(Continued from last week)
Inasmuch as the refugees tried to create a community within the camp, their uncertain futures cast a shadow of dread. Almost no one wanted to return to Europe – their inevitable fate.
“I would…find it impossible to live in a country where all my family have been killed,” wrote Richard Arvay, an Austrian writer and filmmaker, in a 1944 document stating his desire to stay.
Pro-Jewish organizations lobbied intensively to procure citizenship status for the refugees, as did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – who made a personal visit to the camp accompanied by Mrs. Henry Morgenthau. Still, FDR remained adamant that they be sent back.
In April 1945, Ruth Gruber compiled a report about the camp, concluding with her firm belief that its “nearly Americanized” residents should be allowed in as part of the country’s regular quotas: “It is time we showed that this administration has a policy of decency, humanity, and conscience and the guts to carry that policy through,” she wrote.
Then, in perhaps blatant Divine intervention, the beloved President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, just days before the war’s end.
Yet even with the main impediment removed, the fate of the refugees still hung in the air. Rumor had it that they were scheduled for deportation on June 30, and the despondency in the fort was palpable.
A committee that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and Joseph Smart – the original director of Fort Ontario who resigned from his position to better advocate for the residents he’d become attached to – worked tirelessly to win support for the refugees.
Even the mayor of Oswego, along with 27 leading locals, sent a signed petition to President Harry Truman and to Congress, imploring them to grant the refugees citizenship.
But Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, the Jewish politician credited by some as jumpstarting the Oswego operation altogether, couldn’t reconcile himself with posthumously defying the dead president’s orders.
“You’re asking that we change the instructions issued by the President…I can’t go back on my promise…I couldn’t sleep with my conscience,” he told the delegation from several Jewish refugee committees that had come to plead on the Oswego group’s behalf.
The breakthrough arrived when NY Congressman Samuel Dickstein, Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, announced that he planned on investigating the camp. Before President Truman could act, a congressional delegation arrived at the camp and interviewed the residents.
Edmund Waterbury, publisher of the Oswego Palladium-Times who accompanied the delegation, risked his career in Oswego when he testified, “There is more talent in this group than there is in all of Oswego together, and I am not discrediting my own hometown, but when you get painting, sculpture, music, acting, dancing, and playwriting, they would do credit to a city of five hundred thousand population.”
The delegation voted unanimously to allow the refugees to stay, and with continued political pressure, on Dec. 22, 1945 – eight months after Germany’s surrender – President Truman ordered the government to annul the refugees’ status as displaced persons.
“In the circumstances, it would be inhumane and wasteful to require these people to go all the way back to Europe merely for the purpose of applying there for immigration visas,” President Truman said in a speech announcing the directive.
By this time, 23 Oswego babies had been born, one couple had married, and at least two teenage boys had managed to sneak through some holes in the fence and hitchhike to Manhattan for a day of adventure.
To become legal immigrants, the soon-to-be citizens were bused to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in Ontario, where they received visas and then returned across the Rainbow Bridge – finally free.
“Roosevelt died just in time,” reflects Abraham Dresdner, now a great-grandfather many times over. “My father had signed the papers originally because ‘to get out of hell, you sign whatever it takes.’ He took a gamble, and thank God, it was worth it.”
Too Little Too Late
Nearly 70 years have passed since those first refugees stepped through the gates at Fort Ontario, and plans are underway for a 2014 reunion. Attendance will be sparse: as of June 2013, less than 100 are still alive.
Successful as it was in saving 1,000 lives, Dr. Schum of Oswego’s Safe Haven Museum says modern historians actually view the rescue operation as an embarrassing chapter in American history. Had the Oswego shelter been replicated in other locations, they argue, as many as 100,000 Jews could have been saved – even at the late date of 1944.
Perhaps the most ignominious example of America’s refusal to intervene was the turning away of the MS St. Louis, a German oceanliner packed with 937 desperate Jews, about a quarter of whom were eventually gassed.
“The good part about Oswego is that 1,000 innocent men and women went on to lead meaningful, productive lives,” says Dr. Schum, “The bad part is that this is all we did.”
Most of the original Oswego residents ultimately became successful doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. One was part of the team that developed the world’s first CAT scan. Another worked in espionage, helping to dismantle atomic bombs in Russia. Almost all went on to raise families.
“The Oswego refugees made their mark on this country,” says Dr. Schum, who has developed close ties with some of the former residents. “Who knows what we could have done had we opened our gates to more.”
This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine and is reprinted with permission.