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Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter

Registration at the Fort Ontario Refugee Center in Oswego, New York.

Registration at the Fort Ontario Refugee Center in Oswego, New York. ——US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park


On June 12, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his plan to create a free port at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. Under this plan, 982 refugees from eighteen different countries were transported from Italy to an emergency shelter 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.

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. They struggled to create a community within the camp, but the close quarters and their uncertain futures made for tense relations.

Advocates for the refugees continually lobbied Congress and the President to allow them to stay in America. Finally, after eighteen months in the camp, President Truman permitted their legal entry into the country. The shelter closed a short time later in February 1946.

The following bibliography was compiled to guide readers to materials on the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter and related resources. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Annotations are provided to help the user determine the item’s focus, and call numbers for the Museum’s Library are given in parentheses following each citation. Those unable to visit might be able to find these works in a nearby public library or acquire them through interlibrary loan. Follow the “Find in a library near you” link in each citation and enter your zip code at the Open WorldCat search screen. The results of that search indicate all libraries in your area that own that particular title. Talk to your local librarian for assistance.

Primary Sources

  • Greenberg, Karen J., editor. Columbia University Library, New York: The Varian Fry Papers: The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter Papers. Vol. 5 of Archives of the Holocaust: An International Collection of Selected Documents. New York: Garland, 1990. (Reference D 810 .J4 A735 1989) [Find in a library near you]

    Selected reproductions of documents from the Columbia University Library’s Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter Collection. Details chronologically the transfer of refugees to the United States, the establishment of the shelter, and daily life, education and culture for Fort Ontario residents. Part of a multivolume set of archival materials compiled to reflect the history of the Holocaust.

  • Wyman, David S., editor. Token Shipment (Oswego Camp)/War Refugee Board “Summary Report.” Vol. 10 of America and the Holocaust: A Thirteen-Volume Set Documenting the Editor’s Book The Abandonment of the Jews. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. (Reference D 810 .J4 W952 1988-91) [Find in a library near you]

    Reproduces the Department of the Interior’s official history of the Fort Ontario camp, Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter. Also includes the “Final Summary Report” issued by the War Refugee Board shortly after the agency’s dissolution, which briefly summarizes the Fort Ontario camp and the Board’s actions during the camp’s existence. Volumes 7, 9, and 11 of this collection contain more extensive information on the War Refugee Board.

Books and Scholarly Articles

  • Bat-Ami, Miriam. Two Suns in the Sky. Front Street/Cricket Books, 1999. (PZ 7 .B2939 T86 2001) [Find in a library near you]

    A fictional story focusing on the relationship between an American girl and a Yugoslavian boy interned at the Fort Ontario refugee shelter in Oswego, New York. Written for young adults.

  • Breitman, Richard, and Alan Kraut. American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. (D 809 .U5 B745 1987) [Find in a library near you]

    Analyzes the political and bureaucratic climate during Roosevelt’s Administration regarding European Jews trying to flee Nazi oppression. Reviews American immigration policy as well as rescue and relief efforts. Includes detailed endnotes and a brief bibliographic essay.

  • Feingold, Henry. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970. (D 810 .R4 F45 1970) [Find in a library near you]

    Examines the reasons why the rescue of Jews was given low priority under the Roosevelt Administration. Features a comprehensive bibliography arranged by type of source.

  • Friedman, Saul. No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1938-1945. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1973. (D 809 .U5 F754 1973) [Find in a library near you]

    A critical look at United States policy toward Jewish refugees during World War II. Briefly discusses early United States refugee policy beginning in the 18th century through the pre-war economic depression. Includes a list of organizations cited in the text and extensive notes.

  • 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. (D 809 .U5 G78 2000) [Find in a library near you]

    A first-hand account of the transport of the refugees to the United States, their internment at Fort Ontario, and the political wranglings regarding their fate. Written by the Secretary of the Interior’s special assistant chosen to accompany the refugees to America. Features numerous photographs, a list of all the camp’s residents, and updates describing their lives after the war.

  • Hurwitz, Ariel. “Fort Ontario.” In Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, edited by Israel Gutman, 503-504. New York: MacMillan, 1990. (Reference D 804.25 .E527 1990 v.2) [Find in a library near you]

    An overview of the so-called free port for refugees in the United States. Discusses the political opposition to admitting Jewish refugees and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s compromise of accepting 1,000 refugees from various areas in Europe.

  • 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, 301-317. New York: Routledge, 1998. (D 804.45 .U55 A48 1998) [Find in a library near you]

    Examines the United States’ and other Allies’ reluctance to establish refugee camps for those fleeing Hitler’s Europe. Traces the work of the War Refugee Board, while demonstrating the bureaucratic obstacles confronted by those who proposed action on behalf of the refugees in the face of stiff immigration restrictions and shifting political forces.

  • Lowenstein, Sharon R. Token Refuge: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Shelter at Oswego, 1944-1946. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. (D 809 .U5 L684 1986) [Find in a library near you]

    Chronicles the history of the Fort Ontario camp and the policy decisions behind its establishment. Based primarily on extensive interviews with surviving internees. Includes an epilogue, five appendices, notes, a bibliographic essay, and an index.

