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Wednesday, 26 December 2018 12:31

Formation of Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter 75 Years Ago

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Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson Submitted photo

In November, 1942, after reports of the organized mass murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe became public, the Bergson Group, a series of committees headed by Zionist Hillel Kook using the name Peter Bergson in America, dropped efforts to create a Jewish army, and focused on urging the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

For nearly a year, the Bergson Group published articles and ran ads in US newspapers exposing the exterminations and urged the government to find ways to help and rescue Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. US government officials and the Army, however, argued that rescue was impossible due to wartime conditions.

Concurrently, American newspapers relegated reports of mass killings of Jews to the back pages, downplaying it in the public mind. Fearful of anti-Semitic repercussions, American Jewish leaders supported the FDR administration’s policy of winning the war as quickly as possible as the best way to save the Jews of Europe and did not advocate directing military resources towards bombing of crematoriums and railway lines into concentration camps.

After a year of trying and failing to effect any US government effort towards rescuing Jews in Europe, the Bergson Group decided to change tactics. On Nov. 9, 1943, Iowa Democratic Senator Guy Gillette, Ohio Republican Congressman Robert Taft, and California Democratic Congressman Will Rogers Jr. introduced a resolution in Congress authored by the Bergson Group. The “Rescue Resolution” called for the FDR administration to establish a committee of experts “to formulate and effectuate a plan of immediate action” to rescue the Jews of Europe.

Soon after the Rescue Resolution was introduced in Congress, the Bergson Group published a full-page newspaper ad critical of the FDR administration’s failure to help the Jews of Europe. Jewish financier Bernard Baruch, advisor to the President, complained that FDR was very upset about the ad, and pressured the Bergson Group to discontinue the ads. Having struck a nerve, the criticism prompted the Bergson Group to launch a campaign of newspaper ads promoting the Rescue Resolution. As the resolution circulated through Congress from November 1943 to mid-January 1944, it gained private, public and political support, despite opposition from the American Jewish Conference, which tried to derail it and have Bergson investigated by the IRS. With support for the resolution from many in Congress, FDR established the War Refugee Board by Executive Order on Jan. 22, 1943.

FDR tasked the War Refugee Board (WRB) with “the immediate rescue and relief of the Jews in Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.” Although the WRB’s first director, John Pehle, described the board as “little and late” in comparison to the enormity of the Holocaust, staff estimated in the agency’s final report that they saved tens of thousands of lives and helped hundreds of thousands more in the last year and several months of the war in Europe.

A long-range goal of the WRB was to remove refugees from war zones and establish camps for them in Allied countries and territories or resettle them in safe zones permanently whenever possible. However, the US was unwilling to establish camps within its own borders and territories, a fact that did not go unnoticed or escape ridicule by the Allies, or the Nazis. Intended in part as a means of convincing its allies that the US was serious about refugee rescue and relief, on June 12, 1944, FDR announced a plan to establish a free port at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY. FDR decided to call the refugee facility at Fort Ontario a “shelter,” preferring that kinder and gentler word to “port,” or “camp,” which carried with it connotations of concentration and death camps in Europe.

From Aug. 5, 1944 to Feb. 3, 1946, Fort Ontario served as the only refugee camp or “shelter” in the US during World War II for victims of the Holocaust. As events and activities commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter begin, it is important to recognize the significance of the Nov. 9, 1943 Rescue Resolution in the Shelter’s history and in America’s response to the Holocaust. The nearly 1,000 refugees brought to Fort Ontario in 1944 represent a token shipment of the numbers that could have been rescued or removed from the war zone and resettled in the US or other countries during World War II. However, Fort Ontario represents the first time that a large number of undocumented aliens were granted asylum in the US, and it laid the groundwork for admitting far larger numbers of refugees under special post-war legislation.

For more information on Fort Ontario and the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, contact Historic Site Manager Paul Lear at 315-343-4711, or e-mail [email protected] Fort Ontario State Historic Site is open from mid-May to mid-October and is located at the north end of East Fourth Street in the City of Oswego. The Safe Haven Museum and Education Center, dedicated to interpreting the history of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, is located in the old army guardhouse at the north end of East Seventh Street in the City of Oswego. Call 315-342-3003 for winter public hours.

The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter is also featured in a permanent exhibit at the NYS Museum in Albany, and in the temporary “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

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