In 1944, many Americans were opposed to taking in European refugees who had been displaced by World War II. In the midst of this unwelcoming climate, 982 refugees, many of whom were Jewish, arrived in Oswego, New York. Here, they were housed at Fort Ontario, the United States’ only refugee camp during the war. In order to be allowed to come to the United States, the refugees had to promise to return to Europe after the war ended. They also faced other difficulties, such as having no legal status in the United States and being unable to work while in the camp.
This Museum program explores life at Fort Ontario during World War II. The program features an introductory presentation by Rebecca Erbelding, historian, archivist, and curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, followed by a conversation with Doris Schechter and Ben Alalouf, survivors who lived at Fort Ontario, moderated by journalist and Columbia professor Keren Blankfeld. The program is co-presented with Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum.
Watch the program below.
Recording transcript for America's Refugee Camp: Voices of Fort Ontario
This program’s original recording transcript is below. This transcription was created automatically during a live program so may contain inaccurate transcriptions of some words.
Sydney Yaeger (she/her): Welcome everyone, my name is Sydney Yaeger and i'm the public programs coordinator at the Museum of Jewish heritage, a living memorial to the Holocaust.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): It is my honor to introduce today's program america's refugee camp voices of for Ontario.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): joining us today our doors schechter and then i'll aloof to survivors who lived up for it Ontario Rebecca are building historian archivist and curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial museum.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): Karen blank fill journalist and Columbia professor and Judy co rapoport president of the safe haven Holocaust refugee shelter museum, so thank you all so much for joining us.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): I would like to thank the safe haven Holocaust refugee shelter museum for co presenting this program with us.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): And we're going to begin with remarks from Judy who will also read into the light operation safe haven July 1944 a poem by Ruth safe with rosenthal.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): After that Rebecca will give a presentation about for Ontario and we will then move into a conversation with Ben and Doris moderated by Karen.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): feel free to share questions in the zoom Q amp a box throughout the program and we will get to as many as we can, during the hour and now, without further ado i'm going to hand things over to Judy.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: I just wanted to make a correction i'm no longer the President before just a director of the museum so Kevin hill is the current President of the museum okay.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: into the light operation safe haven July 1944 by Ruth Sabbath rosenthal from Walt Whitman and you that Shell cross from shore to shore years hands are more to me and more to my meditations than you might suppose that's from crossing the brooklyn fairy.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: Ruth Thank God for you Henry givens ship of dreams laden with bedraggled brethren dark and fair tall and short all for our bones and gone.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: Each and every one is survivor reborn in the wake of conscience blessed that are their leaders Ruth Gruber.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: and rehabilitation officer Captain Lewis corn praise the leader of all Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: And thanks to use smiling crew your helpful hands, and you, the great vessels stalwart bulk hallowed halls the sky crown decks surrounded by see speckled rail, a far cry from barbed wire.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: divine are you clean fresh air that fills something chest lungs ashen from the fires of Auschwitz Birkenau Bergen belsen broken walls Doc how to blank up.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: And you boys and see how revered you are for strong currents changing ties goals that glide the breeze and assuage foods and wounded spirit.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: And you dining halls bejeweled with vegetables cornucopia of Nice Kaleidoscope of sweets that swell shrunken bellies smooth whether souls, are you America.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: And you saw pillows and amble blankets nestled invest tiers of bunks nightmares you help smother sweet dreams you set in motion.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: You talent shows chess tournaments movies, and beyond belief you glistening white toilets with roll upon roll of toilet tissue are you America.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: America the land beyond my wildest dreams promised land of the free the brave and the lucky almost wondrous weary throng my brethren it is you who are truly America my America.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: The safe haven museum, for the past over 20 years well since 1989 is dedicated to telling the story of the thousand refugees from fear and terror in Europe to hope in America.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: The museum chronicles the refugee story from journey from Europe apprehension upon arrival at Fort Ontario life at the camp and President rooms actions to allow the refugees to stay in the country as legal immigrants.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: The museum also focuses on the people of us we go and their interactions with the refugees, one of the most rum rum memorable quotes about this story is from Walter greenberg we fought with the devil and we won.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: The Museum has undergone extensive renovations.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: And you can visit the museum and the safe haven museum APP or you can visit in person to see the new exhibits Thank you, and now I turn it over to Rebecca Earl building from the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Thank you so much Thank you so much to the Museum of Jewish heritage for bringing us all together and and to everybody here, who is watching.
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Rebecca Erbelding: i'm going to share some overall context about the history of Ford Ontario in the hopes that after our conversation, you will want to learn more and you'll want to go to us, we go and you will want to see the safe haven.
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Rebecca Erbelding: museum, which is a fantastic museum and everyone should visit so i'm going to share my screen now.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The Fort Ontario emergency refugee shelter in oswego New York open at 7:30am on Saturday August 5 1944, as you can see the overnight train is hugging the shores of Lake Ontario and pulling into the camp.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Waiting newsreel crews, as you can see, are capturing military police handing glass containers of milk up to the newly arrived refugees.
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Doris Schechter: Are there there.
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Doris Schechter: Was.
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Rebecca Erbelding: That was you guys.
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Doris Schechter: hanging out the window.
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Rebecca Erbelding: I did not know that stretchers carry some of the older passengers who had fallen ill on the two week voyage from Europe.
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Rebecca Erbelding: These 982 refugees represented 18 different nationalities, some were officially stateless and many war tags around their necks i'm going to show this video again because it is very good, and then we can see Doris.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They are identified with the tags as army transport casual baggage the youngest refugee is Henry Moore who was born two days after.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Today i'm sorry two days before the refugees sailed on the Henry Gibbons and the eldest Isaac Cohen had been born in green Eric and civil war.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And the only thing that all of these refugees had in common, was that they all found themselves in La liberated Southern Italy in the summer of 1944.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They all expressed interest in traveling to the United States and they all had signed paperwork acknowledging that they would return to Europe after the war, though some did not remember having done so.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And they would remain in this camp surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire until early 1946 when they were finally officially allowed to enter the United States as immigrants.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So it seems like a pretty simple story nearly 1000 refugees arrived they live in oswego peacefully for about a year and a half, and then the existence of this camp was was largely forgotten by the wider world.
