With Grant to Museum, Greek Immigrant’s Story Continues

By Laurie Stern

Published June 09, 2010, issue of June 18, 2010.
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Thanks to a new grant, the vibrant spirit of 14-year-old Victoria Confino, a Greek Sephardic Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1916, will continue to be a part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

A $500,000 grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation will help maintain the Confino Family Living History Program, including a model of the apartment Victoria lived in. The exhibit, which opened in 1997, gives museum patrons the opportunity to experience tenement life through the eyes of a teenage girl: Victoria.

To tell the story of Victoria’s voyage to Ellis Island and to create a detailed depiction of her life requires funding.

Tenement Museum public relations manager Kate Stober said the museum has “felt the brunt of the crash” via a drop-off in individual donations, but the number of visitors to the museum has remained steady, potentially creating a conflict of supply and demand.

Therefore, the Niarchos grant, one of the museum’s largest, comes at an opportune time for the museum, she said.

An endowment left by the foundation’s founder, Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, allows the foundation to back initiatives promoting Greek culture and tradition both in the United States and Greece. The foundation focuses its grant-making on four primary areas: education, arts and culture, social welfare, and health and medicine, said foundation program officer Stelios Vasilakis.

“Very few people outside of Jews know that the Sephardic community was such an important part of Greece, “Vasilakis said.

After the Spanish Inquisition, a large number of Sephardic Jews made their new home in Greece, specifically in the city of Salonika, Vasilakis said. Most of the community was destroyed during the Holocaust, he added.

“That’s one of the reasons we were interested in supporting the Tenement Museum,” Vasilakis said. “That part of the community was forgotten, in a way. When you walk into the room [the Confino apartment], you immediately become aware of the significant population of Jews in Greece at that time.”

When the exhibit was created, researchers conducted a reverse genealogy to depict tenement life accurately around the turn of the 20th century, Stober said. Starting with a name and working backward by talking to descendants of the Confino family, researchers were able to make a detailed, comprehensive model.

To experience what daily life was like for Victoria and her family, museum visitors can tour the restored apartment. From reproductions of the family’s belongings to antiques from the period, everything in the apartment is touchable, said Tenement Museum education associate Sarah Litvin.

“If it’s shabbat, we take out candles, if it’s Purim we take out the costume she’s working on,” Litvin said. “It provides different ways to show common threads and show things that are familiar yet slightly different.”

In addition to overseeing the program, Litvin, 25, is one of six actresses who rotate as Victoria, dressing, speaking and acting as Victoria welcoming a new friend into her home.

The nuances of Victoria’s personality are folded into a sort of narrative for visitors, making her not just a historical figure, but a lovable character.

“She was vivacious, talkative, loved going to school and wished she could have stayed in school,” said Litvin. Instead of attending school, Victoria was compelled to work with her father in an apron and underwear factory. In that period, many immigrant children worked instead of attending school.

Support of the Confino program by the Niarchos grant represents a fusion between the foundation’s mission to celebrate the past and future achievements of the Greeks with the museum’s goal to maintain the quality of its programming, Stober said.

“Immigration is an important part of Greek identity,” Vasilakis said. “It is important to look at what happened when people settled on the Lower East Side and began their lives in this country.”

Contact Laurie Stern at stern@forward.com

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