Bella Epstein was 7 years old when she moved with her Holocaust survivor parents and 4-year-old sister to a brick, six-story tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Now, a New York City museum displays rooms of their tenement apartment at 103 Orchard St., the same building where the family lived some 65 years ago.
The apartment was shabby, but Epstein, a former Hollywood resident, thought nothing of it; everyone she knew lived in the same kinds of places.
“The radiators, the dark hallways, the dark toilets,” said Epstein. “It was loud, it was noisy and smelly but, to me, it was wonderful.”
The Epsteins’ apartment is part of “Under One Roof,” an exhibit at the Tenement Museum that shows how successive waves of immigrants lived a particular apartment. Other rooms are made to look like they were when the Velez family came from Puerto Rico and the Wongs arrived from China.
Museum staff based the exhibits on family members’ memories.
Tenements were buildings, usually walkups, in which ordinary apartments were subdivided to fit as many working-class families as possible. In some, the bathtub was in the kitchen. In others, residents shared a bathroom in the hall.
Widespread on the Lower East Side during the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, they offered affordable housing for poor immigrants newly arrived in New York City.
Kalman and Regina Epstein met in a displaced persons camp outside Frankfurt, Germany, after World War II. Both lost their spouses and children to Hitler’s death camps.
They arrived in New York by boat in 1957 to start a new life.
The couple had a baby just one year later and named her Bella. Seven years after that, they settled in an overcrowded tenement on the Lower East Side.
The Epstein’s bathroom, kitchen, and the bedroom Bella shared with her sister form the first part of the exhibit, the museum’s newest.
It shows how the neighborhood evolved from the 1950s to the 1970s. Other exhibits focus on earlier waves of European immigrants in the same neighborhood.
Most Jewish families in the area had moved uptown by the time the Epsteins settled in the tenement, and Puerto Rican, Chinese and African-American immigration made the neighborhood more diverse.
“The melting pot was so big that there was always something to see,” said Epstein, now 71, and married to Daniel Seligsohn, whose last name she uses. “Everybody was a different nationality and all the languages. I miss hearing the Yiddish spoken in the streets. I miss hearing Spanish in the streets. I just miss the people.”
Kathryn Lloyd, the museum’s director of programs, said the exhibit is meant to show an overlooked part of the immigration experience.
“We often hear stories of the arrival or the journey, or we’re used to hearing stories of like for generations later, but what often is missing is that in-between,” said Lloyd.
“With this tour, we have a chance to explore what it is like to live in a neighborhood that isn’t a majority ethnic neighborhood or majority particular religious population,” she said.
Seligsohn was living in Hollywood in 2015 – she’s since moved to California to live with a daughter — when the museum asked her to help recreate her family’s apartment from faded memories and photographs.
“I just could not believe it,” she said.
The tour starts when a museum guide points to a mezuzah. Jews put mezuzahs – small boxes containing sacred texts – on their door frames, and this, the guide explains, is how to tell the apartment once was home to a Jewish family. The mezuzah is covered by several layers of paint, as it meant little to subsequent residents.
Next to the door is the bathroom featuring a white iron tub with claw feet and barely enough room to walk. The kitchen has a wooden table and a gas stove overlooking an air shaft.
“I smelled the Italian food from downstairs,” Seligsohn said. “My friend Rosetta’s mother would make tomato sauce with pork meatballs and my parents would be cooking something different and then you’d smell the Chinese food. The smells of the food kind of blended.”
The bedroom she shared with her sister is pink, with chipped paint on the walls, just like Seligsohn remembers. The two beds in the room are separated by a desk and a shared closet.
“Those things didn’t matter to me because I didn’t know that it wasn’t supposed to be like that,” she said.
On the desk is record player playing Paul Anka’s song “Diana,” her favorite song as a teenager, because it made her “feel like an American.” But, she said, she could only play it when her Orthodox father wasn’t listening to religious music.
Lloyd said such details make the exhibit more authentic.
“For a long time, museums had these objects that were only from wealthy families,” she said. “We are at a really nice moment of saying no, actually museums in the United States should have objects of all of us. Now we’re all part of American history.”
Mary Cantor toured the exhibit with her granddaughter Anuva, a sophomore at the New York Institute of Interior Design. Mary Cantor’s father was a Jewish immigrant from Romania who arrived in New York in the 1940s.
The pair came to the museum because she wanted her granddaughter to learn about Jewish immigration.
“I remember a lot of these things, but I felt that she didn’t know anything,” said Cantor standing in the Epstein apartment. “Now, everything has changed.”
There is a light blue tzedakah box in the Epstein’s kitchen. “Tzedakah” means “charity” in Hebrew and the money in the box went toward planting trees in Israel.
Cantor stopped to explain its meaning to Anuva.
“I had the same one and our parents would make us work to fill it,” said Cantor, holding the box out to Anuva, despite the museum’s “do not touch” rule.
She remembered saving the dime her parents gave her for Sunday school to put it in a tzedakah box identical to the one in the exhibition.
To Bella Epstein Seligsohn, though, it was even more personal.
“One of the most touching things is that I brought my three grandchildren and my youngest, Talia, she got into the bed that I slept in and covered herself with the cover,” she said. “It was just like my cover. I never thought I would live to see this day.”
Valentina Palm is a reporter in the South Florida Media Network’s New York City Bureau.