  • Marks, Edward B. Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, [1946]. (D 809 .U5 M275 1946) [Find in a library near you]

    The official history of the Fort Ontario camp from its inception in 1944 to its closure in February 1946. Includes a chronology of events leading up to the release and resettlement of the internees, as well as several statistical tables concerning the residents. Reproduced in Volume 10 of David S. Wyman’s America and the Holocaust.

  • Mazer, Norma Fox. Good Night, Maman. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1999. (PZ 7 .M47398 G66 1999) [Find in a library near you]

    A fictional story that traces the journey of a young Jewish girl and her brother from Nazi-occupied Paris through France and Italy and finally to the Fort Ontario refugee shelter in Oswego, New York. Relates Karen’s assimilation to American life through her interaction with the residents of Oswego. Written for young adults.

  • Smart, Joseph H. Don’t Fence Me In!: Fort Ontario Refugees: How They Won Their Freedom. Salt Lake City: Heritage Arts, 1991. (Oversize HV 640.5 .J4 S5 1991) [Find in a library near you]

    A documented chronicle of the campaign by the residents of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter to gain their freedom and the right to stay in the United States. Blends prose and historical documents to trace the history of the camp, the establishment of the Friends of Fort Ontario Guest-Refugees, and that organization’s efforts to promote the interests of the refugees and to secure for them the status of immigrants in the United States. Reproduces numerous primary documents and works of art by shelter residents, and includes a chronology of significant dates. Written and compiled by the first director of the Fort Ontario shelter.

  • Syrkin, Marie. “At Fort Ontario.” In The State of the Jews, 247-254. Washington, DC: New Republic Books, 1980. (DS 145 .S97 1980) [Find in a library near you]

    A reprint of an essay written in September 1944 and based upon the author’s one day visit to the refugee shelter in Oswego. Offers very personal impressions of the living conditions there and the physical and emotional state of the refugees. Also comments on the response of the government and American Jewish organizations to the refugees’ plight.

  • 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. (HV 640.5 .J4 D65 2004) [Find in a library near you]

    Compilation of essays, letters, poems, newspaper articles, and interviews with survivors from the Fort Ontario refugee camp. Provides first-person accounts of life in the camp, and reproduces several photographs and drawings by refugees.

Newspaper and Journal Articles

  • Baron, Lawrence. “Haven from the Holocaust: Oswego, New York, 1944-1946.” New York History 64, no. 1 (1983): 5-34. (Subject Files) [Find in a library near you]

    Provides an overview of the only World War II refugee shelter in America by delineating the townspeople’s responses to and treatment of the refugees. Contains several photographs from the Columbia University Library’s Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter Collection.

  • Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. Ontario Chronicle. Oswego, NY: [s.n.], November 8, 1944-September 1945, vols. 1-3, 5-42. (Microfilm)

    The shelter’s weekly newspaper written by shelter residents. Includes editorials and articles covering all aspects of camp life. Each issue contains information bulletins in German or Serbo-Croatian.

  • Gruber, Ruth. “The Road to Oswego.” Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies 8, no. 2 (1994): 15-21. (D 804.15 .D56 v.8) [Find in a library near you]

    Reviews the American response to the refugee crisis in Europe during World War II. Describes the political in-fighting and maneuvering between federal agencies that led to the creation of the War Refugee Board and the Oswego Emergency Refugee Shelter. Relates the story of the refugees’ arrival at the camp and their reception in Oswego, highlighting Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit.

  • “Safe Haven: A 50th Anniversary Observance.” Oswego (New York) Palladium-Times, August 4, 1994. (Subject Files)

    A special section of Oswego, New York’s Palladium-Times published in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Fort Ontario shelter. Includes a brief history of the camp, interviews with internees, an article on Ruth Gruber, and a piece on the city’s plans to erect a museum on the site of the camp.

  • Strum, Harvey. “Fort Ontario Refugee Shelter, 1944-1946.” American Jewish History 73, no. 4 (1984): 398-421. (E 184 .J5 A5 v.73) [Find in a library near you]

    Combines a history of the refugee camp with a discussion of the United States government’s restrictive immigration policies. Focuses on the American Jewish community’s efforts to establish more safe havens and to assist the Fort Ontario refugees in obtaining American citizenship.


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  • Gray, John. Haven [videorecording]. Los Angeles: Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004. (DVD Collection) [Find in a library near you]

    Fictionalized account of the work of Ruth Gruber, an American journalist who helped nearly 1,000 Jews find refuge at the Fort Ontario refugee shelter.

  • Lewis, Paul. Safe Haven [videorecording]. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 1989. [Find in a library near you]

    A documentary containing interviews with some of the former residents of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. Also features interviews with Ruth Gruber, the Secretary of the Interior’s special assistant chosen to accompany the refugees to America, and Max Perlman, a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee in Italy who helped select the refugees. Includes commentary by scholars Elie Wiesel, David Wyman, and Sharon Lowenstein.

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