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Rebecca Erbelding: But it is actually not a very simple story, you have the US Government, which is nervous about how the American people will react to the creation of a refugee camp on American soil.
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Rebecca Erbelding: You have a small town in upstate New York, where the refugees immediately become 5% of the population upon their arrival and then, most importantly, you have the refugees.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Who did not always practice, the same religion, they did not always speak the same language and they had very different different Holocaust experiences some survived camps like Doc how Duke involve others lived in hiding for years or spent years on the run as a refugee.
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Rebecca Erbelding: In January 1944 Roosevelt finally announced to the the United States would try to rescue Jews and other victims Nazi persecution.
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Rebecca Erbelding: He created a new government agency, called the war refugee board to carry out this mission and the board operated for the next 17 months in dozens of countries and probably saved 10s of thousands of lives.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And one of the first suggestions and a suggestion that was repeated by multiple humanitarian groups after the war, if you do borders created was that the United States needed to create or encouraged havens for refugees.
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Rebecca Erbelding: In March 1944 two members of the refugee board staff wrote a memo about the possibility of creating a refugee haven here in the US.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They argued that the word refugee board could not be pressuring other countries to take in refugees, if the United States and not themselves expressed a willingness to do so.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And they wrote the enemy must not be given the pretense of justification that the allies, while speaking in horrified terms of the Nazi treatment of Jews never once offered to receive these people, the moral aspect of the problem is preeminent.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They also knew, though, that 1944 is an election year, and they were going to have to convince Roosevelt.
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Rebecca Erbelding: That this idea was going to help him and not hurt him so they proposed that the refugees be treated like prisoners of war.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They would come to the United States enter outside of the immigration quotas and then return to Europe as soon as the war was over.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The word refugee word started a propaganda campaign in the spring of 1944 getting friendly newspaper columnist and radio broadcasts to call for refugee camps.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The White House commissioned a public opinion poll, which said that if the protection was temporary if people did not work outside the camp and if they returned to Europe after the war was over 71% of the country approved of this idea.
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Rebecca Erbelding: But Roosevelt knew that Congress was not going to approve this plan and he said he would approve it.
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Rebecca Erbelding: If the war refugee word could give him an emergency something to point to to say, this is why, creating a refugee camp was necessary and the board very quickly found one.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They learned that the allied military was fighting its way up the boot of Italy, but was turning away rickety wooden boats of refugees, carrying.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Boats carrying refugees from Yugoslavia across the Adriatic Sea they were trying to land in allied occupied territory for safety so.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They argued that, if we brought people from southern Italy, to the United States that would create more room for refugees to escape from enough from Nazi territory.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So on June 1 1944 Roosevelt told the war, if you do board to secure a camp in the United States.
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Rebecca Erbelding: A few locations were floated but the war department finally offered Ford Ontario in oswego New York, this is a 1942 Chamber of Commerce publication about us we go and I love the tagline here it's very fitting so we go, why not here.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So, three days after D day June 9 1944 Roosevelt publicly announced the establishment of the Ford Ontario emergency refugee shelter.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And within a week, the US we go Chamber of Commerce and to be clear, the town had not been informed in advance.
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Rebecca Erbelding: That they were going to be hosting the refugees they had already informed are formed a special Fort Ontario committee.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And wrote to thank Roosevelt for choosing them for this honor they said that Ford Ontario and institution of us we go will continue to measure up to it's worthy tradition.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The World Refugee board did not have the staff or the expertise to run a camp of civilians, and so it turned to an agency that did the war relocation authority.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They were relocation authority under the Department of the interior was already administering camps.
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Rebecca Erbelding: containing about 120,000 Japanese Japanese Americans who were imprisoned after roosevelt's executive order in 1942.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So this is another complication to the idea that this is an easy story the Ford Ontario refugees were controlled by the same agency that was controlling camps by Japanese Japanese Americans.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Joseph smart who had supervised the heart mountain mini dopa in Granada camps, was appointed the shelter's director.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So in Italy American refugee American aid workers had about six weeks to interview and select 1000 refugees to go to Fort Ontario they had to make sure they pass the medical tests, make sure they arrived on the dock.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Nearly 3000 refugees interviewed to come and choosing was difficult officials prioritized older refugees family units, women and children.
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Rebecca Erbelding: One wrote back to his family, I had the opportunity to see for the first time, the special passports that Nazis issued to Jews each had a big red J stamped on it, the people I saw were the lucky ones, this job was one of the hardest i've ever had to do in my life.
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Rebecca Erbelding: shlomi first wasser was a textile emergent in Vienna until March 1938 when Nazi Germany and Austria His story was seized from him and he was arrested and sent to dotto.
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Rebecca Erbelding: He was imprisoned in Macau and book involved for almost a year before somehow getting sent to a camp in southern Italy.
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Rebecca Erbelding: On the ship to the United States, he reluctantly shared his story to Ruth Gruber who'd been sent by the Department of the interior to accompany the refugees from Europe and ended up becoming a beloved figure too many of them, as you heard from the poem that that Judy shared.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So he was he was very nervous about sharing His story, because it didn't want to put his wife and his daughter at risk they he knew were in the terrorism camp.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And he worried that if he shared his story, they would be targeted while he was at Fort Ontario they were deported and murdered in Auschwitz.
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Rebecca Erbelding: stephanie steinberg a teenager who, you can see here at her graduation from us, we go high school had escaped Germany in the 1930s, with her parents Gertrude and Arthur.
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Rebecca Erbelding: After Arthur lost his job for being Jewish they tried to immigrate they tried to go to Shanghai to South America to the United States, and nothing worked the US quota was filled.
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Rebecca Erbelding: stephanie's father died in an internment camp in Italy in 1940 stuffy and Gertrude lived an uneasy life in a quiet village in central Italy until the Nazis occupied that area in late 1943 and then they went into hiding.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Finally, the towns may or told them that they were at risk and they fled on South they fled South on foot Bari.
