- Newly arrived refugees receive food and drink at a picnic at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York.
- Oswego, NY United States
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park
- Event History
- On June 12, 1944, President Roosevelt sent a message to Congress announcing that he was establishing an Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario, a US Army camp in Oswego, NY. Relief and rescue organizations, as well as interested members of the public, had been suggesting bringing refugees under the threat of Nazi persecution to the United States for a number of months. At the beginning of March 1944, the War Refugee Board prepared a memo proposing the opening of safe havens (also called free ports) in the United States for refugees, where they would be admitted outside of American immigration quotas and repatriated to Europe at the end of the war. The project was presented to Roosevelt in May 1944. He was supportive of it, but feared his critics in Congress would attack the idea. So, the President asked the WRB to find an emergency situation which the removal of refugees would ameliorate. At the time, the WRB was receiving reports that refugee camps in Italy were almost full and the American military had issued a directive discouraging refugees fleeing to Italy from Yugoslavia. The WRB’s director, John Pehle, presented the situation to President Roosevelt, who issued instructions that the movement of refugees to Italy should not be discouraged, and used the situation to formally approve the establishment of a refugee shelter. In early June 1944, the camp of Fort Ontario was selected to house the refugees. WRB representative Leonard Ackermann traveled to Italy and interviewed interested refugees. In total, 982 refugees were selected for the Fort Ontario project. Seventy-five per cent of the group came from transit camps in southern Italy, including Bari, Ferramonti, Santa Maria di Bagni and Compagna, and twenty-five per cent from Rome, where most had been living in hiding until the recent withdrawal of the Germans. Approximately 165 of the refugees were children below the age of seventeen. In order to avoid complaints, officials recruited non-Jews as well as Jews. Still, Jewish refugees constituted 918 of the 982 members of the group, representing fourteen nationalities. The group was assembled in Aversa, Italy and set sail aboard the Henry Gibbins, a US Army transport vessel. The ship arrived in New York on August 5, and the refugees were taken to Fort Ontario near the town of Oswego in upstate New York. Their eighteen month sojourn at the shelter was a frustrating experience for the refugees. At first their freedom was severely restricted. They were not permitted to work or serve in the army. Their contact with the outside world was extremely limited. Requests to live with or visit relatives in the US were denied. Though rudimentary cultural, political and social organizations eventually came into being, they were plagued by divisiveness among their members. Following V-E Day, pressure from Jewish groups, relief agencies, Congressmen and members of Truman's cabinet, led to the Truman Directive of December 1945, which permitted the immigration to the United States of displaced persons in America's zones of occupation and removed restrictions on war refugees already in the US.