Barbed Wire Haven
The Oswego refugee camp looked like a concentration camp, but it was the one bright light within a dark and shameful presidential policy.
The similarities were unnerving, but this was no concentration camp. Created in February 1944 in a landmark political decision, the Oswego refugee camp – housed in an abandoned army base called Fort Ontario – was a token gesture of rescue, a pressure-induced move approved in spite of President Roosevelt’s State Department, infamous for its complete apathy during the bloodbath that was the Holocaust.
In a joint humanitarian decision made by President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, with purported politick from American pro-Jewish organizations, the US committed to importing 1,000 refugees who had managed to enter Southern Italy, which had already been liberated by US troops.
In adherence to austere immigration policies, however, the refugees were not to be granted American citizenship – and upon the War’s end, were instead to be ousted back to blood-soaked Europe. Listed as “U.S. Army Casual Baggage” upon arrival in New York, the dazed immigrants were forced to sign papers promising they wouldn’t remain in the US. In the end, with the eventual intervention of thrust-in President Harry Truman, other government activists, and Oswego’s own locals, the decree was rescinded – closing a little-known chapter of valor in a book of apathy.
Known as the “Port City of Central New York,” and originally a stronghold of the fierce Iroquois Indians, unremarkable Oswego – current population 18,142 – rarely made headlines, save for some record-breaking 11-foot snowfalls. Yet with the establishment of the refugee camp in its midst, the upstate New York town earned an honorable place in history.
No Red Carpet
For most Americans, and particularly those who seethed at FDR’s seeming heart of stone regarding the rescue of Europe’s Jews, the 1944 turnaround decision to welcome 1,000 refugees onto American soil was startling.
Given FDR’s heart of stone regarding the rescue of Europe’s Jews, the 1944 decision to welcome 1,000 refugees onto American soil was startling.
Ruth Gruber, an ambitious young Jewish woman who served as special assistant to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes at the time, was so shocked when she heard about the plan that she dropped her morning coffee to have a talk with her boss.
“Mr. Secretary, it’s what we’ve been fighting for all these years! To open doors. Save lives. Circumvent the holy quotas. What’s behind it?” Gruber – now 101 years old and living in Manhattan – writes in Haven, the seminal book she authored on the topic.
Sure enough, the rationale wasn’t completely altruistic. Yugoslavian refugees were streaming into Italy at the rate of 1,800 a week, getting in the way of a tired American military struggling to overcome the Fascists in a bloody series of battles. Someone had to deal with the “refugee problem” – and get rid of the road-clogging, tank-obstructing nightmare.
Even after the president acquiesced to US military pressure, agreeing to resettle the evacuees, he was still reluctant to roll out the red carpet, instead pushing to create offshore havens in Europe, Sicily or North Africa.
“The two world leaders we loved, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, made eloquent speeches about refugees even as they barred them,” Gruber writes.
Later, Gruber discovered the primary prompter of the decision: a series of horrifying 1942 cables – suppressed by the State Department for over two years – had finally reached the Treasury, then led by Henry Morgenthau, an assimilated but identified Jew. The cables described Hitler’s atrocities in agonizing detail, including the systematic use of Zyklon B gas in eliminating European Jewry.
“I am physically ill,” Morgenthau remarked after reading the memorandum.
On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau personally visited the White House.
“On this Sunday morning, he was no longer Henny-Penny,” writes Gruber, referring to the president’s affectionate nickname for Morgenthau. “He had become a committed, anguished, passionate Jew. The suppressed cables had touched ancient roots.”
Six days later, Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board, and several months later, the decision to create an emergency refugee shelter in New York became official.
Enthralled by the notion that the infuriating isolationist barriers were being pushed aside – even just a bit – an unstoppable 32-year-old Ruth resolved to be a part of the action.
“These people coming here – they must be frightened, bewildered, coming to a strange land,” she told her boss Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. “Somebody has to be with them on their journey. Somebody has to take their hand.”
