The United States Gets Involved In December 1941, the United States was pulled into the WWII and the horror of the Holocaust. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a symbolic gesture by sending his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes and Dr. Ruth Gruber to Italy. Their goal was to bring back 1,000 war refugees to the United States.
Dr. Ruth Gruber “Mother Ruth” as the refugees call her, selected refugees and escorted them from Naples, Italy to the United States. She was given a strict set of criteria for choosing the refugees including: Lost relatives in the Holocaust Had family members in the United States Had talents that could help run the American shelter Had helped in the Allies war effort
Who were the Refugees? A total of 982 refugees from 18 different countries made the trip. Males 525 Females 457 Country of Citizenship Yugoslavia, Austria, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Belgium, France, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey, Spain, Greece, Italy, Holland, and Danzig.
Who were the Refugees? The refugees spoke the following languages German, Italian, Yugoslavic, English, French, Polish, Spanish, Bulgarian, and some other miscellaneous languages. Refugees practiced the following religions Judaism, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant Before the war, they had the following occupations Medical, merchants, artisans, bookkeepers, lawyers, manufacturers, tailors, and rabbis.
The Trip to the United States Before leaving Italy, all refugees had to sign a document stating that after the war, they would return to their home nation. They were considered “guests” of President Roosevelt. They were tagged as U.S. Army Casual Baggage for identification. The trip across the Atlantic Ocean took two weeks. Refugees faced cramped conditions and unbearable heat, but it was all worth it when they pulled into New York Harbor.
The Trip to the United States Refugee Eva Kaufmann Dye remembers, "It was very cramped quarters on the ship. It was made for American soldiers, with bunks that slept two and two and two, which is six stacked on top of each other. The other half of the ship was full of wounded soldiers. It was beastly hot."
Arriving in Oswego, New York After the initial wonder and excitement of arriving in America, the refugees faced some uncertainty. The train ride from the city to Oswego reminded some of the refugees of the train rides to the concentration camps. Upon arrival at Fort Ontario, many refugees became nervous at the site of the barbwire fences and did not wish to enter. Camp director Joseph Smart convinced one refugee to enter the camp and report back to the others what was inside.
Entering the Camp The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was opened on Friday August 5, 1944. This shelter was the only camp on American soil for Holocaust refugees. Refugees were to be quarantined for 30 days to ensure the public’s health.
Where was the Shelter? The shelter was set up on the bluff overlooking Lake Ontario. Some of the refugees referred to this place as their “villa by the sea”. The barracks were two stories tall with bathrooms at the end of each hall. They were made of wood and had no insulation.
Life in the Camp Refugees were expected to work for their keep in the camp. Everyone had a job and duties to ensure that the camp ran smoothly and everyone’s needs were taken care of. The government provided food and shelter, but the rest was up to the refugees. Teachers from the town and state college came to the Fort to teach English to all of the refugees.
Life in the Camp Children went to Oswego schools and spent their afternoons on the fort grounds playing soccer and other games. Women learned skills such as hairdressing and sewing to make needed items for the home. The refugees put on theater shows and put together their own newspaper called “The Ontario Chronicle”. Refugees were allowed to leave the camp but only for a maximum of six hours a day and could only travel within the city limits of Oswego. It was common for teenagers to sneak out of the fort to socialize with local teenagers.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt strongly believed in extending a helping hand to those who were persecuted. She visited the Fort Ontario Shelter and lobbied to Congress to allow them to stay in the country.
What Happened When the War is Over? On December 22, 1945 President Harry Truman signed an executive order allowing the refugees to remain in the country. In order to be granted citizenship though the refugees had to leave the country and then return. February of 1946, Truman granted permission for the refugees to be bussed across the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. Upon reentry into the U.S., Truman had the necessary paperwork for visas and citizenship waiting for the refugees.
What Happened When the War was Over? Seventy communities across the nation invited the refugees to come live there. Most of the refugees ended up in New York City or on the West Coast. About 100 refugees chose to return to their home countries in Europe. Those that chose to stay became successful, productive members of society- 2 went to Harvard, 1 helped develop the MRI and CAT scans, and 1 was placed in the space program. There were 22 babies born in the camp.
What Happened to the Camps Once the Refugees Left? A few months after their departure, the camp was dismantled. Some of the barracks were plowed into Lake Ontario but most of it was hauled off to the junk yard. Some buildings still stand today in remembrance of what use to be.
“It is a chapter of the history of the United States. It’s a chapter in the history of Judaism. It should be told, it should be remembered. And it should never be forgotten.” -Adam Munz, Safe Haven Refugee