Young Victoria Confino led a comfortable life in the Ottoman city of Kastoria. She lived in a large house surrounded by fruit trees. Her parents, Abraham and Rachel, ran a successful grocery store on their estate. Several maids attended to the family's needs. On warm days Victoria and her siblings stomped grapes for wine in the family's vineyard.
Victoria's comfortable life soon gave way to uncertainty. In 1910, Sephardic Jews like the Confinos were granted citizenship by the Ottoman Empire. As Kastoria (now part of Greece) became embroiled in the Balkan Wars, the family's new status seemed more like a curse than a blessing. As a citizen, 15-year old Joseph Confino was eligible for the draft. If forced to fight in the Balkan Wars, Joseph could neither attend Sabbath services nor keep a kosher diet. The family's anxiety only grew more pronounced when the army stationed troops in the Confino's home.
When a mysterious fire leveled the Confino estate, the family finally decided to flee Kastoria. In 1913, the Confinos gathered what was left of their belongings and prepared to start from scratch in America. Abraham and Joseph left first with only $100. A few months later, Rachel made the long journey across the Atlantic with Victoria (10), David (8), Saul (5) and Jacob (2). Victoria may have read about New York in letters from Allegra, her 16-year old sister who had reluctantly married by arrangement and immigrated with her husband to the States in 1913.
Allegra's letters couldn't prepare Victoria for the Lower East Side. There were neither trees nor any open spaces. The dirty streets were crowded with pushcarts and people moving in every direction. The Confino family's new home was a fifth-floor tenement apartment in 97 Orchard Street that offered little comfort or privacy. At night, the six children slept on orange crates covered with mantas, mats woven of goats' hair. Rachel and Victoria had to quickly learn how to hang their wash from the fire escape and to chase rats out of the apartment with a broom.
Religion also complicated the Confino's adjustment to life in America. As Sephardim, descendants of Spanish Jews who emigrated to North Africa, the Middle East and North America after being expelled from Spain in 1492, the family's religious customs and diet differed from the Ashkenazic Jews who dominated the Jewish community on the Lower East Side.
Victoria even spoke a different language than East European Jews. Like other Sephardim, she was fluent in Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew. However, life in America demanded that Victoria learn English. For the first time, Victoria went to school with her brothers. Though an enthusiastic student, Victoria was placed in the kindergarten class until her language skills improved.
However, Victoria didn't stay in school for long. When she turned 14, Abraham Confino took his daughter out of school to "pull threads" in his undergarment factory. Victoria, who had been so excited to finally attend school, resented the decision, but she couldn't fight her father.
In 1916, the Confinos left 97 Orchard, following other Sephardim uptown to a home in East Harlem. Still, many members of the family assimilated to their new country. As adults, some of the boys took American names more to their liking: Saul became Bob while Salvatore became Charlie. David went a step further and changed his last name to Coffield, a name that all the Confino brothers, save for one, would eventually adopt. In 1921, Victoria Confino became Victoria Cohen when she entered an arranged marriage with another immigrant from Kastoria.