The Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk

Posted on January 31, 2011 by

On Sunday, February 6, the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk living history performance will travel to Beth Israel Congregation’s Hebrew School in Owings Mills. While there is nothing unusual about this – after all, the Immigrant’s Trunk is a JMM outreach program that travels frequently – what is special about this performance has to do with a member of the audience with a unique perspective on the story.

The program interprets the life of Ida Rosen Rehr – a real life Jewish immigrant from Ukraine – who settled in Baltimore in the early 20th century. Ida came from a large family in a small shtetl in Ukraine where her father was the town’s rabbi. She left behind her parents and five siblings to join her older sister and uncle in Baltimore. Professional actor Katherine Lyons tells her story as she unpacks a trunk containing reproduced family photos from the JMM collections as well as artifacts meant to represent aspects of her daily life as a Jewish immigrant living in East Baltimore in the early 1900s.

The program was created eight years ago as a means of bringing immigration history – a key JMM theme – to life in an engaging manner for students at Jewish day and congregational schools. Since its inception, the program has been performed for thousands of students, teachers, and adults; it now travels regularly throughout the state (and beyond) to public, private, and parochial schools as well as senior centers and community organizations.

One of the reasons for the program’s success is because of the rich story at its heart. When we initiated this project, JMM staff began combing our archives in search of interesting photographs and documents that we could assemble to tell the story of a fictional character. We were delighted when we stumbled upon a collection of materials devoted to Ida. The collection included a scrapbook filled with handwritten index cards that recorded responses to oral history interview questions that Ida’s granddaughter Roz had conducted with her as a Hebrew school project. The scrapbook also contained photographs that documented Ida’s life and documents such as her naturalization certificate.

With such an abundance of materials devoted to Ida, clearly we had found the right person on whom to base this program.

We became even more excited after we hired historian Dean Krimmel who, thanks to some wonderful detective work, located the ship manifest with Ida’s name on it. From the manifest we learned the address in Baltimore where Ida lived upon arrival, the fact that her sister Minnie paid for her travel, and that she had $5 in her possession when she arrived in Baltimore’s Locust Point!

Ship manifest listing Chaye (Ida’s name before it was changed in the US) Rosen

Dean also managed to get us in touch with Ida’s daughter, Dorothy Sherman, who, at the time, was living in Owings Mills. One of the high points of the entire project was connecting with Dorothy and her daughter Roz (the granddaughter whose scrapbook launched the whole project) and having the chance to fill even more details about Ida’s life. From Dorothy we learned that Ida worked as a seamstress in Sonneborn Factory where she had to struggle with the fact that she had to work on Saturdays (in the performance, she talks about how difficult this was for her as the daughter of a rabbi). We also learned the sad fate of her family who remained in Ukraine – with the exception of one sister, they all perished in the Holocaust. Dorothy donated additional artifacts from Ida for use in the performance including a fabulous coat with a fur collar purchased at Hutzlers that has Ida’s name sewn into the lining!

All of this brings us back to the upcoming performance on Feb. 6. Ida’s great-grandson will be in attendance at the show as will his mother Roz. We are so grateful to the Rehr family for all of their assistance in creating this innovative program and for helping us keep Ida’s memory alive. To learn more about the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk or to schedule a program, please contact Deborah Cardin, 410-732-6400 x236 / dcardin@jewishmuseummd.org.

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