The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York. This is the Epstein home including Bella's pink bedroom.
The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York. This is the Epstein home including Bella's pink bedroom. Perkins Eastman/Tenement Museum

BEHIND THE BRICK: The lives at 103 Orchard Street

"HEY Rosetta, you want to come up and play?" Bella Epstein yells out the window from her pastel pink bedroom.

The window doesn't look onto a street or a park, rather the air shaft in a tenement building on the Lower East Side.

But it's how she and the other kids in this quarter of New York would let each other know they were home and free to play.

It's circa 1955 and the eight year old is often listening to Paul Anka's Diana on the record player whenever it is free.

"It was played more in my house than I think anywhere else in the world," she says in a recording played during a tour of her old quarters at 103 Orchard Street.

 

The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York.
The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York. Perkins Eastman/Tenement Museum

Bella is Jewish. Her parents had met after their time in Holocaust camps and moved to the United States as refugees.

Kalmen was 39 and Rivka was 26.

Polish Rivka was told to say that she was German because the United States was still accepting that nationality but had put a stop to immigrants from Eastern Europe, her homeland before World War II stripped her of her previous identity.

But Bella doesn't yet know or understand that. She's never asked about the tattoos on their arms. And she doesn't understand the importance, and bravery, of fixing a Jewish mezuzah to their front entrance.

She grew up in a time when the Lower East Side was diversifying and people from many different cultures were interacting and learning about each other. To a point.

 

The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York.This is a garment workshop
The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York.This is a garment workshop Perkins Eastman/Tenement Museum

When her friend Rosie had Holy Communion, she came to show off her dress, but the Jewish family was still the only one not invited to the neighbour's Catholic party after the ceremony.

The team at the Tenement Museum in New York has gone to great lengths to tell the real stories of the people who lived inside these iconic buildings that reek of history and another era.

Through various buildings they recount the lives of migrants and refugees at a time when immigration was centre stage in the United States.

It is a reminder of how immigration, and the people who left their lives behind, helped shape the country's heritage.

The apartment tours explore historically restored tenement buildings and tell real anecdotes about how immigrants lived there in the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York.
The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York. Perkins Eastman/Tenement Museum

There are also street tours that explore food history, with delectable tastings and further anecdotes.

In tracking down original families from the tenement buildings, the museum is able to glean otherwise potentially lost historical perspectives.

Bella's dad is a presser, pressing the dresses flat, and her mum is a sewing machine operator in the garment district when they move into 103 Orchard St.

On Sundays, when both her parents are working, New Yorkers pour into the Lower East Side looking for bargains.

Her mum would drop her off at the movie theatre nearby, give her some change to see a movie, give her lunch and check in with the attendant, 'can you keep an eye on my daughter?'

And that's where the kids of the neighbourhood would spend Sundays. 

 

The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York.
The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York. Perkins Eastman/Tenement Museum

Bella will one day ask her parents about their past and they will say 'we were in the camps, it was horrible and not everyone survived' but not elaborate.

Once she is married and starts a family of her own though, in the 1970s, she has a chance encounter with her mum's past while at lunch.

"A woman walks across the diner and says 'I remember you, you're Rivka'," the museum guide says.

"Rivka says, 'I don't recognise you'.

"The woman says 'we were in the camp together, you took care of the kids. I never forgot you, you're Rivka'."

 

The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York.
The Tenement Museum has recreated immigrant homes at 103 Orchard St in the Lower East Side in New York. Perkins Eastman/Tenement Museum

Bella begins to realise her parents were not stonewalling to protect her and her sister, it's also something they have trouble processing themselves.

Rivka eventually reveals before she passes that her job at the concentration camp was to take care of the children before they were taken to the gas chamber.

Kalman dies six months later. Only after Rivka passes does he tell his daughters he had a wife and several children before the Holocaust. He lost them all.

His daughters never know, until their parents' dying days, this deeper story.


WARNING: Severe storm headed for Nanango

WARNING: Severe storm headed for Nanango

Damaging winds, large hailstones and heavy rainfall expected.

Athletes set to race for the region at state champs

premium_icon Athletes set to race for the region at state champs

Eight competitors will represent the region at a state level this weekend.

INTERVIEW: From AFL to the TV screen

premium_icon INTERVIEW: From AFL to the TV screen

‘I had no film crew and no idea of what to do.’