Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

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the eventual intervention of President Harry Truman, other government activists andOswego’s own locals, the decree was rescinded — closing a little-known chapter of valor in a book of apathy.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.”



Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

What’s in a Name?
Shoshana Friedman “What does Writer X have to say this week?”
Atonement — Fake and Real
Yonoson Rosenblum White confessionals and faux rituals
Four Walls Coming Full Circle
Eytan Kobre All the while, there’s been a relationship in the offing...
And Yet We Smile
Yisroel Besser We are the nation that toils to be happy at all costs
Out of This World
Rabbi Henoch Plotnick Dirshu Hashem b’himatzo — we are in Hashem’s company now...
Steven and Jonathan Litton
Rachel Bachrach The co-owners of Litton Sukkah, based in Lawrence, NY
Tali Messing
Moe Mernick Tali Messing, engineering manager at Facebook Tel Aviv
Sick Note
Jacob L. Freedman “Of course, Dr. Freedman. Machul, machul, machul”
Avoiding Health Columns Can Be Good for You
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Only one reliable guide for good health: our Torah
Endnote: Side Notes
Riki Goldstein Most Jewish music industry entertainers have side profes...
Me, Myself, and Why
Faigy Peritzman Where there’s no heart and no love, there’s no point
Can’t Do It Without You
Sarah Chana Radcliffe When you step up to the plate, you build your home team
Eternal Joy
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz The joy of Succos is the fruit of spiritual victory
The Appraiser: Part III
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer Make sure your child knows his strengths
Hidden Special Needs
Rena Shechter You won’t see his special needs, but don’t deny them
Dear Wealthy Friend
Anonymous There’s no need for guilt. I am truly happy for you