Adventures With Victoria, Part 2: An Old Lady at 14?
2013 is the 100 year anniversary of 11 year old Victoria Confino’s immigration to New York City. Victoria, or Vickie, as we like to call her, is an integral part of the Tenement Museum, and to honor her memory and story that continues to inspire visitors, the actresses that play Victoria share some of their favorite memories. This is the second of a three part installment.
For the past five years, I have spoken lovingly about my hometown, Kastoría, as I’ve showed visitors this photograph. From research and family stories, we know that Kastoría is a peninsula surrounded by a lake, in the hills to the West of the city Thessaloniki, which we Victorias call by its Ladino name, Salonika. I told of my family’s large house on Ommonia Square, and helped visitors imagine harvesting grapes from my Papa’s “vinya,” or vineyard, and stomping barefoot on them in large vats to make wine.
This summer, I had the opportunity to visit my hometown. I smelled the fresh breeze coming up from the lake into the alleys of the town above. I heard the church bells clang from all directions—there are over 150 churches in the town, and as I felt them resonate through my body, I wondered if Victoria could feel them too, and what she felt about them, as a Jewish girl in a Christian town. I clambered up the staircases between large Ottoman-style houses with vines and flowers growing in backyards and I wondered what games Victoria would have played on those stairs. I stood in Ommonia Square and learned the route from there to the plot where the synagogue and Jewish school once were. Today there is parking lot there. I walked the street that was once called “Ivradiko” street or “Jew” street. The name was changed after the community was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. I noticed how it is still the only area of town with no churches.
The real Victoria Confino never made it back to visit Kastoría, and I’m sure that if she could go today, she would find little resemblance to the hometown she left 100 years ago. Today, it’s is a modern, Greek city with plenty of sleek apartment buildings and cafes, a thriving tourism industry (the town hosted a World Motor Bike Championship the week I was there), and just one Jewish resident. For me as Victoria, my visit truly felt like a homecoming–it helped me to understand the geography and feeling of my hometown with all of my senses–a feeling that I try my best to share with my visitors.
One of my favorite Victoria moments happened after a Shared Journeys group last year. The group was made up of Chinese immigrants who were divided pretty evenly between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers and knew little to no English. Every question asked would be translated to me, and every response I gave had to move through two different translators to be understood. The beginning of the program felt awkward and slow, and I found myself fidgeting during what felt like ages silence between each question and response. I discovered pretty quickly, however, that in spite of the necessarily slow pace of the program, most of the guests were listening pretty intently. My responses (or, rather, their translations) were met with some laughter and enthusiasm, and more and more hands started going up as the program progressed. As I was shutting down Victoria’s apartment that night, I felt a little sad and uncomfortable because I wondered if there was more I could have done to make the group’s time with me pass more smoothly, if I could have been more helpful and less awkward. But as I was leaving the building that night, the educator who had led the program stopped me and let me know about an exchange he had had with one of the women in the group. When asked what she had thought about the program as a whole, she told him that hearing those stories had changed her whole perspective on her own experience in coming to America.
We can’t be expected to have that profound an impact on everyone who passes through Vicki’s door, but having done it once feels like an indescribable accomplishment. For everyone else, at least they can say they’ve had fun… and that they learned at least a little Ladino. Merci mucho, Vickie!
Every time I play Victoria Confino I have a renewed sense of how incredibly lucky I am that I have the honor to tell this amazing young woman’s story. I got to meet Victoria’s granddaughter before I even began telling Vickie’s story, and that brought me back into the reality of the truth of that story. It was a reminder to me that this is a real person’s story that I have the honor to tell, and through interpreting her story I get to help Vickie live out her dream of being a teacher every time. One of my most touching experiences so far was the first time I had a Shared Journeys Vickie tour. I was surrounded by a large group of Hispanic students who not only shared Vickie’s immigrant story but also in some ways parts of her language too–Ladino has roots in Spanish. Their connection to the story was apparent from the start. Halfway through the Vickie visit, I told them how my father is going to choose a husband for me. I explained to them how he has already nicknamed me “Old Lady” around the house, since I am 14 and not married yet. The group was shocked and said immediately, “Old? You’re not old!” I responded with, “To Papa, sí.” Then they said, “But Victoria, what do you want to do?” I told them that I have aspirations to become a teacher, but that my father would never allow this to happen. Suddenly, one of the girls spoke up, and said, “But Victoria, you are in America now. You make your own dream.” I said, “I wish I could, but Papa has another dream for me.” Then, I was corrected by this same girl with big tears in her eyes, saying, “Victoria, you must not listen to your Papa. You must make your own way. If you want to be a teacher, you will be.” She said this in such a commanding, fighting way. As if by saying it, she could make me realize what America is all about–pursuing your dreams. Then, I matched her with tears in my eyes. As you can imagine, I was not only moved by her emotion but also by her deep involvement in the story. I could see she really believed in me, as Victoria, and wanted my dreams to come true. It is in moments like these that I hope they are.