On Aug. 5, 1944, a warm sunny Saturday in Oswego, N.Y., buses holding almost 1,000 mostly Jewish refugees from Europe pulled up to the entrance of the town’s Fort Ontario, a U.S. military site established during the Revolutionary War.
Irving Schild and his family were on that bus. Then 13, the boy from Belgium had already survived a year in a French concentration camp before his mother was able to find refuge in a Catholic seminary in Italy. The Schilds were liberated after the Allies invaded Italy in the fall of 1943.
Elfi Hendell was 10½ in 1944. She also had already survived a concentration camp, and she and her family had been on the run since the Nazis invaded their home city of Vienna in 1938.
As Schild, Hendell and the hundreds of other refugees exited the buses, they were shaken by what they saw: Instead of the freedom in America they dreamed of, they stood before an encampment with barracks surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire.
“A lot of people were shocked by the fence,” Schild, now 88, said in a phone interview. “We thought, ‘Oh, no, not another concentration camp.’ ”
When the staff of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter came out to welcome and feed them, the refugees finally began to believe they were safe at last.
In a country that had refused to help Jews fleeing the Holocaust, they became residents of the first and only government-sanctioned refugee camp for those seeking sanctuary from the Nazis, according to the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego. The museum is dedicated keeping alive the story of the refugees who lived there during the war.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the rescue, and the museum will be holding events to commemorate this often overlooked story of World War II. The shelter housed 982 refugees from 18 countries. The majority were Jews, but there were also 108 Protestants, Catholics and Russian and Greek Orthodox.
They were chosen from 3,000 applicants throughout Italy who had heard of the U.S. rescue through the work of Ruth Gruber, assistant to secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Gruber was sent to Italy as a representative of the newly established War Refugee Board to vet and escort a group of refugees to the United States.
The group arrived in New York on the USS Henry Gibbins, after a two-week voyage that included attacks by German U-boats.
“The United States had a long-standing restrictionist policy on immigration, especially for Jews,” said Sharon Lowenstein-Poisner, author of “Token Refuge: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Shelter at Oswego, 1944-1946.”
The Immigration Act of 1924 still set the standards for immigration quotas to the United States. The act limited total immigration to about 164,000 people per year. The quotas were designed to “protect” America from “undesirable” immigrants, including Jews, Asians, and Africans, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
To get around immigration restrictions, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the refugees on the Henry Gibbins as his special “guests” so they wouldn’t be counted against any immigration quotas, according to Lowenstein-Poisner.
In addition, to be accepted into the program, the refugees had to sign an affidavit guaranteeing they would return to their countries of origin once the war was over.
“We had lost everything,” Schild said. “We had nothing to go home to, but we were desperate and signed anyway.”
Coming in as “guests” rather than immigrants or tourists left the refugees vulnerable to being deported at any time, according to Gruber’s book, “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America.”
“They were stateless, paperless and homeless,” Gruber wrote.
But they were grateful to be taken in and they were welcomed by the Oswego community. Locals came to the shelter’s fence to talk to the refugees and, as they got to know them, passed gifts over the top of the chain-link barrier, including dolls, toys and clothing.
Barracks in the compound were split into apartments for families. Refugees who hadn’t seen sheets, blankets, mattresses and toiletries in years were outfitted with more than they needed. Each apartment had metal cots, a small table, chairs and a metal locker for storage, Gruber writes in “Haven.”
After an initial month of quarantine, the refugees easily assimilated into the community. The town of 22,000 welcomed them into their schools, stores and daily lives. The only problem was the restrictions placed on their movements.
The War Refugee Board decided that the refugees were not allowed to work outside the camp. “No one could leave even overnight; they could, however, go into Oswego for six hours with a pass,” according to “Haven.”
However, the adults at the camp found a hole in the fence that a person could slip through, and many did just that to visit the town and even take trips outside Oswego.
“My mom went through the fence to visit her relatives in New York,” Hendell said.
Most adults found the work restriction frustrating. But they were paid for maintaining the camp themselves with as few outside employees as possible. Each worker earned $18 a month whether they worked as doctors, chefs, house leaders or maintenance helpers, according to “Haven.”
