Morice Kamhi’s family was in Sarajevo when World War II broke out. The situation for Jewish families turned dire quickly. “First there was the yellow arm bands, you were forbidden to go to public places … and then, little by little, they started taking people away,” he told an interviewer for an oral history. The project, an initiative of the State University of New York at Oswego, captures the stories of the survivors who spent a rare year living in America’s only refugee camp during World War II.
At the time, many Jews were trying to get from Sarajevo to Dalmatia, since parts of the Adriatic coast were controlled by Italy and, as Kamhi put it, “the Italians were not anywhere near as rough on the Jews as the Germans.” Kamhi’s uncle and grandfather went ahead of the rest of the family and sent a man back to retrieve the others. Kamhi’s mother had to pose as the man’s wife, and Kamhi as his son, but they made it to Dalmatia with fake passports. Soon after, Kamhi’s father and grandfather were taken to a concentration camp, where they died.
Kamhi and his remaining family made it back to Italy on a boat transporting Italians just after the Axis power changed sides in 1943 — “the Italians were soft-hearted, so a lot of Jews got [back to Italy],” he said — only to find the area where they landed surrounded by Germans. Jews began to sell anything of value they had in exchange for passage out. Kamhi’s family was supposed to depart on a boat the same night, but they weren’t able to get on — they later found out that boat had been stopped by the Germans while at sea and everyone aboard was executed.
A couple more miracles later, Kamhi’s family were among the almost 1,000 refugees who were accepted to the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, in Oswego, New York, in 1944. The refugees, representing the neediest cases, came from 18 countries, and they ranged in age from babies to seniors. They came to New York by boat on the USS Henry Gibbins (a two-week journey) to Fort Ontario, built during the Revolutionary War and at the center of the small town of Oswego, close to the Canadian border.
On board the Henry Gibbins was Ruth Gruber, a young journalist then acting as special assistant to the secretary of the interior, who was sent to make the trip with the refugees. “When Dr. Gruber arrived in Naples to meet the refugees, some were surprised to find that the liberator who stepped off the truck emblazoned with a Star of David was a woman,” reads Gruber’s Washington Post obituary (she lived to 105).
She would later memorialize the journey in a book called Haven — also made into a CBS miniseries in 2001 — which chronicles some of the harrowing and inspiring tales of survival she witnessed. One was the story of a woman named Olga, who gave birth in an American Jeep en route to board the Henry Gibbins in Italy. “I never thought I would have another baby,” she tells Ruth, laughing. “I’m over forty.” But the baby was born safely, with fellow refugees rejoicing that it was a good omen. One older man said, “Life — after all the dying … a baby boy, a Jew to take the place of a murdered baby, born on our way to freedom.”
“Oswego was a fairy tale for all of us, even though there was a barbed-wire fence,” Kamhi said.
“It didn’t mean anything because we knew we were fine.” Still, many were surprised to find their freedom in America quite literally circumscribed. They were prisoners of a sort, living walled-in in a strange land, though this conditional freedom was infinitely better than living under threat of death in Europe and may have even lent inhabitants a sense of protection. For some, like Kamhi, it was like a dream. Arriving at Fort Ontario as a young boy “was like being on another planet,” he told the interviewer. “The people were so different, the atmosphere, the air was so different … It was a fairy tale existence. We were still in our own environment, so to speak, but we were secure, we were no longer in danger, and yet we didn’t have the culture shock of being thrown into the American community which came later.”
Many refugees decided to stay in the U.S. after the war ended, and that adjustment to everyday American life, Kamhi said, was harsh, difficult, and long-term. “I think all of us, when we’re thrown into the American community, as much as we loved it, did have a tremendous adjustment to make. And I think many of our personalities … all of our personalities changed radically as a result.”
Another former Fort Ontario resident, Leon Levitch, corroborates this quality of life in the camp in the oral history project, saying, “Slowly, we were assigned our barracks, there was hot water, there was food, people were friendly, everything was beginning to develop in a most fantastic, unbelievable, dream-like fashion. Little by little, we began to become accustomed to this fairy-tale kind of life. Sure, we resented the fence, but inside the fence was not so ominous anymore.”
