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My grandmother, Sophia Klebanskaya, was 17 when she left Volkovysk for the United States in 1912. Volkovysk was in the Polish part of the Russian Empire then, but it’s in Belarus now. She planned to live with her sister, Jeanette, in Chicago.

I did two oral history interviews with my grandmother before she died in 1990, at age 95. She traveled on the SS Finland from Antwerp to New York, a trip that took 12 days. Sophie remembered traveling in spring; but according to the passenger list, she arrived in New York on December 12. The image shows Grandma and her fellow second class passengers on the SS Finland, showing the life ring with the ship’s name. Grandma is kneeling on the right with the white scarf on her head.

Sophie Klebanskaya on SS Finland, 1912

Grandma was a minor, but she traveled unaccompanied using her older sister Mary’s identity. Even 80 years after that voyage, she clearly remembered seeing another woman passenger sitting quietly, moving her mouth back and forth, looking like a cow chewing her cud. This was the first time grandma had seen someone chewing gum.

Grandma was befriended by a woman on board, a nurse who helped her find the train station once they arrived, so grandma could travel on to Chicago.

Grandma worked as a seamstress in a sweat shop to put herself through college at the University of Chicago. She graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1918, when few women graduated from college at all, much less with a science degree. The image shows her in the middle of the front row as a member of the International Club, from the 1917 University of Chicago yearbook. Interestingly, her name was misspelled as “Kelbans” instead of “Klebans,” the shortened version of Klebanskaya.

Sophie Klebans, International Club, 1917, University of Chicago

Sophie went on to become the first woman bacteriologist at the Chicago Board of Health. The United States was certainly the land of opportunity for her!

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