The adults filled the rest of their time by organizing an advisory council to weigh in on camp issues, forming art and literature clubs, taking English classes and putting out a camp newspaper. Entertainers and musicians put on shows, featuring a well-known opera singer from Yugoslavia who was one of the refugees.
“Coming to the States was fantastic,” said Schild, who went on to become a renowned photographer. “I went to school for the first time in my life and it was the first time in my life I didn’t live in danger.”
Six weeks after the refugees entered Fort Ontario, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp.
“It was very exciting. I made it my business to be at the entrance of the camp to see her as she arrived,” Hendell, now 86, said in an interview.
Roosevelt’s visit gave a boost to the refugees, who worried about their immigration status. Would they be allowed to stay when the war was over? Would they be sent back at a moment’s notice to the Nazis?
The first lady’s support for the refugees calmed their worries, but ultimately, “she couldn’t do anything for us as far as our legal status,” Schild said.
That was left to President Roosevelt, who had been hesitant to commit resources to saving the Jews. The administration had known about the Nazi concentration camps and the “Final Solution.” In fact, Breckinridge Long, assistant to the secretary of State, had blocked information about Hitler’s atrocities so the public wouldn’t find out and pressure the government to help.
Long, well known for his anti-Semitic views, claimed the murder of Europe’s Jews was a “war rumor,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The State Department was also still referencing a 1938 poll, which showed that two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the proposition that we should try to keep European Holocaust victims out of the country.
More and more news reports were coming out about Hitler’s war machine and the death camps and by 1943, public sentiment had shifted.
On Oct. 6, 1943, demands that the government do something about refugees came to a head. That day, more than 500 Orthodox rabbis met at the steps of the Capitol with leading members of Congress. The religious group presented a petition to pressure the United States to help Jews dying in Europe, according to Rafael Medoff, founding director of the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which studies the American response to the Holocaust.
The group then marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to hand over the petition to Roosevelt. But the president refused to meet with them, Medoff said.
“Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at White House,” read the front-page headline in the next day’s Washington Times-Herald.
After the march made national news, more Jewish groups urged the president to try to save Europe’s Jews. Late in 1943, the White House commissioned a Gallup Poll to gauge American sentiment. This time, 70 percent approved the idea of the United States providing temporary protection and refuge to Europeans persecuted by the Nazis.
Finally, Roosevelt was convinced it was politically safe to help out Europe’s Jews and he established the War Refugee Board in January 1944.
Throughout the spring of 1944, the board, which consisted of officials from the departments of War, State and Treasury, received requests for the Allies to bomb either the rail lines that transported Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenow death camp, its gas chambers or the entire camp, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. There were still about 800,000 Jews in Hungary who could be saved, Lowenstein-Poisner said.
But the War Department refused, saying bombing Auschwitz would divert the military from its main objective — to win the war as quickly as possible.
Many of the refugees in Fort Ontario had relatives in Hungary and hoped they could be saved.
Finally, in the spring of 1945, the war in Europe was over. In the Fort Ontario camp, “the joy at seeing the fall of the Nazis was tempered by anxiety about what was to come next,” according to “Haven.”
“As I got older and understood more, I sometimes feel we were used by Roosevelt,” Schild said. “He was a good president in some ways. But he was coming up for reelection, and I think he took us in to show that he did something for the Jews.”
After FDR’s death, Harry Truman became president. On Dec. 22, 1945, Truman issued a directive that allowed the refugees to stay in the United States.
For most, this was the start of a new life that was denied them in Europe.
Schild moved to New York City with his parents. He became the main photographer for MAD magazine for 50 years.
Hendell also moved to New York City, where she had relatives. She worked as a longtime therapist and social worker.
In February 1946, the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter closed its doors for good.
At the time, the United States was a savior for the 982 who were welcomed at Fort Ontario. But in consideration of the millions who perished under the Nazis, it’s now seen as a token gesture by many historians.
“It was a tiny handful of people who were rescued,” Medoff said. “It was sadly consistent with the U.S. government’s stance at the time.”
The Fort Ontario shelter didn’t serve as a prototype or a new way of dealing with immigration, Lowenstein-Poisner said. “You could also say,” she added, “it’s become symbolic of how we treat refugees and immigrants today.”
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