Ruth Guber, 1932
With her fiery personality, knowledge of Yiddish, and impressive credentials – she accepted a fellowship in 1931 to pursue doctoral study in Cologne, Germany, becoming the world’s youngest PhD at the time at age 20 – an ecstatic Gruber eventually got the job.
Her immigrant parents from Brooklyn, in contrast, weren’t quite as thrilled.
“Are you crazy?” Ruth remembers her mother – a frum, shtetl-born woman – screaming into the phone. “Every day I read how they sink ships and shoot down airplanes. And my daughter has to go to Europe to get her head shot off?”
Dreaming of America
Even before Dr. Gruber landed in Italy, the selection process for the coveted 1,000 slots for shelter had begun. The President stipulated that the refugees should be those with no other haven available.
Demand for the slots was so great that the American official charged with choosing ''went to pieces,'' reported Ruth Gruber.
''I can't go on playing God; how can I choose who's going to live and who's going to die?'' the official said.
While most of the refugees were already registered in displaced-person’s camps at the time, food was scarce, sanitary conditions dreadful, and the Nazi fascist reign loomed only several miles away.
Word of the president’s invitation spread like brushfire, and people knocked on the US consulate doors day and night.
“Women and men weeping, people fainting from emotion, parents holding their children up in the air so we’d notice them,” Max Perlman, one of the team that had screened the refugees, later described to Ruth.
“You can’t imagine the excitement. Some of the men made whole speeches telling me how many years they had been dreaming about going to America. Others just wept openly…. I couldn’t tell them if they’d be accepted or not. These men were all alone; they had seen their entire families wiped out…the pain in their faces is still with me.”
In a deliberate maneuver, only 874 of the 982 hand-picked refugees were Jewish: Roosevelt didn’t want the venture to be pegged a “Jewish rescue project.”
The fortunate recruits – 525 males and 457 females – were assembled in an abandoned mental asylum in Aversa, Italy, each family arriving with its own shocking tale.
“My father was a Belzer hassid from Belgium,” remembers Naftali Weinstein, who was 9 years old at the time. “He was caught and killed by the Nazis in Rome just days before it was liberated.”
The three youngest Weinstein children had managed to cross the Alps to Switzerland with their mother, while Naftali and five other siblings survived by being shuffled between kind Italian Gentiles and Roman Catholic convents after making their way across the border to Italy. Now brutally orphaned of their father, with the oldest brother only 18 years old, the six Weinstein children still in Italy were prime candidates for the Oswego operation.
American military police help three little girls find their parents at the Fort Oswego Refugee Center.
(Photo courtesy USHMM)
Miriam C. – a grandmother now living in New York who requested to be identified by first name only – and her family were similarly recruited after years in hiding. Her father, a young businessman and former community leader in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, had fled with his wife and two young children to Italy’s pastoral villages, where they attempted to blend into the Italian landscape.
“I was Maria; my father was Giuseppe,” remembers Miriam. “The Italians knew we were Jewish, but they kept quiet. Their motto was ‘live and let live.’”
Fifteen years old at the time, Abraham Dresdner’s childhood was more chaotic: together with his Belgian parents and 9 siblings, he’d been through three concentration camps before crossing Italian borders, after which he was immediately placed into a convent for safety.
“We didn’t care if it was Palestine or America,” he says. “My father said ‘the first boat that will leave this hell, that’s the boat we’ll go on.’ ”
Mrs. Grace (Rothschild) Aschkenasy introduced rich Yekkishe blood to the mix: her parents, both German-born, had married and lived in Milan pre-war. With the Nazi invasion of Italy, they moved to Rome – perhaps the only observant Jewish couple in the capital at the time – hoping that Pope Pius would protect “his” city. It was in vain: Mr. Rothschild was incarcerated there three times.
“The Fascists were very respectful; they used to call him ‘holy person,’ ” says Grace. “They even gave him a mattress to sleep on, and my mother – endangering her life – managed to smuggle his tefillin and Gemaras into the prison so my father could spend his days learning.”