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Rebecca Erbelding: earn annoy felled had escaped by boat from Yugoslavia, with her five year old son georgie.
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Rebecca Erbelding: A trip that was supposed to take only 18 hours took a week because German planes spotted their little boat and they hid on an island with very little food waiting for an opportunity to get us up a second chance.
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Rebecca Erbelding: After a two week voyage on August 4 1944 the Henry givens arrived in New York harbor carrying 982 refugees destined for Ford Ontario.
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Rebecca Erbelding: When they arrived in us we go the refugees saw very basic accommodations they saw that the camp was surrounded by a fence.
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Rebecca Erbelding: topped with barbed wire and the fact sunk in that they would be confined in this camp unable to work outside of it for the duration of the war.
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Rebecca Erbelding: They were guests of the President, with no legal status here in the United States.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The town of us we go largely welcome the refugees, and this too is captured in photographs and articles, this is one that was in the New York post, right after the refugees arrived.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And in quotes Edwin waterbury the head of the Chamber of Commerce is saying I don't think any of us expected there'd be so many outstanding people here at the fort.
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Rebecca Erbelding: A large photo spread in life magazine in August 1944 and publicity surrounding Eleanor Roosevelt visit the fort and mid September again further humanized the refugees to the American people.
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Rebecca Erbelding: But the work you do words impetus for creating the camp had been to demonstrate that the US was willing to accept refugees.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And in the hopes that other nations would do so as well, and so the Ford Ontario refugees remain segregated they were visibly identified constantly as temporary refugees.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Many could likely have qualified for us immigration pieces during the war, the quote is we're not being filled.
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Rebecca Erbelding: In in fact 300 of the refugees had already applied for us immigration prior to the war and at least 14 of them had received their visas, but had been trapped by the war.
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Rebecca Erbelding: But roosevelt's promise that the US would return them to their homelands and the need for the symbolism of the fort.
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Rebecca Erbelding: meant that the State Department was not instructed to go and interview people in the hopes that they would be able to be admitted to the US, even if they had close relatives here.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The refugees were not permitted to sleep outside of the camp, except for hospital stays babies were born marriages were celebrated men and women died and were buried and still administration officials remain publicly committed to the refugees return.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So the memories of Ford Ontario refugees, I think a really complicated many were happy to be out of Europe and others felt really betrayed by a nation that they thought would allow them freedom and they didn't appreciate being pawns.
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Rebecca Erbelding: For public relations purposes and some emotions are mixed they are mixed because of emotions related to the camp experience in itself, and some are related to just being human the joy of new babies, the frustration of annoying neighbors and the pain of losing people that you love.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And, by the time the war in Europe ended the President who invited them as their as his guest, who died.
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Rebecca Erbelding: A few of the refugees chose to return return home voluntarily eager to search for family or to rebuild their homelands, the others thought the United States should be their homeland.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Joseph smart suddenly resigned from the Federal Government to fight for the refugees to be allowed to stay Congress investigated, there were hearings.
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Rebecca Erbelding: 14 members of the 40 boy scout troop individually testified under oath that they would take up arms for the United States, if they were allowed to stay.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And one after another us we go supervisor of schools, the public high school principals the elementary school educators all testified to the quality of the refugees.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And the valuable citizens that they become.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And we 60 refugees had immediate family serving in the US military and nearly 100 had parents children or even spouses in the United States people that they may not have seen for years.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The refugees who had given birth had native born American children the hearings ended and the refugees still had to wait.
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Rebecca Erbelding: In the camp newspaper The oswego Chronicle refugee cartoonist map next steps are commemorated the one year anniversary of the refugees arrival through artwork.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And you can see the top of the cartoon shows the refugees on August 5 1944 excitedly waving.
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Rebecca Erbelding: At the Statue of Liberty and a year later, you can see a refugee, using a telescope to try to peer at the far distance statue as others crowd Defense so the meaning is clear freedom felt very far away.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Finally, on December 22 1945 President Truman signed an executive order permitting the refuge the Ford Ontario refugees to finally officially enter the United States.
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Rebecca Erbelding: But there was one last and dignity, because they had never officially entered the United States, they had to leave, so that they could officially enter the United States, so over a period of weeks in January in February 1946.
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Rebecca Erbelding: The refugees got up very, very early they had some coffee and some donuts and they boarded a bus and they drove to the Niagara falls consulate in Canada, so that they could turn around and enter as official new immigrants.
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Rebecca Erbelding: A year earlier when the refugees had been at the fort for only about four months NBC hosted a live radio program from us, we go entitled Christmas and freedom.
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Rebecca Erbelding: featuring the refugees, the vast majority of whom were Jewish singing Christmas carols to the American people this Thursday will be the 77th anniversary of the broadcast.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Dorothy Thompson the famous female journalist opened the program by reminding listeners that they were about to celebrate a holiday honoring a refugee family 2000 years ago.
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Rebecca Erbelding: And she then pivoted to talk about Ford Ontario she said 1000 people are very few.
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Rebecca Erbelding: In a world in which millions are dying the statistically minded might say that it's hardly worthwhile to save a mere thousand lives.
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Rebecca Erbelding: What is one or what is 1000 amongst the millions, but what is one is not a statistical question if that one happens to be you the whole fate of mankind is encompassed in a single person.
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Rebecca Erbelding: Many of the for Ontario refugees went on to have amazing professional careers and gay and their children and their grandchildren and now their great grandchildren have invited for believing in the United States.
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Rebecca Erbelding: But they just like millions of European children murdered in the Holocaust we're also individuals who are deeply loved by those who knew them and their lives are valuable simply for that fact.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So the Ford Ontario story is a complicated one, one that us we go should rightly be proud of and commemorate and celebrate.
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Rebecca Erbelding: but also one that I think reminds us of what the United States lost by having such a restrictive immigration policy in the 1930s and 40s.
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Rebecca Erbelding: So that is a brief overview of the history of the Ford Ontario emergency refugee shelter and i'm going to turn it over to Karen so that she can have a conversation with two of the refugees thanks so much.
