On Aug. 5, 1944, two trains pulled into Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., carrying nearly 1,000 refugees who only two days before had arrived from war-torn Europe aboard a U.S. Army transport ship.
The passengers, who had fled from the Nazis and made their way to a refugee camp in Italy, were granted temporary shelter by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the condition that after the war, they would return to their home countries.
At the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, they were housed in the Army barracks that were converted into rudimentary living quarters with shared common space.
Of the 982 refugees who represented 18 different nationalities, 874 were Jews. Among them were tradesmen, artists, teachers and several hundred children. Some had survived detention in Nazi concentration camps. A high priority was to keep families intact.
Now, local award-winning author Norman H. Finkelstein has brought the little-known story of the refugees out of the shadows in “The Shelter and the Fence: When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America.”
The fascinating read is embellished with archival photographs and documents as well as stories about many of the refugees.
Finkelstein, an acclaimed author of nonfiction for young adults and two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, was inspired after attending a program commemorating the 75th anniversary of the refugees’ arrival at Fort Ontario.
The program, which included survivors and their descendants, was held on Aug. 5, 2019, in Oswego on the grounds of the fort.
Finkelstein, a retired Brookline Public Schools librarian, was invited to the program by his former colleague, Florence Farley, who grew up in Oswego.
“The two days I spent were eye-opening,” Finkelstein said in a phone conversation with the Journal.
His curiosity for those under-the-radar moments of history was sparked as he listened to the survivors and historians describe the hardships and experiences of the refugees in Europe and their lives once they arrived in Oswego.
Drawing from interviews with survivors, accounts of the time, and archival materials, Finkelstein sets the historical context and paints a richly detailed portrait of the day-to-day lives of the refugees. He describes how the children were welcomed into the public schools and the array of cultural, religious, and social programs the refugees created during their 16 months at the shelter.
At the same time, there was some resentment that they were largely confined to the shelter, behind a barbed wire fence, and allowed to spend time in town for only a few hours a day. While their physical needs were met, they still lacked freedom.
“To a person, they were also extremely grateful for what happened, for saving their lives,” Finkelstein said. “But the thing is, the rescue mission of 982 [people] was really too little, too late. Six million others were being killed in Europe.”
Jewish organizations including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the National Center for Jewish Women, and ORT as well as the Red Cross and other social service and religious groups bolstered the government basics with winter clothing, summer camp programs, toys, books, and stipends for the refugees.
As the war in Europe was ending, the reality of being forced to return to Europe loomed large. Their homes and for many, their families, were gone. “Many were despondent,” Finkelstein learned.
On Dec. 22, 1945, after an extensive lobbying campaign and congressional hearings, President Harry S. Truman approved a plan that allowed the refugees to remain in the U.S. With the assistance of Jewish organizations, they were resettled in 68 communities in 20 states, most in the New York City area. About 70 voluntarily returned to Yugoslavia and other countries.
Some became doctors, teachers, lawyers, and shop owners. One refugee, who was 9 when he arrived, became a rabbi. Among the refugees was the late Michael Kricer, who lost his family in the Holocaust but married again and settled in Brookline.
Looking back at the time, Finkelstein credits the residents of Oswego who welcomed the refugees.
“This is not only the story of the survivors. It’s about their relationship to the city of Oswego. Somehow civic pride took over. Local business and community leaders played an important role in setting the tone,” he said.
Today in Oswego, the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum on the site of the fort preserves the history of what happened there.
While he’s written extensively on the Holocaust, working on this book opened a different lens, one that personalized the experience for this group of people who fled for their lives, Finkelstein said.
“Learning about their stories, who they were before the Holocaust, and how they dealt with the experience and arriving in the U.S., this humanized the Holocaust story for me.”