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Barbed Wire Haven

Michal Eisikowitz

With its barbed wire, wooden barracks, and military patrols,Oswego’s old army fort might have looked like a concentration camp. Yet the small town in upstateNew Yorkwas actually the one bright light within a dark and shameful presidential policy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

refugee campOswego,New York, 1944.

Nine-year-old Naftali Weinstein and five of his siblings had been on the run for four years, first hiding inVichy,France, and then penetrating the Italian border whenFrancewas overrun. His father was caught and killed by the Nazis just days beforeRomewas liberated by US troops, yet the surviving orphans were rescued.

And now, in this sleepy hamlet on the southeastern border ofLakeOntario, amid rows of wooden barracks encircled by barbed wire, Naftali peers wistfully through a chain-link fence guarded by military patrols. He’s together with another 981 European folk, primarily of Yugoslavian, Austrian, Polish, German, and Czechoslovakian origin — most of them having endured years of starvation, persecution, and torture.

The similarities were unnerving, but this was no concentration camp.

Created in February 1944 in a landmark political decision, theOswegorefugee camp — housed in an abandoned army base calledFortOntario— 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 politicking from American pro-Jewish organizations, theUScommitted to importing 1,000 refugees who had managed to enter southernItaly, 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-soakedEurope. Listed as “US Army Casual Baggage” upon arrival inNew York, the dazed immigrants were forced to sign papers promising they wouldn’t remain in theUS. In the end, with the eventual intervention of President Harry Truman, other government activists andOswego’s own locals, the decree was rescinded — closing a little-known chapter of valor in a book of apathy.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, unremarkableOswego— 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 upstateNew Yorktown earned an honorable place in history.

“Roosevelt and the War Refugee Board choseOswegobecause the old army quarters were available and becauseOswegorepresented American values,” says Dr. Willard C. Schum, a Roman Catholic Buffalo native who later became the founding president of theSafeHavenMuseumlocated in the former camp. “TheOswegoresidents lived up to the opportunity and welcomed the refugees with open arms.”



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