In 1901 Abram and Zippe Heller left their home in Telz, Lithuania for the United States. Somewhere during their journey, the Hellers became Abraham and Fannie Rogarshevsky. Though life in America brought other changes, the Rogarshevskys never abandoned their ties to their old home. Indeed, New York's community of Lithuanian immigrants supported the family in their most dire times of need.
The Rogarshevskys found other constants in America, including their apartment in 97 Orchard Street. They moved to the building sometime between 1907 and 1910. By then, the family had ballooned to eight members. Squeezing everyone into a modest three-room apartment took great creativity, especially come bedtime. The kitchen was transformed into a bedroom for the girls, while a couch in the front room became a makeshift bed for the boys.
Navigating the ways of a new country was also a challenge. To help ease the transition, Abraham joined the Sons of Telsh, a landsmanschaft, or fraternal organization. Founded by other Lithuanian immigrants, the Sons of Telsh provided recent arrivals like the Rogarshevksys with a ready made community and a bevy of social services.
The Sons of Telsh likely helped Abraham find work as a presser in a crowded garment shop. However, the long hours of lifting heavy irons in the dark, airless factory eventually took their toll. After fifteen years at the job, Abraham had become gaunt and easily exhausted; he was plauged by a persistent cough and chest pains.
The Rogarshevskys turned to the Sons of Telsh for help. The landsmanschaft sent Dr. Louis Freedman, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant, to examine Abraham. Dr. Freedman could little do but offer a dire diagnosis: Abraham suffered from tuberculosis.
There was no cure for the disease; Dr. Freedman prescribed the fleeting comforts provided by air, rest and light. Abraham initially ignored Dr. Freedman's advice and kept going to his job at the garment shop. Within a year, though, he was bedridden in the back room of the family's apartment. Fannie worked tirelessly to make Abraham comfortable and protect her children from the highly contagious disease.
In spite of Fannie's efforts, Abraham Rogarshevsky passed away on Friday, July 12, 1918. The Sons of Telsh provided Fannie with both practical and spiritual support. The chevra kaddisha, or "holy society" prepared Abraham's body for burial and arranged for it to be transported to a plot in the Queens Mount Zion Cemetery. After returning from the cemetery, the Rogarshevskys observed the traditional Jewish period of mourning, shiva.
When shiva drew to a close seven days later, Fannie was confronted with many questions. Not only did she have to rebuild her life without Abraham, but she needed a way to pay rent and support herself. Fannie was reluctant to leave her home in 97 Orchard Street. Nor did Fannie want to burden her children who had since married and moved away.
She found an unlikely ally in her landlords. Like Fannie, one of the landlords came to the Lower East Side from Lithuania. It was this connection that perhaps led him to hire Fannie to be the building's "janitress." In exchange, she was able to live in her old apartment, free of charge.
Fannie stayed in the tenement for nearly twenty more years. Even though the other tenants were evicted in 1935, she was able to stay and clean the eighteen empty apartments. It wasn't until 1941 that Fannie left the building, moving a dozen blocks away to the Vladeck Houses, one of the nation's first public housing projects.