In an ingenious move, Mrs. Rothschild – whose maiden name was Lehmann – claimed to be related to Senator Herbert Lehmann of New York, and threatened the Fascists to involve the senator if her husband wasn’t released.
The ploy worked, and upon his miraculous release, Mr. Rothschild and his family were offered refuge in Spain on condition they undergo baptism – but that was no option for the deeply religious, committed Jews. So when the Oswego recourse surfaced, Mr. Rothschild embraced the opportunity and packed up the family within several hours.
We Just Wanted Food
On July 20, 1944, a US naval convoy of 16 troop and cargo ships escorted by 13 warships set sail from Naples, with 1,000 refugees and hundreds of wounded soldiers aboard the Henry Gibbins, one of the flotilla’s larger vessels.
The journey was fraught with danger: hidden German U-boats still heavily mottled the Atlantic, with Wehrmacht fighter planes flying constantly overhead. Indeed, several nights into the voyage, German planes were sighted.
“They told us all to come on deck and wear life-jackets,” remembers Naftali Weinstein. “We thought this was it.”
The refugees were told to remain absolutely silent, the engines were turned off, and the U-Boat was unable to track the fleet.
The captain of the Henry Gibbins released black smoke to act as a camouflage, and thankfully, the ship was not attacked.
On another occasion, the ship’s sonar detected a U-boat. The refugees were told to remain absolutely silent, the engines were turned off, and the U-Boat was unable to track the fleet.
Conditions on the ship were far from luxurious, with tripled-tiered canvas hammocks for sleeping, overcrowded quarters, and far-from-gourmet food. But for most of the beleaguered refugees on board, it was more than satisfactory.
“Were the conditions good? It depends where you’re coming from,” says Abraham Dresdner. “After being hungry for four years, we just wanted food. And since many of the travelers were seasick, there were plenty of extra portions. I used to stand in line three times.”
“It was yetzias metzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt),” declares Naftali Weinstein. “That’s what it felt like.”
Unlikely shipmates, the American troops were kind to the refugees, plying them with gifts and sweets.
“One soldier gave me a piece of chewing gum, but I had never seen it before,” remembered Elfi Hendell, a Vienna-born woman now living in New York who was interviewed in a documentary. “I swallowed it, and he said ‘little girl, you’re not supposed to do that!’”
As the ship drew closer to American shores, anticipation mounted.
“I suppose I felt like a young Columbus, just waiting to see land,” Ivo Lederer told the documentary crew. At the time Lederer was a 15 year old Yugoslavian Jewish teen who later became a diplomatic historian and taught at Princeton and several other universities.
“If you’re coming from war-time, war-damaged Europe, to see this enormous sight – lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty – I don’t think there was a dry eye on deck.”
When it was time to disembark, the Rothschilds – with their young children – were allowed to take the lead. Photographers shoved cameras into the passengers’ faces; reporters bombarded them with questions. Incredibly, a photo of the alighting Rothschild family that splashed the front pages of most national newspapers the following day was the catalyst for a long-awaited family reunion.
“My mother’s brother – who’d been in America for years and completely lost touch with my mother – was sitting on a park bench in Washington Heights, and the fellow next to him was scanning the paper,” recounts Grace (Rothschild) Aschkenasy. “My uncle jumped when he saw the photo: ‘that’s my sister,’ he shouted!”
Welcome to Oswego
For some of the refugees, the disembarking experience was traumatic, a seeming repeat of the horrors of Europe. Under the presence of armed guards, and without any explanation, the refugees – nearly 100 of whom had been in Buchenwald or Dachau – were immediately sprayed for delousing. Then, they were told they’d be boarding a train. Several passengers began screaming.
They were told they’d be boarding a train. Several passengers began screaming.
“Of course we were scared,” says Abraham Dresdner. “After all, trains were not a popular thing for us in Europe.”
After a two-day train ride, their apprehension spiked upon sighting barbed wire fences. Dr. Gruber and her associates attempted to subdue the terrified passengers.