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Keren Blankfeld: Thank you so much that was really great really great overview.
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Keren Blankfeld: I would also like to thank the Museum of Jewish heritage and the safe haven museum, for having me this really is fantastic honor Thank you, we have two really special people here with us with us today, and they both had really full lives, even as young children already.
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Keren Blankfeld: first saw introduce Doris who came into Ford Ontario when she was six years old, she came with both her parents and her newborn.
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Keren Blankfeld: Baby sister who i'll let you tell the details of that story to everyone once we open this up.
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Keren Blankfeld: And now she's an accomplished cookbook writer she's opened restaurants, when in Manhattan and the upper West side and she has 16 grandchildren.
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Keren Blankfeld: And Ben who's on the telephone and hopefully will join us via video soon is also incredible he's he was.
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Keren Blankfeld: At port Ontario when he was three years old, and I know it's very difficult to have memories at that time, but he does have a couple of very vivid memories that I hope he'll share with us.
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Keren Blankfeld: And these days he's living in Florida, with his wife of over 55 years and he's been a historian he's been a football coach and i'll let them tell you more about themselves why don't we start with Doris telling us a little bit about how you ended up in oswego.
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Keren Blankfeld: Okay.
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Doris Schechter: I was born in Vienna, and it was the time of the Anschluss and my father knew that a Jew could not stay indiana so he went from embassy the embassy, and nobody wanted to have a juke come into their country, the only.
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Doris Schechter: place that he did get at this a timely was financially so that's so right after I was born, I was probably six months old my father went to Italy, and my mother and myself followed after that, and he ended up.
00:26:02.490 --> 00:26:25.320
Doris Schechter: In a concentration camp there and then he wrote to the director of that camp saying that he would very much like to be reunited with his little girl and his wife, who were interned in a small town called.
00:26:27.240 --> 00:26:40.680
Doris Schechter: Which is in the mta at the provincial dictated in Abruzzi and they're the three of us reunited, and we lived there.
00:26:41.340 --> 00:26:53.220
Doris Schechter: In a very beautiful beautiful little medieval town, who had never seen a Jew before we were ousted out of there in the 1500s.
00:26:53.880 --> 00:27:06.540
Doris Schechter: And the people were very, very responsive to us, and my father road and his memoir that it was a wonderful place to be where the.
00:27:07.440 --> 00:27:22.860
Doris Schechter: The citizens of that little garage today that never treated us as enemies of the state in turn people meant enemies of the State, so we lived very happily there.
00:27:23.340 --> 00:27:52.200
Doris Schechter: And I always say that I am, who I am today because of spending my formative years and galactically than then all of a sudden, the Nazis marched in and it's amazing that in when the Nazis March, then they put a ransom on our heads and out of the 50 Internet is that 50 guests.
00:27:53.460 --> 00:28:26.940
Doris Schechter: 20 of them were picked up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camp so, then what happened was that we had to be on the run and We walked through the minefields in order to get to the allied sector, and there we were put into a camp and my father spoke many languages went and.
00:28:28.470 --> 00:28:43.200
Doris Schechter: and work for the office of war intimation as a translator of daring speeches, so he worked I remembered a photograph of him in a an American army uniform.
00:28:43.710 --> 00:29:05.550
Doris Schechter: And I think it's there that he realized that there was a possibility that we could come to the United States of America and, of course, my father was very thrilled because here, he was coming to the land of the free and we went.
00:29:06.720 --> 00:29:24.330
Doris Schechter: We were on the Henry Gibbons and all I remember about the Henry Gibbons was that I was always sick and always nauseated and I always had my luck my head in my mother's lap.
00:29:25.230 --> 00:29:40.860
Doris Schechter: We then arrived in Fort Ontario and, as I was telling Karen you know, while ago that I do not have happy memories at all.
00:29:42.330 --> 00:29:45.750
Doris Schechter: board Ontario and I really.
00:29:46.920 --> 00:29:50.910
Doris Schechter: kind of wiped everything out and.
00:29:51.510 --> 00:29:53.250
Keren Blankfeld: I realized I don't you tell us.
00:29:53.400 --> 00:29:58.860
Keren Blankfeld: Your your first impressions, as you as you arrived Do you remember your first impression.
00:29:59.910 --> 00:30:10.650
Doris Schechter: You know, I guess, one of my first impressions was because my father suddenly died there, and that was so traumatic for me.
00:30:11.130 --> 00:30:23.730
Doris Schechter: And my what I the memory that I had the most important memory was that one of my little friends fathers who was shoveling coal.
00:30:24.720 --> 00:30:35.700
Doris Schechter: Everyone had a job to do, and that the man's job was to shovel coal into the furnace and what happened was the coal reversed and.
00:30:36.570 --> 00:30:46.530
Doris Schechter: killed him and I remembered I still remember the sorrow that I had for my friend losing her father and I was so.
00:30:47.310 --> 00:31:02.790
Doris Schechter: happy that it wasn't me that it was a knife either that was killed and died and that's one of my earliest memories, which was very poignant and the other memory was that my father.
00:31:03.240 --> 00:31:18.780
Doris Schechter: built a sucker and then because of the winds and for an Ontario the sucker flew away the other memory was that we had, for we had different.
00:31:19.470 --> 00:31:50.520
Doris Schechter: Food halls and if you were religious and observed dietary laws you weighed in one, so all of this made such an impression on my life that have really made me become, who I am and what my important goals were becoming coming to the United States of America, and as I said, that my.
00:31:52.710 --> 00:31:55.020
Doris Schechter: My father also.
00:31:56.820 --> 00:32:27.960
Doris Schechter: When he got sick, I must have been running up and down the the hallways in the in the quonset hut and he was yelling keep quiet keep quiet and until this day, you know I always felt that I was responsible for my father's death, so that, for me to have pleasant memories or happy memories.