Levitch, an aspiring musician, was delighted to find “scads of old, broken down upright pianos” around the abandoned army camp. Along with a fellow refugee, a Viennese piano tuner, he set about scavenging for tools and fixing them so that the camp could have music. Others describe pleasant visits from curious townspeople, especially girls eager to get a look at foreign boys, with whom they mingled through the fence.
My own grandmother describes driving up with other relatives from New York City with baskets full of food and cheerfully passing salamis and other comestibles through the wire fence to Yugoslav cousins who’d miraculously landed upstate.
But a camp is a camp, and in spite of being spared the horrors of war, refugees at Fort Ontario observed the stark contrast between their locked-in lives and those of the free New Yorkers surrounding them, to say nothing of the even more extreme disparity between their new American reality and their lives before the war. ‘’In America, I looked out at the rest of the world and I saw normal people with everyday lives, and I felt deceived,” former Fort Ontario resident Walter Greenberg told the New York Times in 2004.
The camp was established in June 1944, but it almost didn’t exist at all. The American response to the European refugee situation had been slow. In fact, the U.S. had drastically cut immigration during the war years. Many have argued that President Roosevelt didn’t feel motivated to help the imperiled Jews because he’d already won the Jewish vote. That all changed when Josiah E. Dubois, a U.S. Treasury Department lawyer from New Jersey, blew the whistle on the widespread obstruction of American visas for Jewish refugees. In a document titled Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews, Dubois shamed the State Department for conspicuous inaction in some cases and outright obstruction in others. (Dubois’s frustration was born of the failed release of 70,000 Jews from Romania — the U.S. had been poised to buy their freedom for a $170,000 bribe. It would have been a significant intervention into the human rights crisis unfolding abroad, and the Treasury had even approved the funds, but they were stalled along the way by other organs of government.)
Dubois exposed this situation. Hiss report catalyzed the creation of the War Refugee Board in 1944, and Fort Ontario was named a safe haven shortly thereafter. The board also worked to secure safe havens in other countries, including Switzerland and Sweden, and began to work in earnest to help. They sent 300,000 food packages (disguised in Red Cross boxes) into concentration camps and urged the media to detail for the American public the horrors of Auschwitz and other camps. Four million Jews had died by 1944, but the efforts of the War Refugee Board saved tens of thousands of lives.
The creation of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was intended to signal Roosevelt’s intention to turn the tide of the American response — he even visited the camp, to the delight of many living there — but it was also a stopgap measure. A news report from 1944, which can be heard in Haven from the Holocaust, an hour-long radio program, sums up the refugee predicament. “To save their lives, they have been admitted to the United States,” a female broadcaster says dourly. “Legally, it’s dubious whether they are here at all. Though they are our friends, they are not enjoying American freedoms. They cannot move outside a restricted area. When hostilities cease, they must go back to Europe.”
This idea may have been convenient for the U.S., but, as it happened, more than half of the refugees in Oswego had immigration cases pending by the time the war ended. As strange and novel as the experience had been, most were keen to stay and make a life in the country that had taken them in, rather than return to the devastation at home. When the shelter finally closed after the war, many were granted temporary or permanent status. Some went to live with American relatives. Those without them warily began American lives on their own.
In spite of knowing Hitler’s plan to exterminate all Jews, and pleas from many corners of both the Jewish resistance in Europe and the Jewish establishment in America, the United States did relatively little to assist those fleeing for their lives in the early 1940s. The U.S. did ultimately help resettle tens of thousands of European refugees, but Fort Ontario was, remarkably, the only safe haven of its kind set up in the United States during the war. And while it is remembered as a special place, a symbol of eventual reckoning, it only barely offset the overwhelming human toll extracted by the Nazis. Even those spared in Oswego would have to reconcile their own fates with those of the millions killed during the war. Or, as one survivor put it in the Haven radio program: “I felt wonderful and I felt terrible — okay? That’s what the camp meant to me.”