By Paul A. Lear
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 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 9 November 1943, Iowa Democratic Senator Guy Gillette of Iowa, Ohio Republican Congressman Robert Taft, and California Democratic Congressmen 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, providing FDR with the backing needed to establish the War Refugee Board by Executive Order on 22 January 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 save 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 Nazi’s. Intended in part as a means of convincing its allies that the US was serious about refugee rescue and relief, on 12 June 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 5 August 1944 to 3 February 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 9 November 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 represents 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.