“’How could you do this!?’” Gruber remembered one refugee crying upon seeing the camp. “’In the free America. It’s another concentration camp.’”
"I remember being behind the fence and the people from Oswego came to look at us," Rena Romano Block once told the Chicago Tribune. "Someone said 'what do they think we are? Monkeys in a cage?’”
Fenced in camp (Photo courtesy Safe Haven Museum)
But when smiling Oswego residents began passing milk and food through the fence, the refugees finally began to calm down: this was different from the reception in Buchenwald.
Food wasn’t the only item donated: toys, clothing, and even bicycles were thrown over the fence. Ms. Block, now 78 and living in Baltimore, caught a doll. She remembers being thrilled – she’d lost her only doll in Italy before boarding. Upon taking a tour of her assigned Oswego shack, one of the women in the group began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” a compassionate Dr. Gruber inquired. “I know it’s spartan, but at this time it’s the best we can do.”
“I’m crying because I haven’t seen bed sheets in five years,” the woman explained.
Both Dr. Gruber and the Oswego residents continued to extend kindness throughout the refugees’ 17-month stay. When Manya Breuer of Berlin became the first bride in the camp, Dr. Gruber lent her own mother’s wedding veil, and a benevolent local donated her wedding ring.
Censored but Safe
For their first month in the camp, the refugees were quarantined, and even relatives who’d traveled hours to Oswego to greet their loved ones were refused entry.
After that, the refugees could obtain passes allowing them to go into Oswego for up to six hours. Children were enrolled in public schools, but adults could not obtain jobs. Educated men who could speak seven languages were assigned such degrading tasks as shoveling coal. And because the refugees came from enemy countries, mail was censored and customs confiscated numerous packages. Uniformed military personnel stood guard at the gate.
In a tragic twist, one resident died in freak coal mine accident, leaving a wife and four children. He’d survived the horrors of the Holocaust, only to meet his end in the forests of New York State.
Sixty-nine years later, some of the refugees look back at the arrangement with resentment.
''I'd known what prison was. I'd lived behind bars in Italy. But I'd never known freedom,'' Walter Greenberg, who was 11 years old at the time, told the New York Times. ''In America, I looked out at the rest of the world and I saw normal people with everyday lives, and I felt deceived.''
“It was a bittersweet mixture,” concurred Adam Munz, now 86, a Belgian native. “We were free, yes, but our freedom was restricted in many, many ways.”
Other survivors, however, deride the griping as contextually inappropriate.
The refugee camp (Photo courtesy Safe Haven Museum)
“We were in a bubble of safety; we weren’t being chased to death at every moment,” Maurice Kamhi, who’d made his way from bombed-out Sarajevo to Italy, explained in a documentary. “What an amazing thing.”
“So what if you didn’t have a Cadillac?” Miriam C. from New York told Mishpacha. “All my parents kept on saying was ‘Thank God, we’re alive.’ ”
“It was paradise,” affirms Abraham Dresdner. “The camp was clean; there was food.”
“Being confined didn’t bother me at all,” says Naftali Weinstein. “We were in school during the week; on Sundays we got to go around town. We had sports, we had food, we had shelter. We even had a house with steam.”
Naftali recalls that the Agudah sent a shipment of shoes and clothing to the refugees. “I still remember the winter coat I got; it was warm, with a hood. I also got proper leather shoes – until then, I’d been wearing paper shoes.”
Inasmuch as the refugees tried to create a community within the camp, their uncertain futures cast a shadow of dread. Almost no one wanted to return to Europe – their inevitable fate.
“I would…find it impossible to live in a country where all my family have been killed,” wrote Richard Arvay, an Austrian writer and filmmaker, in a 1944 document stating his desire to stay.
Pro-Jewish organizations lobbied intensively to procure citizenship status for the refugees, as did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – who made a personal visit to the camp accompanied by Mrs. Henry Morgenthau. Still, FDR remained adamant that they be sent back.
