By Samantha Turner
Prior to the spring of 1909 upon her departure, Sophie grew up in a world where hunger and terror were very much alive. Thus, living in the Ukraine as a young girl, was all but pleasant. As crop failure, land and job shortages, rising taxes, and famine took over the place Sophie once knew as her home many fled the region at the time in search for a better life, and as Sophie herself grew older, she wanted to join them. In the spring of 1909, half a decade before the United States would be drawn into the first world war in a busy city with the smell of saltwater in the air and the sound of people’s heals hitting the stone roads, a young girl named Sophie Joele Pellpshen boarded a ship heading for the United States of America.
Sophie, being only seventeen at the time, was fretful yet animated about the journey ahead of her. She stood upon the metal floor beneath her, listening to the waves smack against the walls of the ship, and the roar of overlapping voices behind her interrupted by the blare of the ships horn, telling those it carried that it was about time to depart, and she imagined what the new world would look like. Along her journey, Sophie kept a journal, and in it she wrote, “As I made my way aboard the ship that would be taking me to my new life, I had no idea what the journey would entail. I was only seventeen, and yet I was on the very Journey Henry and I always dreamed of, however, Henry wasn’t with me. Not yet.”
The journey overseas for immigrants during the early 1900’s was known to be a very dangerous one. Sophie herself, wrote about how horrifying yet exhilarating the journey upon the ship alone, was. Sophie brought to light the actual circumstances of travel and how one set such dangers aside, for the prospect of obtaining a better life. In her journal, Sophie wrote, “The ship was full of many people and of many smells. Everyone was in close quarters and there was never any silence. At night the ocean was wild. The waves threatened to engulf the ship, and the air was cold and harsh. I never did get much sleep, I don’t think anyone really did.” With the pitter-patter of many feet, mixed with the sound of babies crying in the background, and Sophie’s own neighbor’s speaking in their thick Ukrainian language having not yet learned English, Sophie found herself trying to absorb it all, not wanting to forget any part of where she came from.
Over the next year, upon arrival in Manhattan, New York, Sophie found herself staying in an old run-down house with many other Ukrainian’s that had arrived prior to her. Women and children filled the streets, some with laughter, and some with whispers. The reality of the new world that Sophie had once imagined so differently, was cold and unexpected at first. Sophie wrote, “Manhattan was busy, just like the town I walked, upon my first step aboard the ship that brought me over here. Though the eyes of the natives never wonder. They’re cold and hard, they look right through you. Not liking the fact that we are here.” Sophie did all she could to ignore such behavior, and over time found life in the big city to get easier.
In Manhattan at the time, work was described as “everywhere”. Dark smoke from the factories where most of the men worked roared across the sky. Shops of all kinds lined the stone roads with men and women of all ages. The city was brutally loud, with no sense of silence, not even in the dark of night. With the amount of job availability and need for money, Sophie later found herself working as a saleswoman in the local town shops. In 1910, Sophie’s husband Henry joined her in Manhattan. Henry and Sophie began to build their new life together, in their new home.
In the early 1900’s, factories were rarely in need of workers. Many immigrant men filed through the doors in need of a job to support one’s self or family. Henry Pellpshen, Sophie’s husband, became one of the many immigrant laborers during this time in history; having been a drop-forge factory worker. With the money that was being made from such factory work, Sophie later stopped working herself, as much had to do with the desire to stay home, stemming from the image of her own mother always having been a housewife. Of which was a simple ideal that Sophie grew up with. Henry had much desire to provide for himself as well as his wife, as though he was seen to do so. Within her journal, Sophie wrote, “I love that Henry is now with me in this big city, though I worry. Many of the men where we came from are seen to have taken the factory jobs, as did Henry. However, such work is awfully dangerous. Henry comes home dirtier than when he left, with little energy and cut up hands.”
