Historic Fort Ontario

Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter


From 5 August 1944 to 5 February 1946 Fort Ontario served as the only refugee shelter or camp for victims of the Holocaust. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the shelter as an example for allied countries to follow and to accept refugees within their own borders; it is unique because it was the only refugee shelter established in the United States during WWII.

Upon arriving at Fort Ontario after a long sea journey and overnight train ride, the refugees encountered a converted army post surrounded by a barbed wire fence, reminiscent of concentration camps many of them had escaped from or been interned at. Curious Oswegonians began interacting with refugees at the fence, and for the first time the Holocaust, and personal stories of survival, came face to face with everyday Americans. After years of relegating stories of the slaughter of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps to the back pages of newspapers, the press finally found a Holocaust related story they deemed worthy of front page coverage, and descended on Fort Ontario.

Before leaving Italy the refugees signed contracts agreeing to return to their homelands after the war. For nearly 18 months they endured life behind a fence, and uncertainty about their fate. Meanwhile; Oswegonians, religious organizations, elected officials, and private citizens lobbied for their freedom. Finally, on 22 December 1945, President Harry S. Truman defied pressure from anti-immigration and anti-Semitic members of Congress and the public, and signed an executive order allowing the Fort Ontario Refugees to remain in the U.S. under existing immigration quotas. Most found sponsors in the U.S. and stayed; about 100 found moved to Israel or other countries where they had family or friends. All went on to lead productive lives.

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