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Group portrait of children dressed in Purim costumes in the Fort Ontario refugee center.

Photograph | Digitized | Photograph Number: 49325

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    Group portrait of children dressed in Purim costumes in the Fort Ontario refugee center.
    Group portrait of children dressed in Purim costumes in the Fort Ontario refugee center.

Those pictured include Ray Harding, John Hirshler, Ruth Hendel, Walter Gruenberg and Willie Kramer.


    Group portrait of children dressed in Purim costumes in the Fort Ontario refugee center.

    Those pictured include Ray Harding, John Hirshler, Ruth Hendel, Walter Gruenberg and Willie Kramer.
    1944 - 1945
    Oswego, NY United States
    Photo Credit
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Walter Greenberg
    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.

    Rights & Restrictions

    Photo Source
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Provenance: Walter Greenberg

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    Walter Greenberg (born Walter Gruenberg) is the son of Irma Schwartsenberg and Jakob Gruenberg. He was born on January 24, 1933 in Fiume Italy, where his father worked as a chef and baker. Jakob was born in Vienna and had served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. After the war he decided to stay in Italy. There he met and married Irma Schwarzenberg who came to Italy from Yugoslavia where she had been living with an aunt. After the German Anschluss, Jakob helped smuggle Austrian Jews into Yugoslavia. Some time in 1940 Jakob was arrested by the Italian police and jailed for a month. After his release, he heard that foreign Jews would be subject to round-ups. Since Jakob was still an Austrian citizen, he decided that the family should flee Italy. They joined a group of approximately 300 Jews who purchased tickets for passage to Palestine from Libya. They arrived in Benghazi, but the ship never materialized, and the refugees were imprisoned in a camp. After about a month, they were shipped back to Italy. Upon their arrival, the group was jailed temporarily in Naples in Pogio Reala, and then transferred to the Ferramonti concentration camp after it opened in June 1940. The Gruenbergs lived in the camp for about a year and half. Jakob worked in the camp's kitchen and often left the camp by horse and wagon in order purchase food provisions. With the cooperation of a sympathetic guard he arranged for the family to escape during one such shopping expedition. They went to the town of Carsoli in Abruzi. Though they lived there openly as Jews, under the terms of free confinement, they had to report daily to the local police. Jakob was prohibited from working, but he supported the family with a small vegetable garden. After the Italian capitulation to the Germans, the town's mayor asked Jakob to serve as a translator for German officers. They asked him whether there were any Jews in town and why he spoke German so well. The German told Jakob that he wanted to bring him to Rome to verify his story. That evening the Gruenberg family and the town's other 13 Jews fled to the mountains. While hiding in the mountains, Irma overheard a group of Yugoslavians talking about how they wanted to rape her. She decided to confront them. Surprised that she spoke Serbo-Croatian, they took the family under their wings and supplied them with false papers. The Gruenbergs stayed in the mountains until two weeks after Rome's liberation in June 1944. They then made their way back to Rome and went to the large synagogue which served as a central gathering place for liberated Jews. Irma was surprised to discover her brother Fred, who she thought had perished in Yugoslavia. He told them that he, his wife Ana, and son Slavko (Ben) were about to leave for the United States and recommended that they do the same. About two weeks later, the Gruenbergs joined them and a convoy of 982 refugees. They sailed from Italy aboard the Henry Gibbons on July 8, 1944 and came to the Fort Ontario refugee shelter in Oswego, New York.
    Record last modified:
    2008-09-25 00:00:00
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