By Miranda Bannister
An emergency refugee shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY, was America’s only refugee camp for Holocaust survivors. Admitted to the U.S. as “guests” under an Executive Order by President Roosevelt, the survivors were confined within the camp for nineteen months, their legal status ambiguous and their future in the U.S. unassured. Two unique artifacts in the collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage illustrate the uncertainty of the refugees’ futures both inside the camp at Fort Ontario and beyond its walls.
The 982 survivors admitted to the camp arrived at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York on August 5, 1944, after a lengthy sea voyage starting in Naples, Italy. The group included survivors from eighteen different countries. The majority had already survived concentration camps in Europe. However, reaching the camp in the U.S. provided little guarantee of what their futures would hold.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially accepted the refugees as “guests,” a designation that allowed the group to circumvent the country’s tight immigration quotas. Nevertheless, their ambiguous legal status meant that the residents of the camp at Fort Ontario would have to return to Europe at the conclusion of the war. In the meantime, they were unable to leave the camp or travel within the U.S., even to see American relatives living outside of the camp.
A letter from Joseph H. Smart, the Director of the Friends of Oswego, reveals the contentious debate over the admission of these refugees into the U.S. The letter, which is part of the Permanent Collection at the Museum, is signed by over 100 members of the Sponsors Committee of the organization.
Smart writes, “Many of us have been working SIX MONTHS in this campaign. Will you take tomorrow away from your regular duties and persuade your friends, or committees, or organizations, or church and fraternal groups, to ACT NOW to save the refugees? The day after tomorrow may be too late!”
On December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman who had replaced President Roosevelt following his death on April 12, 1945, issued a directive that required existing immigration quotas be designated for displaced persons. Officials at the Fort Ontario camp were soon told to utilize January quotas, which placed pressure on them and the refugees to fix relocation plans with extreme haste and empty the camp within less than six weeks.
Time was of the essence in resettling the refugees. Management at Fort Ontario sought to count the camp’s residents within January immigration quotas, which meant that every person who hoped to obtain permanent residence in the U.S. had to be transported to the American Consulate in Niagara Falls, Canada by January 31, 1946. Before reaching Niagara Falls, each of the refugees needed to have a fixed destination mutually agreed upon by both the refugee and community leaders from the city where the refugee would resettle.
President Truman’s order took the War Relocation Authority—the body responsible for the refugee camp—by surprise. Several days later, the War Relocation Authority delegated the task of relocating Oswego’s refugee residents to the National Refugee Service.
In addition to the extreme time constraints, limited housing availability around the country also posed a challenge for resettlement. A report from the National Refugee Service describes the concerned reactions of many of the Jewish communities around the U.S. when asked by the Refugee Service to accept definite quotas of refugees, stating, “Some communities agreed to accept their share only when and if housing was available; other communities suggested a limitation on the people they would accept to lone individuals or couples who could be housed in a room since apartments or houses were unavailable.”
The report describes how the demographic composition of the camp further complicated community placement. The camp predominantly consisted of women, children, and the elderly, due to President Roosevelt’s initial restriction prohibiting the admittance of male refugees of fighting age who, he thought, could join the fight in Europe. However, many of the communities accepting refugees from the camp in Oswego were reluctant to admit individuals with limited employment options: i.e. women, children, and the elderly.
As the report by the National Refugee Service put it, “These “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” were tremendous handicaps to resettlement.”
Inside the camp at Fort Ontario, conditions were claustrophobic, which mounted another serious obstacle for residents and officials alike.
Paperboard walls provided families with their own rooms but did little to prevent the travel of noise. Bathrooms in the barracks were communal. Conditions were so cramped behind the fenced-in walls that eighteen months earlier, many of the refugees had believed they were being interned in another concentration camp when they first glimpsed the barracks.
Unsurprisingly, these conditions facilitated the rapid spread of rumors, fueling fears and anxieties that the residents felt about relocation and the possibility of being rejected in their adoptive communities.
The National Refugee Service report states, “There simply is no privacy in camp life such as at Oswego. The fears, problems, prejudices of any individual appear in an exaggerated form and become the property of all. Plans for an individual frequently became exposed to group thinking in the camp. Therefore, the usual client-worker controls which operate in our community setups did not prevail in Oswego. For example, if a worker agreed on a particular community with a refugee and then the community refused to accept the individual, not only was there the necessity of helping this refugee face this rejection, but other refugees upon learning of this experience would not consider that particular city. It cannot be overemphasized that these people felt rejected.”
The sense of hurry heightened anxieties as well. The report states, “Time was of the essence; resettlement had to be ‘talked through’ in one or at most two interviews. If places for resettlement were uncertain, it was impossible to give the refugee a feeling that he really had a place to go where he would be truly welcomed.”
In its heart-wrenching and poignant picture of the camp’s closure, the report by the National Refugee Service also alludes to the enduring spirit of the survivors at the camp. It states, “Amid the grimness and pressures were also humor and pathos.”
Much of this humor poked fun at the unknown. Dubin recalls, “One old lady approached me one evening with some trepidation to tell me that she was going to Kansas City where she had relatives and now people in the camp were chiding her for agreeing to go there because this city was full of cowboys and walking the street there was precarious.”
Stories of Al Capone and other famous American gangsters had evidently reached the refugees, because the report states, “We got some reactions from the shelter residents that Chicago was not desirable because of the prevalence of gangsters.”
The matriarch of one family relocating to Rhode Island told a camp official, “My husband, the Shlemiel, he had to be the one to choose the smallest state in America in which to resettle.”
On February 4, 1946, the camp was officially closed. Within five weeks, every resident of the camp had been relocated, and the history of America’s one and only refugee camp for Holocaust survivors had come to an end. The final words of Dubin’s report read, “Above all, the wholehearted and enthusiastic response of the Jewish Communities throughout the country made it possible to close the shelter so rapidly that for the refugees, Oswego is only a vivid memory.”