Jewish refugees from Europe arrive at the emergency refugee shelter at Fort Ontario. A father, holding his daughter, checks his ID tags. Oswego, New York, United States, August 4, 1944. National Archives and Records Administration

FDR Shelters Refugees in Oswego, NY

June 12, 1944

President Roosevelt calls for a “free port” for refugees at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY.

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On June 12, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally announced his plan to create a free port for refugees at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. Under this plan, nearly 1,000 refugees—mostly Jews—were transported from Allied-liberated territory in northern Italy to an emergency shelter established by the War Refugee Board at Fort Ontario. Roosevelt circumvented the rigid immigration quotas by identifying these refugees as his “guests,” but that status gave them no legal standing and required their return to Europe once conditions permitted their repatriation.

The refugees arrived at Fort Ontario in August 1944. Because of their undefined immigrant status, the refugees were not permitted to leave Fort Ontario, even to work or to visit family members already settled in the United States; though some refugee children were permitted to attend public schools outside the camp. They struggled to create a community within the camp, but the close quarters and their uncertain futures made for tense relations.

On September 20, 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a well-publicized visit to the camp and, as she did so often to rally support for her husband's policies, wrote about the visit in her syndicated column, “My Day.” The war came to an end, and since many of the refugees had family in the United States, they resisted repatriation to Europe. Advocates for the refugees continually lobbied Congress and the president to allow them to stay in America. Finally, after the refugees had spent 18 months in the camp, President Harry S Truman permitted their legal entry into the country. The camp closed a short time later in February 1946.

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Breitman, Richard, and Alan Kraut. American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Feingold, Henry. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938–1945. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

Friedman, Saul. No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1938–1945. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1973.

Gruber, Ruth. Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America. New York: Times Books/Random House, 2000.

Lowenstein, Sharon. “A New Deal for Refugees: The Promise and Reality of Oswego.” In America, American Jews, and the Holocaust, edited by Jeffrey S. Gurock, 301317. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Lowenstein, Sharon R. Token Refuge: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Shelter at Oswego, 1944–1946. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Marks, Edward B. Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, [1946].

Smart, Joseph H. Don’t Fence Me In!: Fort Ontario Refugees: How They Won Their Freedom. Salt Lake City: Heritage Arts, 1991.

Syrkin, Marie. “At Fort Ontario.” In The State of the Jews, 247–254. Washington, DC: New Republic Books, 1980.

Warnes, Kathy. “Don’t Fence Me In!”: Memories of the Fort Ontario Refugees and their Friends. Oswego, NY: Safe Haven Inc., Museum and Education Center, 2004.

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June 9 - 20, 1944 News reports about Franklin D. Roosevelt's announcement that the War Refugee Board would shelter one thousand refugees at Fort Ontario.

June 14 - 30, 1944 Editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and political cartoons regarding the creation of a refugee shelter at Fort Ontario.

August 3 - 11, 1944 News reports about the arrival of refugees at Fort Ontario.

August 4 - 31, 1944 Editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and political cartoons regarding the arrival and condition of refugees at Fort Ontario.

September 20 - 28, 1944 News reports about Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to Fort Ontario and conditions in the camp.

September 21, 1944 - October 3, 1944 Editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and political cartoons regarding Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to Fort Ontario and conditions in the camp.


Fort Ontario, Oswego, War Refugee Board, refugee