00:32:29.640 --> 00:32:56.580
Doris Schechter: has been really very difficult for me, and when I spoke in September of 2019 at the reunion of the people coming to visit the refugees in the camp, I really didn't know what am I going to talk about because my the heaviness that I had and how I had to.
00:32:56.940 --> 00:33:06.600
Doris Schechter: come to terms with my father's death and who, I am as a person as a Jewish person and what am I all about.
00:33:07.380 --> 00:33:26.400
Doris Schechter: I said what, what can I talked about, and then I realized something so important, and that was the gift that my father gave me when he wrote his memoir in Fort Ontario and I realized that he chronicled.
00:33:27.120 --> 00:33:42.420
Doris Schechter: My from my birth until I was six years old and four in Ontario so, then I knew exactly what happened to us and what we went through So for me that was.
00:33:42.960 --> 00:34:01.470
Doris Schechter: Such a revelation that this was the most extraordinary gift that I got the second greatest gift was the gift of my unbelievable friendship with Ruth grouper and i'm very emotional about it because.
00:34:03.390 --> 00:34:18.300
Doris Schechter: The me to have her as a friend, was one of the most extraordinary happenings in my life because she became my surrogate mother and I was her surrogate daughter.
00:34:19.170 --> 00:34:32.970
Doris Schechter: And you know when I think about that extraordinary gift and what she gave me, I am so thankful, and to my friend Fred Schwartz.
00:34:33.630 --> 00:34:53.700
Doris Schechter: Who at a hanukkah party and his home said, Doris I met a woman, that you should meet her name is Ruth Gruber and she brought you to the United States on the Henry Gibbons and my oldest my children were at the party and my oldest daughter said mom.
00:34:54.870 --> 00:35:14.460
Doris Schechter: You going to pull her, and I said what you know where, am I going to call her for this happen in the past and there's no reason, the need to call her i'm really not interested, quite frankly, and she said, well, if you don't call our i'm going to call her I said, do what you want.
00:35:15.480 --> 00:35:17.100
Doris Schechter: And she.
00:35:17.610 --> 00:35:28.950
Doris Schechter: tells me that she called group that was so easy she looked her up in the phone book she found her number of she called her and Laura said hi.
00:35:29.490 --> 00:35:43.620
Doris Schechter: Dr Gruber, my name is Laura schechter chess a new brought my mother to to the United States to porn Ontario and I would so like to meet you and Ruth being rude.
00:35:43.620 --> 00:35:51.450
Keren Blankfeld: Sorry, Doris let me i'm gonna have to cut you off because we're short on time, I just wanted to hear from Ben also.
00:35:53.100 --> 00:36:05.550
Keren Blankfeld: sorry about that we'll get out i'll ask more questions, too, but then we'd love to hear from you what your impressions were about us waco and arriving there.
00:36:06.300 --> 00:36:15.390
Keren Blankfeld: And I know you have a couple of very vivid memories, especially with Mrs Roosevelt, and I was hoping, you could speak to us a little bit about that.
00:36:16.470 --> 00:36:18.300
15864192379: Absolutely absolutely.
00:36:19.440 --> 00:36:34.140
15864192379: My memories of Ford Ontario really stemmed back from one we left Yugoslavia and how important it was and how much my parents put forth the effort to get us where we are today.
00:36:34.950 --> 00:36:45.120
15864192379: Right now we are home, we were living in universal Yugoslavia at the time and in our home was totally destroyed during the German invasion their.
00:36:46.530 --> 00:36:47.790
15864192379: From there we traveled.
00:36:48.810 --> 00:37:01.620
15864192379: We made it by foot and donkey and both to Albania, we stayed in Albania for about nine months to a year before we had a lead there and journey on to body yearly.
00:37:02.790 --> 00:37:16.560
15864192379: Now it's interesting what was spoken before about people trying to leave on various boats to get us to a safe area while we were in body we my father paid.
00:37:17.970 --> 00:37:25.920
15864192379: The Kenyan police officer there much money does get us on a ship trying to make it to England at the time.
00:37:27.030 --> 00:37:45.210
15864192379: or all that ship hit a German mine and we went down, we were in the water for hours and hours before we were picked up by a British freighter going to Naples to resupply the American army unit way.
00:37:46.500 --> 00:37:50.610
15864192379: We were fortunate to get on to Henry givens.
00:37:51.780 --> 00:38:04.530
15864192379: Our trip to New York a trip to America was something that my parents spoke of constantly obviously I was too young to understand what was going on at that particular time.
00:38:06.090 --> 00:38:19.860
15864192379: When we brought on will tell you something very important my parents never, never stop praising the people of a swivel a wonderful day would treat it by the people there.
00:38:21.030 --> 00:38:27.030
15864192379: nah my parents told me that the bicycles, will be in thrown over the fence over there 40 kids over there.
00:38:27.660 --> 00:38:41.640
15864192379: There was there was more than enough food and people were so concerned, my brother who was 12 years old and they ended up going to assuage all high school at that particular time, but I think.
00:38:43.050 --> 00:38:46.980
15864192379: The topping of everything that took place with us was one.
00:38:48.240 --> 00:38:58.650
15864192379: These two elderly ladies were at our door and asking to speak to my parents, just to see whether we were being treated well and so forth.
00:38:59.070 --> 00:39:10.110
15864192379: And she spoke to me in English, and of course I don't understand English and I said no speak English she in turn said you speak attack tell ya know I said yes to tanya.
00:39:10.950 --> 00:39:21.120
15864192379: and basically she came in, she sat down and my mother obviously recognized there so they're hugging her and so forth, well, that was Eleanor Roosevelt.
00:39:21.870 --> 00:39:29.280
15864192379: And she had come to the fore and she was making the rounds, you might say, well, long different bungalows there.
00:39:29.820 --> 00:39:44.670
15864192379: And one of them was fortunately was ours, at that time, and that is obviously something that has always stuck in my mother's mind and our whole family of mine and will continue to talk about for years and years after that.
00:39:46.110 --> 00:40:01.350
15864192379: Our journey from there, or, as you said, as we said before that once Truman sign the order the executive order to allow us to stay in United States over back to Yugoslavia which wasn't going to happen, according to my dad.