As factory work continued, Sophie and Henry eventually gained enough wealth to obtain their own home. Soon came three daughters of which were born in 1913, 1920, and 1926. During this time, Henry continued to work in a drop-forge factory, and Sophie stayed at home with their children. However, money became scarcer with the addition of three daughters. Work was abundant, however, with only a fourth grade level of education, the only jobs available were low-paying, consistent with much labor. As time stretched on, and, Sophie and Henry were able to save money, they migrated out of the city to a produce farm which soon became profitable. Several years had passed when Henry and Sophie received notice some of Henry’s family had moved to Lansing, Michigan.
With the prospect of achieving a better life, came the sacrifice of having to leave behind all of what she once knew in Ukraine which included her parents. Upon gaining the life she once always dreamed of, and living in a new world full of many prospects, came the ability to reach help others leave the Ukraine. In 1946, Sophie decided to reunite with her parents and give them the opportunity to migrate to the U.S. as did she. During her journey back to the Ukraine, aboard the ship that carried her back to a place she never thought she’d see again, Sophie wrote, “I can’t wait to see my mother and father once again. After all this time they are the ones that deserve to have a better life, just as many others did.” Upon arrival to the Ukraine once again, Sophie noted everything seemed to have been touched by the war. Every family, on every street, in every city. The amount of poverty stricken desperation was thick in the air. As every home looked as though to be worn down and broken. The people were unrecognizable, numb and broken, or yet numb and brainwashed. Even the air was different, as though Sophie’s once childhood home, was no longer a place she knew. She soon learned her father was in Germany, and Sophie became concerned knowing the aftermath of the war. When she had finally found him, Sophie was startled at the appearance of an unrecognizable man.
“His face was hard, and stern,” she wrote, “And his eyes were lifeless, black with no emotion. He looked at me as though he didn’t know who I was, and in that moment, sadness swept over me.” Sophie soon learned her father, the man she once knew so long ago, had no desire to come back to the United States with her. Sophie’s father then revealed he had become and would continue to be a Nazi.
As the anger and sadness set in, and the blood pumped through her veins harder as each minute passed, Sophie found herself weeping behind the brave face she attempted to put on. With no emotion nor reaction, Sophie’s father said his goodbyes as he remained faithful to such a world. Not having the words, Sophie watched as her father walked away with his back to her into the cloud of fog she found him in. Heading for home, Sophie was grateful to leave such a place behind once again. Although she had found her mother, she had to accept the fact that her father had no desire to come back to the U.S. Sophie hoped he would find a world where peace grew present again.
Immigration as a whole, even though desired, was a daunting journey. In the case of Sophie and Henry the journey to the United States provided opportunities for better work, plentiful land, and less poverty. However, with such migration came many hardships. As a childhood home, memories, and native environment was left behind, along with the family that lay within. With such struggles came discrimination that filled the cities and streets of the United States, particularly along the east coast. Work, even though abundant, was rigid, dirty, and labor intensive and with low payment. Sophie and Henry overcame many barriers throughout the history of immigration. Raising three children in a world that was not easy. Sophie and Henry worked many years to obtain the life they always imagined. Then, in the unraveling of truth of her father’s descent into Nazism, ZxzSophie found heartbreak. Immigration in the early 1900’s, especially at a young age, was beyond disconcerting. However, many did achieve the true idea of what it was like to have a better life, as did Sophie and Henry. With having the knowledge of Sophie and Henry’s story, and knowing what all was endured during such immigration to the United States, I gain the ability to reflect on who my great-great grandparents were. With Sophie having kept journals throughout her journey to and from and then back to the Ukraine, her story stays ever so meaningful. Sophie’s journals contained first-hand experiences of what life in the Ukraine was like, immigration in the early 1900’s, and the difficulties that came with immigration. My sense of heritage grew and became strong with having the knowledge of the place that Sophie and Henry immigrated from, and everything they went through to have a better life. Sophie and Henry’s story matters because it allows I as well as many others, to gain more knowledge and understanding of immigration from the Ukraine in the early 1900’s.
Library of Congress. Home Rise of Industrial America Immigration to the United States., Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/risei nd/immgnts/.
Pellpshen, Sophie J. Sophie Joele Pellpshen, 1909-1950.