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Fort Ontario: Where the Holocaust Came to America

Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, NY

August 5, 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the arrival on August 3, 1944 of 982 refugees at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, NY, according to the official announcement of the Planning Committee of the Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

To commemorate the occasion, former refugees, their families, officials, religious leaders and news media were invited to visit the camp. The program included personal memories of life at the shelter, how it was created, and the ways in which the experience “affected and continues to affect,” the former refugees and residents of the city of Oswego.

A memorial service at the graves of refugees was held for those who died either on the ship transporting them from Naples, Italy to the US or during the 18 months they were warehoused at the shelter. In addition, church bells in Oswego rang to commemorate the arrival of the train that brought them to Oswego.

Paul Lear, the shelter’s manager, claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s primary objective in opening the fort was to persuade America’s allies of the country’s determination to rescue the Jews of Europe, and to have them follow his lead by allowing additional European refugees to enter their countries. Unfortunately as Lear points out, Fort Ontario became the only shelter to house refugees in the US during the Second World War.

Setting the Record Straight

That no other countries followed America’s example should not come as a surprise. Historian Ted Morgan notes that after Roosevelt agreed in May, 1944 to allow a small number of Jews into the US outside the regular quota system, he asked Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, to find a suitable venue to settle them. Stimson informed Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr, who had vigorously lobbied the president to allow Jews to enter the country, that he had found an 80 acre unused former army fort to accommodate them.

When Stimson asked “how many people are they really proposing to bring over,” Morgenthau replied, “As near as I have it, this is a token that we, the United States Government, aren’t high and mighty in asking the rest of the world to so something which we aren’t willing to do ourselves. That is what the Germans keep saying. They keep telling their people, ‘Look, here the United States is asking the rest of the world to do something which they are not willing to do themselves.’”

By the time the Morgenthau and John Pehle, who became the first director of the War Refugee Board, met with Roosevelt on June 8, the Allies had already captured Rome. At the meeting, Morgan said that Morgenthau and Pehle informed the president that each week 1,800 refugees were flooding into Allied occupied Italy. Before allowing the refugees to enter the US, Roosevelt asked they be checked to ensure they were free from any contagious diseases.

On June 12, 1944, the president notified Congress that 1,000 refugees would be granted temporary asylum in the US, and would be returned to their home countries at the end of the war. In his message, reprinted in The New York Time, the president said, “To us, the unprovoked murder of innocent people simply because of race, religion or political creed is the blackest of all possible crimes.” Fort Ontario should be viewed as a free port, where items are held, but not permitted to be brought into the country. Morgan concludes “it was a painless way for the president to show his concern ‘for the pitiful plight of the persecuted minorities of Europe.’”

Historians Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut maintain Roosevelt’s approach about not allowing the refugees to enter the country reflected the fear of many Americans about “the growing opposition to unrestricted immigration of Jews,” which Henry Stimson said lead to the post-World I quota system. Jews were not popular in the US Stimson believed, since they were not able assimilate into American society.

The New York Times reported that there were 872 Jews from 18 countries who arrived at Oswego. The remainder were Roman Catholics, Protestants and Russian and Greek Orthodox, who were also escaping Nazi persecution. Most were women and children. Registered as ‘’U.S. Army casual baggage,’’ each refugee had to sign documents pledging to return to Europe at the end of hostilities. Less than 100 complied. Without official status in America, the refugees were detained for seven months after the war, until President Harry S. Truman permitted them to apply for citizenship.

Conditions at Fort Ontario

Historian Henry Feingold noted that these “carefully selected” refugees, who came from milder climates in North Africa and Italy, did not adapt well to the cold weather and to the isolation in northern New York State. Forced to remain behind fences and within the confines of the fort, they felt like prisoners, yet they knew they had not committed any crimes. The result of this irrational treatment led to a number of physical and mental breakdowns.

Feingold explained that a congressional inquiry in 1945 exposed the harmful restrictions imposed on the refugees by the Army, but in 1944, requests to improve conditions by Joseph Chamberlain, director of the National Refugee Service, and Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, were refused by Attorney General Frances Biddle. To Biddle, the refugees were regarded as internees, not immigrants.

A Final Note

“This much heralded move, like so many of Roosevelt’s intermittent gestures on behalf of refugees since 1938, turned out to be more propaganda than prodigy” observed historian Saul S. Friedman. “What had been anticipated as the beginning of a mass transfer of the unfortunates was actually the end.”

Just as Roosevelt ended the free port projects because the US and its Allies did not have the capacity to deal with the massive refugee problem in Europe, 500,000 Hungarian Jews were in dire need of assistance Freidman asserted. After being thoroughly apprised of developments in Hungary by John Pehle, Roosevelt endorsed havens for Jews seeking refuge, then rescinded the order and finally could only offer his sympathies to those who were directly affected by the Holocaust.

Perhaps it is not by accident that a memorial monument at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter is dedicated to the “Fort Ontario Refugees and the millions of victims of the Nazi’s who never had an opportunity to start a new life.”

Dr. Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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