00:40:02.460 --> 00:40:13.860
15864192379: We had relatives living in brooklyn my father's sister and immigrated to the United States in 1936 or 37.
00:40:14.760 --> 00:40:25.860
15864192379: And they wanted to know the names that are people that were here at the camp all the names were published in the New York newspaper.
00:40:26.700 --> 00:40:38.010
15864192379: And the sure enough they saw the names our name listed there, the only person dating know was me because, obviously, that we know that I was born at that particular time.
00:40:39.510 --> 00:40:50.010
15864192379: They came up on a quote unquote visitors day they came from New York City from brooklyn to visit us at the camp.
00:40:51.240 --> 00:41:01.290
15864192379: And at that time, it still wasn't sure whether we would be allowed to stay or not, but we did mention my grandson mentioned to the people that would take an interview.
00:41:02.100 --> 00:41:15.090
15864192379: That we did have relatives in this city and they were going to help us look for a place and so forth well when we came finally came in February and 46.
00:41:15.930 --> 00:41:29.280
15864192379: came to brooklyn and, obviously, that was a whole new strange situation, no one spoke English, of course, my father first job was in coney island at nations nathan's hot dogs.
00:41:29.820 --> 00:41:37.800
15864192379: Selling hot dogs there Nathan, and obviously we all went there for breakfast lunch and dinner, because that was freezing almost free food there.
00:41:39.150 --> 00:41:40.440
15864192379: We stayed in brooklyn.
00:41:41.790 --> 00:41:57.360
15864192379: For the rest of my years anyway, as I graduated high school over there, one thing that was very interesting was during the Korean War my brother was drafted for the war and we weren't even citizens yet.
00:41:58.560 --> 00:42:01.980
15864192379: He was fighting in Korea for a year.
00:42:03.300 --> 00:42:13.140
15864192379: We didn't know and we kept sending letters and so forth, and we never got a response so needless to say, we were all quite concerned for his safety at that time.
00:42:13.710 --> 00:42:25.320
15864192379: And then one day we got a whole box, full of letters from the from the government or they were holding up his letters, for whatever reason, things that he was doing in Korea.
00:42:25.950 --> 00:42:45.720
15864192379: And then we received a Telegraph from the war department, saying that he's alive and well, and he was in Japan and gave us a phone number to call try to make a phone call from brooklyn New York in 1932 to Japan, it took almost four hours to go through.
00:42:46.890 --> 00:42:47.340
15864192379: Thank you.
00:42:47.400 --> 00:42:47.880
00:42:49.890 --> 00:42:50.190
00:42:50.850 --> 00:42:59.610
Keren Blankfeld: Okay, no that's yeah that's incredible that that you were able to reconnect and that he was in Korea and alive.
00:43:01.140 --> 00:43:19.230
Keren Blankfeld: I wanted to get back to us waco because I know a lot of people were curious about what the day to day was like there for you both so maybe Doris and later, a lot of people are asking for you to finish your Ruth story so.
00:43:20.640 --> 00:43:22.050
Doris Schechter: i'm sorry so that.
00:43:22.650 --> 00:43:23.430
Doris Schechter: was a very.
00:43:23.490 --> 00:43:24.570
Keren Blankfeld: short on time.
00:43:25.350 --> 00:43:40.410
Doris Schechter: I just wanted to I just reminded myself, that of course my mother's and my father's family had no idea where we were to wear these war years, and when I got off the boat.
00:43:41.610 --> 00:43:54.630
Doris Schechter: A photographer took a picture of me that went into 26 publications throughout the United States, and my mother's sister would come.
00:43:55.230 --> 00:44:16.080
Doris Schechter: A few years before was going to work with her husband and she opened up the newspaper, and there I was eating my first hot dog so that's how they were they realize that we were in for an Ontario but with Ruth when my.
00:44:17.580 --> 00:44:39.510
Doris Schechter: When my daughter spoke to Ruth Ruth was so thrilled and she said, of course, i'm so looking forward to meeting your mother, where we meet and at that time I had my restaurant called my most favorite dessert company on Madison avenue and 85th street and there.
00:44:40.680 --> 00:44:53.790
Doris Schechter: Ruth and I met with my daughter, and it was one of the most extraordinary meetings, because we bonded immediately.
00:44:54.300 --> 00:45:02.130
Doris Schechter: And I said Ruth can I come back to your House and look at your photographs and she said, of course, I would be delighted.
00:45:02.640 --> 00:45:14.040
Doris Schechter: And I went to her apartment which was so extraordinary was like going into museum and i'm looking through all the photographs.
00:45:14.730 --> 00:45:33.450
Doris Schechter: And I am the damn opened up, and I was sobbing and she looked at me and she said, and she was so kind and understanding, she didn't ask why are you crying she said, you have the right to cry.
00:45:34.110 --> 00:46:02.070
Doris Schechter: You lost your country you lost your language and you lost your bother you had enormous losses and, as I was looking for photographs of possibly seeing myself I didn't find anything but what was so extraordinary was that Ruth was a speaker at the Museum of Jewish heritage luncheon.
00:46:03.120 --> 00:46:13.020
Doris Schechter: Many years ago, and we went by that time you know we saw each other all the time and I went to one of the PR events and she said, Doris.
00:46:13.800 --> 00:46:33.180
Doris Schechter: I want to show you the invitation to the Museum of Jewish heritage luncheon and cheese and I want you to be my guest the number so thrilled I look at this photograph and it's a group of little girls walking with a.
00:46:34.590 --> 00:46:46.080
Doris Schechter: monitor or a teacher or a counselor and I said Ruth you will not believe this, but here I am in this picture.
00:46:46.680 --> 00:46:56.850
Doris Schechter: I just could not get over it, it just blew me away, and I said what am I going to do about this 500 people came to this luncheon and.
00:46:57.360 --> 00:47:11.310
Doris Schechter: I had my restaurant and bakery and I had the bakery bakery or up 500 chocolate chip loaves and everyone got a chocolate cake.
