A New Life

Charles Fournier and Dr. Frank in the cellar at Viniefera Wine Cellars.

A noted viticulture expert in Europe, Dr. Konstantin Frank came to the U.S. in 1951 with no job prospects, no English and very little money. His determination led him to Geneva, and the Finger Lakes became his home. In his new book about the man, Tom Russ tells us how.

On December 15, 1951, the USNS General R.M. Blatchford sailed into a blustery New York Harbor. On board were more than 1,200 refugees and displaced persons from fourteen eastern European countries. The Blatchford was engaged in troop transfers in the Pacific Theater throughout World War II, but after the war, it was put to use transporting refugees from Europe to new homes in Australia and the United States. Its last trip in that capacity was to sail from Bremerhaven, Germany, to New York City. The passengers were interviewed and processed on board, but it was two days before they were finally cleared by customs officials to enter the United States. They collected their few belongings and disembarked in small groups, setting foot in their adopted country for the first time. Among the refugees were Dr. Konstantin Frank, his wife and their three grown children.

The Zahorskys [friends of the Franks] had arranged a small apartment for the Franks and a job for Konstantin as a dishwasher at the Horn and Hartart Automat. Upon release from the Ellis Island’s immigration center, the Franks moved into the dingy apartment in Lower Manhattan. The apartment was small for the five adults, infested with cockroaches and, in the midst of the New York City winter, quite cold. Frank’s job as a dishwasher on the night shift at a Horn and Hartart Automat brought in some much-needed cash and allowed him time to look for a better situation during the day. The family conserved their small savings and struggled to get along on the little money Frank was earning as a dishwasher. Eugenia [Konstantin’s wife] had sewed much of the family’s savings into the linings of Hilda’s and Lena’s winter coats before they left Germany. When they needed to dip into the savings, one of the girls would produce her coat, and Eugenia would rip out enough of the lining to remove the needed amount and sew the coat back up. To keep expenses low, they bought dayold bread and dried it so that it would keep longer. They would hang the bread from a clothesline in the apartment to keep the roaches away, but it had to be watched constantly to prevent the resident mice from crawling along the clothesline and eating it.

The fact that none of the Franks spoke fluent English was a problem. Work was a challenge for anyone to find, but for non-English-speaking displaced persons (or “DPs,” as they were increasingly and derisively called), it was especially slow in coming. Willy spoke some English that he had learned in the American prison camp and from students at the University in Nurnburg. A quick study, he was able to pick up more in relatively short order. He would take his sisters to local movies, where, for a nickel, they could sit all day, reel after reel, learning the language from the movie stars and the newsreels of the day. Konstantin and Eugenia, however, did not go to the movies, and for them the new language was a trial. Hilda and Lena eventually began to take classes to improve their English. Everyone in the family spoke at least three languages – German, Ukrainian and Russian. Konstantin spoke at least five languages – including German, Russian, Polish and French – but English was the language he needed, and he struggled to learn it.

Soon after arriving in New York, Konstantin began to look for work in agriculture, ideally conducting research, as he had in the Ukraine, but with limited financial resources and no contacts, progress was slow. He wrote letters to government agencies and universities, but after several months of effort yielded no indication that he would be able to find suitable work in the United States, he began to lose heart. Frank wrote in his letters to friends, “I left Germany in November of 1951 with my family and hope to find suitable employment in the U.S.A., if possible in an agricultural or Testing Station or on a large farm on the basis of my thirty years of practical and scientific activities in Germany and Russia. I hope to be able to be helpful to my new country.”

Dismayed by the lack of work and the family’s dismal living conditions, he began to think about returning to Germany. He was well known in his profession there and had many longtime professional contacts and friends. Before he had left for the States, he had received several generous offers for work in prestigious positions in Germany. Perhaps one of them might still be available. Returning to Europe would be admitting defeat, though, and he had no stomach for that. Nevertheless, having found no opportunities in the land of opportunity, Frank wrote to his contacts in Germany to inquire about work.

Colleagues in Germany wrote that indeed there was work for him there but suggested that before he gave up, he should look into the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva – noting its fine reputation and the prominence of Cornell University as an agricultural school. They pointed out that the climate and conditions of the Finger Lakes resembled those of the agricultural experiment station he had managed on the former Troubetskoy estate and that his experience and knowledge would therefore be of particular value. The Finger Lakes region in central New York was climatically comparable to the lands along the Ukraine’s Dnieper River, with similar geography of sloping lands and adjacent deep water. Konstantin agreed that his academic and professional work growing vinifera grapes in cold climates was especially applicable. With renewed hope, he wrote to the Geneva Experiment Station seeking employment. Such was his confidence that the institution would welcome his experience and skills that the refusal letter was no deterrent. He simply got on the bus.

At home in the Ukraine, Frank had been the technical director of a large agricultural experiment station, had received honors for his work restoring and managing large collective farms, was a noted inventor of farm implements and was a leading researcher in the field of viticulture, specializing in growing wine grapes in cold climates. He arrived in the United States with no professional contacts, very little money, no English and no prospects, but he brought with him thirty years of experience, a passion for science, an indomitable confidence and a driving ambition to distinguish himself in his new homeland just as he had in the old country. Like so many of their fellow refugees, the middle-aged agricultural scientist and his wife of nearly thirty years were starting over, beginning a new life together. Sustained by the pioneer spirit of their ancestors, they intended to fully embrace the promise of America.

When Frank arrived in Geneva in early April, 1952, that promise lay before him, the future shimmering with hope and possibility. At the experiment station, he was at first welcomed as a colleague who had dropped by for an expected visit. He was given a tour and introduced to some staff and researchers, relying on several German-speaking staff members to interpret for him. He pressed his hosts for an employment opportunity, but they were fully staffed, and there was no position for a senior scientist with his qualifications at that time. The only work available for him was a grantfunded position studying field nursery methods, but it was, in a sense, work in his field. Frank accepted the position, anticipating that if he were present and working, better opportunities were more likely to come his way. Besides, it would allow him to get his family away from the squalid circumstances in Manhattan. It was a start.