World War II Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited a small group of Holocaust refugees to the United States. The War Refugee Board (WRB) was established to determine who should come to the US and where they should be housed. FDR sent Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Ruth Gruber to Italy to bring back 982 men, women, and children. The refugees were from 18 different European countries and most were Jewish. Many had been fleeing persecution for years and had made their way to an Allied-controlled part of Italy. Almost 100 of the refugees had escaped concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald.

The refugees were to be housed at Fort Ontario, which is outside of Oswego, New York, and is now a state historic site. The fort had recently been vacated of troops training to fight overseas. Barrack-like houses were quickly constructed to be the temporary homes for the refugees. The War Refugee Board chose to keep family groups together, and sought people with skills that would be helpful in the camp (for example, seamstresses and carpenters).

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Two story barrack-homes and dining hall (Photos from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

The refugees took a ship from Italy to New York City, then a train to Oswego. After fleeing for months or years, the haggard group arrived at Fort Ontario on August 5, 1944. Many of the adults wore crude handmade sandals and most children were barefoot.

The refugees admired the beautiful grounds of Fort Ontario, but the tall fence around the compound reminded them of the concentration camps they had fled from. The barrier was a security measure and also served to quarantine them in case they brought communicable diseases. Oswego residents had been surprised to hear about Roosevelt’s invitation, and were curious about the newcomers. As soon as the refugees arrived, Oswegians came to the fence to greet them. Children on both sides played along the fence, and beer and cigarettes were passed over by the Americans.

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Refugees receiving shoes, soap, and towels upon arrival (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

In the first days after their arrival at the shelter, the adults were interviewed by WRB staff. They had all passed a background check in Italy, and now officials wanted to determine if the refugees could provide information on Hitler’s Europe which could help the Allied armies.

When the refugees first arrived, many gorged themselves on the food provided during meal times. After years of food scarcity due to the war, they were scared that the plentiful food would not last. Most of the refugees were underweight, so the WRB increased the amount of nutritious food served, particularly milk. The WRB also listened to requests and provided a few traditional ethnic foods such as dark bread, and created a separate dining hall for the Jewish refugees who followed kosher dietary rules.

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‘Lightkeeper’s House’ at Fort Ontario painted by refugee artist Olga Mikhailoff, c. 1945, State Parks; and English practice letter by refugee Stella Levi, October 25, 1944, State Parks.

After the initial quarantine period of several weeks, the refugees were permitted to leave the shelter. Children were enrolled in local schools and were bused in from Fort Ontario. Adults were given passes to go into Oswego and had to adhere to a curfew. In addition, the WRB hosted open house events where Oswegians could enter the camp; the main reason was to assuage local rumors that the refugees were living lavishly.

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Refugees building wooden music stands and orking in the machine shop (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Once the refugees became settled, they got to work. A library was created to provide books, English language classes were offered, and a day care was established. The dining halls and laundries were staffed, and private agencies outfitted workshops for creating products for sale, such as music stands. The refugees were paid a set wage, no matter the person’s previous work experience, funded by the WRB and private agencies. In the fall of 1944, a group of refugees left the fort for several weeks to help pick apples in the region.

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Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Fort Ontario in September 1944 (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Unlike the refugees coming to the US today, the World War II refugees were not initially granted the right to stay in the country permanently; FDR planned for them to return to Europe after the war was won. After FDR’s death and the war overseas came to an end, however, the WRB and federal government could not decide what to do with the refugees. The majority of the refugees wanted to stay in the US, and Oswegian leaders formed a Freedom Committee to advocate for the refugees to be permanently integrated into the community. Six congressmen of the subcommittee of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization visited Fort Ontario to hear testimony from the refugees, Oswego residents, and government officials. Leaders within the refugee committee were selected to give heart-wrenching accounts of what they had experienced during the war, and explain that many had no homes to return to.

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Newspaper clipping showing Boy Scout Troop 28 testifying before Congressmen about their desire to remain in the US (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks) and page from LIFE Magazine, August 1944.

On December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman announced that the refugees who wanted to stay should be permitted to remain in the US. After many months of waiting for a decision, the refugees were overjoyed. Immigration processing began in January and the last of the refugees left Fort Ontario on February 4, 1946. A group of 66 Yugoslavs decided to return to Europe, but most chose to remain in the US. More than half of the refugees were resettled in New York State, and many went to New York City, which had larger immigrant populations. Others were reunited with family in 21 other states.

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Senior conservator Heidi Miksch and Park Worker Brian Hibbert remove part of the historic fence at Fort Ontario. (Kevin Fitzpatrick, Palladium Times)

This chapter of American history is being brought back into the spotlight. Last summer, conservators from State Parks removed a section of the boundary fence for the refugee shelter and shipped it to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s an iconic symbol,” says Paul Lear, historic site manager at Fort Ontario. “It was the meeting place between the townspeople and the refugees.” The fence represents the struggles and successes throughout American history to welcome newcomers to our country: the initial barrier, followed by acceptance.

The new exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum featuring the fence is scheduled to open in April 2018.

Post by Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Special thanks to State Parks staff members Paul Lear and Amy Facca for pictures and resources.

Featured image:  Oswegians conversing with World War II refugees housed at Fort Ontario (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Resources

Fitzpatrick, Kevin. “Section of Refugee Shelter boundary headed to National Holocaust Museum for new exhibit”. Palladium Times, June 30, 2017.

Marks, Edward B. “Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter, Fort Ontario, Oswego, N.Y.” United States Department of the Interior War Relocation Authority, 1946; revised 2017.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site

Oswego, New York

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Washington, DC

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum

2 East 7th Street
Oswego, NY 13126

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