00:47:11.790 --> 00:47:22.950
Doris Schechter: And it was and that's what i've done every single year, ever since to give as a gift my donation to the museum and people would stop me and say.
00:47:23.610 --> 00:47:32.100
Doris Schechter: Am I going to get a chocolate cake, this year, and so that absolutely, because if we don't have a cake we're not coming.
00:47:32.490 --> 00:47:53.550
Doris Schechter: So it's been quite a journey for me with Ruth we went to Poland, together, we went to Israel, together we opened up when my first book came out, we did a book and auto luncheon Rebecca for the museum.
00:47:54.630 --> 00:48:08.160
Doris Schechter: Where they call it again they're a chapter in Chicago and we had 1500 people that came that was so extraordinary and then we did it in Washington also so there's.
00:48:08.310 --> 00:48:10.140
Keren Blankfeld: My picture of when I came to the.
00:48:10.140 --> 00:48:12.600
Doris Schechter: United States So for me.
00:48:13.980 --> 00:48:25.560
Doris Schechter: You know, looking back at all the positives and what I was able to achieve for myself as being the Jewish woman as being.
00:48:26.340 --> 00:48:40.650
Doris Schechter: able to be who, who I wanted to be and be proud of that, I have realized all of that being here in the United States of America, and I wish that.
00:48:41.640 --> 00:48:56.280
Doris Schechter: Other refugees and immigrants can have the pleasure of having what I got even though it has been difficult to get through all my traumas that I went through.
00:48:56.940 --> 00:48:57.810
Keren Blankfeld: The biggest one.
00:48:57.870 --> 00:49:00.750
Doris Schechter: So my father's death.
00:49:01.890 --> 00:49:07.530
Keren Blankfeld: Right Thank you so much for sharing with us it's quite a story.
00:49:08.730 --> 00:49:17.610
Keren Blankfeld: We are opening up for Q amp a right now, I want to make sure we get people's questions and we have a couple for Rebecca.
00:49:19.470 --> 00:49:26.400
Keren Blankfeld: One person asked why was it so important to evacuate Jews from areas already liberated by the allies.
00:49:27.540 --> 00:49:38.640
Rebecca Erbelding: Well, I mean, I think we know now that those areas were not retaken, but if you think about say the battle of the bulge the Germans were able to take areas back from the allies.
00:49:39.030 --> 00:49:46.200
Rebecca Erbelding: And in the fall of 1943 Jews in northern and central Italy who had been relatively safe.
00:49:46.470 --> 00:49:55.980
Rebecca Erbelding: Safe up until then we're suddenly under Nazi occupation and deported, and so we now know that the end of the war progressed, the way that it did, but, at the time they didn't know that.
00:49:56.760 --> 00:50:06.870
Rebecca Erbelding: They also really did want to bring people out of refugee camps in Italy to create more room for refugees to escape from Yugoslavia and so.
00:50:07.140 --> 00:50:24.630
Rebecca Erbelding: 1000 isn't a lot, but they were hoping that that would encourage other countries to take some of these refugees and countries like Spain to take refugees coming from France, for instance, and so it was both a token, and it was also a really important move that they were making.
00:50:26.940 --> 00:50:33.060
Keren Blankfeld: This is also for you Rebecca what was the average time for refugees to become US citizens.
00:50:34.260 --> 00:50:48.960
Rebecca Erbelding: It was usually about five years after the time that they entered on an immigration visa so for refugees at Fort Ontario if they entered in early 1946 and said that they intended to become US citizens they could become citizens around 1951.
00:50:50.220 --> 00:50:50.520
Keren Blankfeld: hmm.
00:50:52.800 --> 00:50:58.020
Keren Blankfeld: This is for everyone how well is the story known and US waco today.
00:50:59.940 --> 00:51:00.930
Keren Blankfeld: Do you know.
00:51:02.610 --> 00:51:07.530
Doris Schechter: who's to say what's the best kept secret that the United States of America has.
00:51:09.420 --> 00:51:09.900
Judy Coe Rapaport: There yeah.
00:51:09.930 --> 00:51:24.090
Rebecca Erbelding: I mean I grew up in Rochester and I didn't know the story growing up, and I was only about a year and a half or an hour and a half away, I think it is become better known Judy I think you can speak to how how the story is starting to spread.
00:51:25.140 --> 00:51:35.130
Judy Coe Rapaport: yeah we NS we go they teach currently teach it in the schools but but I always say that America does not do guilt well.
00:51:36.240 --> 00:52:00.300
Judy Coe Rapaport: They in things get kind of pushed underneath the rug and to take only 1000 you know when when millions died was not a very good a good time and they were behind a fence they even there were German prisoners of war that could work and they couldn't so it was.
00:52:01.380 --> 00:52:19.530
Judy Coe Rapaport: And, and they couldn't go to school and a venture Italy teachers from the schools went to the camp and and taught the kids to speak English, so it was the town's people who really came forward and one of my friends.
00:52:20.970 --> 00:52:28.860
Judy Coe Rapaport: His grandfather was Harold Clark, who is the boy scout leader now, Harold would come with his vehicle.
00:52:29.250 --> 00:52:47.880
Judy Coe Rapaport: And the kids would ride, and that car to magneto so they could spend the night and magneto to get their badge so it's there's so there's so many other stories, but the story is getting out there and is getting better, and we also have a great relationship with Israel.
00:52:49.080 --> 00:52:54.360
Judy Coe Rapaport: Danny diane came to the 75th reunion and was.
00:52:55.170 --> 00:53:11.370
Judy Coe Rapaport: amazed at the story, so it really is getting out there, but it's still in it now with coven, of course, people can visit the museum that's why I say use the APP because then you can go to the museum and see the beautiful exhibits that.
00:53:11.820 --> 00:53:21.330
Judy Coe Rapaport: That are in there and Bob Davidson from exhibits and more did a beautiful job and he's local Liverpool New York so it's fantastic.
00:53:22.020 --> 00:53:34.110
Keren Blankfeld: yeah the museum really has I really encourage everyone to get that up that it's really great information, and I also actually wrote an article for the New York Times last year, so.
