125 years old, 305 feet tall: Happy Birthday, Statue of Liberty

As snow fell across New York harbor, Isabel Belarsky said she clutched her mother, Clara, aboard a passenger ship that puttered toward Ellis Island, and wondered what their new lives would bring.

The year was 1930. About a week earlier, the 10 year-old girl from what is now called Saint Petersburg, Russia, had embarked on a transatlantic journey with her Ukrainian parents from the French port city of Cherbourg, escaping what she described as Jewish persecution at the start of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union.

On an island near Manhattan stood the copper colossus that would etch her first memories of the new world.

"It was a wonderful sight," she said of the Statue of Liberty, which marks its 125th anniversary Friday.

The idea for the monument is thought to have been first conceived at a 19th century dinner party among French aristocrats, historians say, who sought to pay tribute to American liberty.

And while the French gift is also widely believed to have at least in part catered to domestic politics, for many it quickly became a symbol of hope and promise in America's post- Civil War period.

"The arrival on Ellis Island is the fulfillment that you know something good is going to happen to you," said Belarksy, now a 91-year-old widow living in a Russian enclave of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Her family became part of the more than 12 million immigrants processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

Adjacent to Ellis towers Lady Liberty, measuring more than 305 feet from base to torch.

Originally, the statue was supposed to be an Egyptian peasant girl that would have stood at the entrance of Egypt's then-new Suez Canal, historians say, but plans would later evolve into the Roman goddess that would instead adorn New York harbor.

"The sculptor, (Frederic) Bartholdi, was very clever," said Edward Berenson, professor of history and director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University.

"He put (the statue) where he did because its right at the narrows of New York harbor, so he knew that every boat that came into New York would have to come really close to it.

People felt like they could reach out and touch it," he said.

Inspired perhaps by Egypt's colossal statues during his own travels to Cairo, Berenson added, Bartholdi sought to build a monument of his own in a tribute to American liberty and its new found emancipation of slaves.

The statue rests atop a sculpted wrangling of broken chains on New York's Liberty Island.

Only years later, Berenson argues, did the monument come to symbolize immigration to the broader public, despite the structure's engraved plaque bearing the now famous poem by Emma Lazarus, who asks for the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Like many who made the perilous journey, Belarsky said she had often wondered what kind of life was waiting for her on the shores behind the copper monument.

"It was quite frightening," she recalled. "The three of us, my father, my mother and I, wanted for someone to come with money or to tell us whats next."

And though a U.S. law passed six years earlier had largely restricted immigration, her father, Sidor, had managed to secure three tickets to America by way of a talent scout who visited the Leningrad conservatory where he had performed as an opera singer.

"He had such a beautiful voice," she said.