Great Reads

Living in History

April 7, 2021


Close up view of various colorfully patterned layers of old wallpaper

On Thursday evening, March 12, 2020, I was giving an architectural tour of 97 Orchard Street that involves a considerable amount of information about the history of wallpaper. On Friday, the Museum closed. Within a few days, everyone was plunged into many kinds of uncertainty. We didn’t know what was safe, we didn’t know what to do, and we were fighting an invisible enemy. Some elderly friends, survivors of WWII bombings, told me that the pandemic is worse than the blitz. During the blitz, they said, you knew who the enemy was. You could hug, even while living in an underground train station.

I began work at New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum in the spring of 2008, telling the stories of immigrant families who had lived at 97 Orchard Street. In October 2008, the stock market crashed, and our visitors’ responses to those stories changed because several of our tenement families had lived through national financial crises like ours. Stories of the dusty past became stories of our immediate present and shocked visitors into listening with a new intensity.

In March of 2020, History (with a capital H) caught up with us again.

In mid-March, the possibility that the uncertainty and fear could go on for weeks was unimaginable. We said we couldn’t bear it. Many of us lost our jobs, our regular routines, and any ordinary sense of time. A month later, I began to hear jokes about the date being April 143rd . I heard endless references to the movie Groundhog Day. And if every day is the same day, the problem isn’t merely repetition, but the feeling that there is no way out. That feeling easily breeds helplessness and despair.

At some point in very, very late April, or maybe May, my knowledge of our tenement family stories reminded me of something I badly needed to be reminded of: Even if life feels like Groundhog Day, that’s not how history works. Ordinarily when we consider historical events, we’re looking backwards at them so we know how they ended.

I was steadied by the realization that the feeling of dislocation and uncertainty is how our tenement families must have felt, often, during economic depressions, wars, or health crises. Like us, they were living “in history.” They didn’t know how their stories would end either.

Black and white photo portrait of Natalie Gumpertz wearing her hair pulled back, a brooch, and a black ruffled dress

In the 1880s, Natalie Gumpertz and her husband, Julius, East Prussian Jewish immigrants, were living at 97 Orchard Street. The stock market crashed in 1873, and then, one day, Julius mysteriously vanished. He left Natalie with four small children to support during the worst economic depression the country had ever known. While we eventually learned what happened to Julius—he ran away—we have never known how Natalie supported the family for the first years after his disappearance or how close she came to despair.

Natalie’s neighbors, John and Caroline Schneider, ran a lager beer saloon in the basement of 97 during that same depression. Since 1864, they had provided a place for the German-speaking community to have a beer and a meal and to socialize. After 1873, many of their customers had no money. We know the Schneiders were able to keep their business running, but how? Like owners of small restaurants today, they must have known how close they were to losing everything. They must have woken in the night whispering about their fears.

In the 1970s, Andy Saez Velez, the son of Puerto Rican migrants, was drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. Like other families with kids at war, they never knew if he would someday come home or if his death would be one of the statistics that appeared nightly on the TV screen. The family remembers crying each time they listened to the messages he sent them on cassette tapes. Andy returned safely, but the family lived through years of uncertainty.

Members of many tenement families sat at sickbeds: Jacob Burinescu died in the 1918 influenza pandemic leaving a family behind, including a 3-year-old daughter named Pearl who survived the illness. A young Irish-born woman, Bridget Moore, tended her baby, Agnes, until the infant’s death in April of 1869. In a Lithuanian Jewish household in 1918, Fannie Rogarshevsky’s husband, Abraham, died of tuberculosis. She became the janitor of the building in order to pay the rent.

A portrait of Abraham Rogarshevsky alongside a photo of Fannie Rogarshevsky

Abraham and Fannie Rogarshevsky

At all these times, everyone had to wait and wait, not knowing the outcome—and, while waiting, had to make decisions, make a living, try to explain to the children what was happening. They had to discover what they could endure.

Many of us now know how it feels to wait and to have to go onwards, even when our lives feel impossibly, once-in-a-century stuck. As a number of children have said to me, “We’re going to be in the history books!” Yes. What stories will those books tell of us, the ordinary people who found our lives utterly changed? What stories will we tell of ourselves?

During the 2008 recession, many museum visitors were visibly reassured by our tales of ordinary people who had struggled in the past, as we were struggling in the present. They relaxed a little when they heard how the families in our stories managed and that economic depressions eventually end. For the past year, the pandemic has prevented us from guiding groups of visitors through the crowded tenement apartments of the Museum and telling the stories that might give comfort, although the stories are being told (like so many things this year) virtually, online.

When we can return to giving our live tours and be literally, viscerally, surrounded by the walls of those small rooms, I believe those stories will again feel different to us and sound different to our visitors. In the past, some people wanted to know right away what happened to the families whose stories I was telling. They didn’t want to wait through the parts of the story that speak of uncertainty. They were impatient to know how it all turned out. After this last year, I know how it important it will be to let visitors know they have to wait, as the past inhabitants of our museum buildings waited. The people in our stories didn’t know what was going to happen. They had to make it happen. They had to wait, not knowing. They were, at times, disrupted, uncertain, afraid—and we now all know what that feels like. We’ve learned what it means to live “in history.”

We know much more than we did six months or a year ago. We know more about the virus. We know more about how this might end. But we also know more about how we respond to uncertainty and trouble: not in all the same way, little by little, sometimes brave and sometimes not. What we said we couldn’t endure for a month, we have endured for a year. Our resources—financial, emotional, and spiritual—have contributed to making our individual and family stories different. Still, we work patiently or wait patiently—or impatiently—crossing the days off the calendar.

During 2008, history sometimes comforted us or gave us a sense of perspective about the present: people have survived this before, so we will too. This last year is subtly different: the past might give us perspective on the present, but, even more than that, the present teaches us something about how to interpret the past, how to think about history, because we all know what it means to not know how the story ends.

Written by Judy Levin, Contributing Writer