00:53:37.140 --> 00:53:38.220
Rebecca Erbelding: it's a beautiful article.
00:53:38.940 --> 00:53:41.490
Doris Schechter: Because I just found one was story about Ruth.
00:53:41.490 --> 00:53:45.420
Doris Schechter: Gruber showing who this woman was so extraordinary.
00:53:46.590 --> 00:53:59.220
Doris Schechter: She was she the people from the washing from the Holocaust Museum in Washington to to Ruth we want to have a brunch in your honor at the waldorf astoria.
00:53:59.910 --> 00:54:14.970
Doris Schechter: And she said, what is the wall door a story, I had to do with me if you want to have a brunch the me I want you to have it at Doris checked his restaurant on 45th street.
00:54:15.450 --> 00:54:39.660
Doris Schechter: In that they were in the theater district and that's what they did, and it was so extraordinary I mean I just couldn't believe that this is how she felt about me and where her priorities were and everyone had the most fabulous time and they made me say a few words, and then they invited.
00:54:39.660 --> 00:54:40.290
Keren Blankfeld: me right.
00:54:40.740 --> 00:54:43.590
Doris Schechter: and be the the book and what the.
00:54:44.640 --> 00:54:47.580
Doris Schechter: guest for the museum and.
00:54:48.000 --> 00:54:48.960
Doris Schechter: shine as.
00:54:49.710 --> 00:55:01.680
Keren Blankfeld: i'm sorry i'm sorry to interrupt we have time for just one last question so i'm going to ask it from the Q amp a word their non Jewish refugees at Ford Ontario.
00:55:01.920 --> 00:55:03.480
Keren Blankfeld: yeah this yeah.
00:55:04.050 --> 00:55:20.280
Judy Coe Rapaport: Yes, there was um there was 89% of the refugees were Jewish and the rest were Catholic, Protestant Greek Orthodox because it couldn't be just a Jewish issue, it had to be a refugee issue.
00:55:21.960 --> 00:55:26.970
Rebecca Erbelding: Right, and I think I think that was a deliberate thing from the US Government to they really.
00:55:26.970 --> 00:55:27.330
Judy Coe Rapaport: wanted.
00:55:27.420 --> 00:55:33.060
Rebecca Erbelding: To pick up that an array of people recognizing that this the Holocaust was mainly Jewish.
00:55:33.570 --> 00:55:48.000
Rebecca Erbelding: issue, of course, but they wanted to be able to say refugees, not just Jewish refugees they wanted to be able to say Catholic, Protestant and Jewish refugees in parts of the American people would not think of this as just something that was being done for Jews.
00:55:49.200 --> 00:56:07.440
Judy Coe Rapaport: But unfortunately they've kind of gone to the the side issue, because there are many Jews that were killed, but we also have to remember the deaths during the holocaust of everyone, the gay is the lesbians, the Romans the Roma everyone so it's really.
00:56:08.610 --> 00:56:18.390
Judy Coe Rapaport: But this is, this is a success story, but it's still yet sad story, because so many Parish and so many generations.
00:56:18.750 --> 00:56:38.970
Judy Coe Rapaport: perish the people that lived here and i'll cut this short quickly but, but the the refugees and their families have have the generations that were allowed from that 1000 people you think of the generations last of the 7 million killed so you you put that into perspective and it's.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: it's tough to figure out yeah.
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Keren Blankfeld: is well, thank you all this has been a really interesting and you know very enlightening a story that's not very well known and you guys really shed the light into the US i'll Sydney i'll send this back to you.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): yeah I would.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): Just like oh yeah Thank you all so much i'd like to thank you all individually, Doris Judy Rebecca Karen and Ben for joining us, this has been really amazing i've learned so much personally.
00:57:13.470 --> 00:57:25.680
Sydney Yaeger (she/her): And I would like to thank all of you who are out there for joining us tonight, and thank you again to the safe haven Holocaust refugee shelter museum for co presenting this program with us at the museum.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): And everything we do at the museum is made possible through donor support.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): So, to those of you watching we hope you'll consider making a donation to support the museum and or become becoming a member and joining us for upcoming programs.
00:57:44.100 --> 00:57:58.380
Sydney Yaeger (she/her): which you can check out in the link in the zoom chat you can also find the way to donate to the safe haven museum also at the link in the zoom chat so thank you all again, thank you all to our panelists and have a great night and.
00:57:59.400 --> 00:58:01.140
Sydney Yaeger (she/her): Hopefully we'll see you all again in the future.
00:58:01.410 --> 00:58:04.110
Judy Coe Rapaport: Thank you all thank you Sydney for having us.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: and
00:58:04.470 --> 00:58:06.480
Judy Coe Rapaport: you're I know you're always in been.
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Sydney Yaeger (she/her): Hearing everyone, thank you.
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Judy Coe Rapaport: Alright, have a good night hi Rebecca.
00:58:13.410 --> 00:58:13.710
Examine Artifacts from the Museum’s Collection
Fort Ontario 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 Museum’s collection illustrate the uncertainty of the refugees’ futures. Read more in this Museum blog post.
Read Keren Blankfeld’s Article about Fort Ontario
Keren Blankfeld, the moderator of yesterday’s program, interviewed numerous survivors from Fort Ontario to learn about its history as a refugee camp. The resulting New York Times article highlights the difficulties and dangers the refugees endured to come to the United States, and their lives after the war.
Learn More About Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber was a journalist who was given the rank of simulated general in order to escort refugees from Europe to the United States. The 1,000 refugees that she escorted were sent to Fort Ontario. Later, she became very close with many of the refugees, including Doris Schechter. She wrote about the refugees’ experiences in her book Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America.
Read “Into the Light: Operation Safe Haven, July 1944″
During the program, Judy Coe Rapaport read a poem by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal, “Into the Light: Operation Safe Haven, July 1944.” Ruth began writing poetry in 2000 and since then has been published in many anthologies and literary journals. Read the poem here (may download as a PDF to your computer).