreated apartment at the Tenement Museum. Set in the year 1916, the Meet Victoria Confino Living History program is funny and moving in equal parts, and the memories of our “Vickies” are, too. Enjoy!
I will never forget a group of ESOL students who came to visit Victoria as part of the Shared Journeys program. They were all refugees from different parts of the world, including Tibet, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, and were very new in the United States. When I started to tell the story of my family’s departure from war-torn Kastoría, the atmosphere in the apartment became difficult to describe. Almost as one, this group of 15 strangers began to cry for their lost homes, and I along with them. The emotional intensity of the moment was almost like an out-of-body experience. Then, two minutes later, we were all laughing about the auditory and olfactory effects that a dinner full of beans has on a large family in a small apartment. Missing home and fart jokes are two things that truly transcend time, space, language and cultural differences; it’s just the human experience.
While reflecting on my experiences over the last 15 months in the Confino apartment, my mind became a flood of memories! How many eyes widened at the sight of the chamber pot? How many adults asked me about the fireplace while I tried to distract them with the fox trot? And it got me thinking– in the end, what makes a visit with Victoria a success? Is it when you feel that a group of high school students really understood the museum’s mission? When you share a good cry with a group of English language learners while talking about Kastoría? Or perhaps it’s when you get a group of first graders to finally pipe down and “sit on their bottoms!” I feel like I could write a book titled WWVD: What Would Vickie Do? and never run out of funny anecdotes and stories. But my favorite moments in the apartment have been when I can sense that the visitors are really transported to another time and place and when they ask questions that help me interpret Victoria in a new way.
I’ll never forget the time when I had a captive audience of second graders and I reached into the oven to show them a piece of coal, and when I opened my fingers I discovered a plastic cockroach in my hand! (The cockroach was from a different program, Tenement Inspectors, and had gone missing months before.) I screamed, tossed the cockroach out the door and quickly explained how important it is to keep a clean apartment. The looks of utter terror and mild disgust on those children’s faces were unforgettable. For the rest of the tour they were truly transported to the year 1916 and asked really thoughtful questions.
I don’t think I know the answer to the question “what makes a successful visit with Victoria?” but I do know that those moments when I can feel everyone in the room getting lost in 1916 are nothing short of magical.
For the nearly two years in which I’ve played Victoria it truly has felt like the majority of groups that visit create memorable moments. There have been goofy kids wearing hats and aprons, awkward accidental cell phones ringing, and numerous attempts made to set Victoria up with single brothers/sons/grandsons! One especially memorable moment occurred during a Shared Journeys program for new immigrants–which is often a profound experience. The group visiting had minimal English speaking abilities, but most of them attempted questions and conversation. There was a tall, strong-looking man who kept quiet throughout the program, showing very little response. When I told the story of Victoria’s beloved manta [a rug-like blanket made of goat hair], and how it reminded me of my home in Kastoría, this man spoke for the first time saying, “I have a picture of my home in Africa, and I look at it every day.” The rest of the group then listened as he fondly recounted his home life, tying Victoria’s experience to his own. It was a moment that transcended history, really making clear the shared journeys of immigrants regardless of place of origin or time.
– Posted by “The Vickies”