Upstate New York

September 1939  

German forces have invaded Poland and its planes have bombed Polish cities, including the capital, Warsaw. The attack comes without any warning or declaration of war.– BBC

Hans dragged his luggage behind him. The vast lobby of Grand Central station had hundreds of signs in English and a labyrinth of hallways that tunneled under the streets. It reminded Hans of anthills that he had played with once on a sandy farm. Just a stick into the anthill would release thousands of creatures, hurrying to their invisible destinations. Then they would form into lines and return underground with their treasures, morsels of food, and thousands of ants following.   But now he was one of the ants. He was nobody. He had wanted to become anonymous and in this vast train station he had found anonymity.   He paused studying the signs. An English governess had taught him to make introductions and to write simple business letters. The odd American names – Mohawk, Mohegan, Poughkeepsie, Narragansett, Massachusetts —were utterly confusing. How did people say such words?

Bums slept in corners of the station and Hans stepped carefully to avoid scattered remains of food and cigarettes. He hurried through the station in order to look like a businessman, a furious race with no destination. So many people were rushing around to do important things. What would it take to be like them? After two weeks of searching for work in New York, he realized that he could end up spending a long time as a junior accounting clerk in a business that did not interest him.

Hans Bernsteen wanted to be a photographer. Kodak was in Rochester, New York about an eight-hour train ride away. Reading board after board, he found a schedule of trains that went to Rochester, and approached a ticket agent.

The Erie Lackawanna train pulled out of Penn Station, headed upstate. As it left the city, Hans scrutinized his surroundings. The coach was full of travelers.   Men were reading newspapers. Nobody was looking out the windows as the train pulled north. He did look. The shadows of Harlem were even darker than Manhattan’s. Jazz had been born and become popular in Harlem, but he had stayed away from its intimate dark cellars. The Bernsteen teenagers had imagined that Jazz came from grand hotels and nightclubs with crystal lights, and cocktails with twists of lemon. A glittering stage would separate dark skinned musicians from the patrons. The letter he wished to write to Esther and Max might have been about seeing a great dance band and meeting a beautiful blonde. The realities of New York were so different from his expectations.

Harlem was bleak and dirty. The blockhouses had laundry hanging on lines from the windows, that is, when the windows were not broken out. The overall impression was of a war zone.   Evidence of poverty was everywhere, not just a few bums out of work, but of an entire community without homes or workplaces.

Following the river, lovely homes with broad lawns appeared. The train tracks went along back yards, but wood framed houses and gardens were neatly lined up along wider streets. The houses were painted in colors. Brick was used as trim, and the whole effect was one that seemed cheap to him. The sturdy brick houses of Amsterdam had stood for centuries, and many of these seemed to have been built quickly.

The Hudson Valley washed into view, with broad tributaries leading away from the river.   The dense hillsides and their broad trees painted a tapestry of greens and golds, reflecting an autumn sun above. Oh, if only he had colored film and a day to wander these hills.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” A new passenger had sat down next to him, stout and sweating.  He wiped his face with a handkerchief, opened his briefcase, and settled a newspaper onto his lap. For some reason, he decided to read the comics first. Here the world was imploding, and an adult man wanted to read the funnies. Well, people were strange. The man responded to his gaze. “Where you headed?”


“Good God, why? It’s cold up there. Damn winds blow off the lake and the whole town freezes over.”

“Today?” Actually, Hans would have welcomed a blizzard at this point.

“Nah, not today. Lots of mosquitos though.   Got mosquitos the size of small birds. Suck you dry.” The man turned back to his paper, this time opening up the sports section. Football season was in full swing. Hans had no concept of American football, except that they dressed up in strange gladiator armor with helmets. They wore brightly colored pants as well – tight, like ballet dancers.   Most of the time the players seemed to be piled on the ground, in some sort of grotesque wrestling match.

“I want to work for Eastman Kodak.”

The man did not look up from his paper. “What do you do?”

“I’m a photographer, but I have been processing my own film since I was eight years old.”

“You mean you want to make a living taking pictures? What kind of luck do you think you’re gonna have?”

“They use pictures in advertising and magazines. I can take pictures of things to sell.”

“Maybe, but that work is all in New York. You’re going the wrong direction.”

“My boss in New York thought I would like Rochester.”

The stout man shook his head. “I’ll bet he did.” He pulled his newspaper up over his face, and pretended to read it.