Ruth Guber, 2012
In April 1945, Ruth Gruber compiled a report about the camp, concluding with her firm belief that its “nearly Americanized” residents should be allowed in as part of the country’s regular quotas: “It is time we showed that this administration has a policy of decency, humanity, and conscience and the guts to carry that policy through,” she wrote.
Then, in perhaps blatant Divine intervention, the beloved President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, just days before the war’s end.
Yet even with the main impediment removed, the fate of the refugees still hung in the air. Rumor had it that they were scheduled for deportation on June 30, and the despondency in the fort was palpable.
A committee that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and Joseph Smart – the original director of Fort Ontario who resigned from his position to better advocate for the residents he’d become attached to – worked tirelessly to win support for the refugees.
Even the mayor of Oswego, along with 27 leading locals, sent a signed petition to President Harry Truman and to Congress, imploring them to grant the refugees citizenship.
But Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, the Jewish politician credited by some as jumpstarting the Oswego operation altogether, couldn’t reconcile himself with posthumously defying the dead president’s orders.
“You’re asking that we change the instructions issued by the President…I can’t go back on my promise…I couldn’t sleep with my conscience,” he told the delegation from several Jewish refugee committees that had come to plead on the Oswego group’s behalf.
The breakthrough arrived when NY Congressman Samuel Dickstein, Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, announced that he planned on investigating the camp. Before President Truman could act, a congressional delegation arrived at the camp and interviewed the residents.
Edmund Waterbury, publisher of the Oswego Palladium-Times who accompanied the delegation, risked his career in Oswego when he testified, "There is more talent in this group than there is in all of Oswego together, and I am not discrediting my own hometown, but when you get painting, sculpture, music, acting, dancing, and playwriting, they would do credit to a city of five hundred thousand population."
The delegation voted unanimously to allow the refugees to stay, and with continued political pressure, on Dec. 22, 1945 – eight months after Germany’s surrender – President Truman ordered the government to annul the refugees’ status as displaced persons.
“In the circumstances, it would be inhumane and wasteful to require these people to go all the way back to Europe merely for the purpose of applying there for immigration visas,” President Truman said in a speech announcing the directive.
By this time, 23 Oswego babies had been born, one couple had married, and at least two teenage boys had managed to sneak through some holes in the fence and hitchhike to Manhattan for a day of adventure.
“Roosevelt died just in time.”
To become legal immigrants, the soon-to-be citizens were bused to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in Ontario, where they received visas and then returned across the Rainbow Bridge – finally free.
“Roosevelt died just in time,” reflects Abraham Dresdner, now a great-grandfather many times over. “My father had signed the papers originally because ‘to get out of hell, you sign whatever it takes.’ He took a gamble, and thank God, it was worth it.”
Too Little Too Late
Nearly 70 years have passed since those first refugees stepped through the gates at Fort Ontario, and plans are underway for a 2014 reunion. Attendance will be sparse: as of June 2013, less than 100 are still alive.
Successful as it was in saving 1,000 lives, Dr. Schum of Oswego’s Safe Haven Museum says modern historians actually view the rescue operation as an embarrassing chapter in American history. Had the Oswego shelter been replicated in other locations, they argue, as many as 100,000 Jews could have been saved – even at the late date of 1944.
Perhaps the most ignominious example of America’s refusal to intervene was the turning away of the MS St. Louis, a German oceanliner packed with 937 desperate Jews, about a quarter of whom were eventually gassed.
“The good part about Oswego is that 1,000 innocent men and women went on to lead meaningful, productive lives,” says Dr. Schum, “The bad part is that this is all we did.”
Most of the original Oswego residents ultimately became successful doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. One was part of the team that developed the world’s first CAT scan. Another worked in espionage, helping to dismantle atomic bombs in Russia. Almost all went on to raise families.
“The Oswego refugees made their mark on this country,” says Dr. Schum, who has developed close ties with some of the former residents. “Who knows what we could have done had we opened our gates to more.”
This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine and is reprinted with permission.