The Shel­ter and the Fence: When 982 Holo­caust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America

Nor­man H. Finkelstein

  • Review
By – November 8, 2021

Although the pop­u­lar image of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty wel­com­ing refugees is ingrained in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, there has always been a deep strain of xeno­pho­bia reflect­ed in Unit­ed States immi­gra­tion law. The Shel­ter and the Fence, by Nor­man H. Finkel­stein, describes how few­er than one thou­sand refugees, main­ly Jew­ish, were housed at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, dur­ing the last year of World War II. The book’s title refers to the para­dox of this life-sav­ing pro­gram, whose ben­e­fi­cia­ries were com­plete­ly pro­tect­ed from vio­lence and pover­ty, but were also restrict­ed to one loca­tion and grant­ed lit­tle free­dom. A barbed wire fence enclosed the camp. Com­bin­ing his­tor­i­cal back­ground mate­r­i­al, per­son­al accounts, and numer­ous pri­ma­ry sources, Finkel­stein tells a unique sto­ry lit­tle-known to most Americans.

Finkel­stein care­ful­ly traces the his­to­ry of laws which, by the 1920s, vir­tu­al­ly closed the doors to Europe’s Jews through restric­tive quo­tas. Sus­pi­cion of immi­grants in gen­er­al, com­bined with tox­ic anti­semitism, ensured the rejec­tion of pleas to admit the vic­tims of Hitler before it was too late. Although the Amer­i­can government’s response to the emer­gency was almost whol­ly inad­e­quate, there was a lim­it­ed pro­gram ini­ti­at­ed in 1944, the War Refugee Board, which autho­rized a min­i­mal num­ber of appli­cants to find tem­po­rary shel­ter through var­i­ous inter­na­tion­al inter­ven­tions. The cen­ter at Fort Ontario was care­ful­ly struc­tured to avoid con­fronting changes to exist­ing laws; those admit­ted were informed that, after the war, they could not expect per­ma­nent res­i­dence in the Unit­ed States. Through­out the book there is a care­ful bal­ance between extolling the pos­i­tive impact of this unusu­al pro­gram, and crit­i­ciz­ing its obvi­ous lim­its. As one res­i­dent sum­ma­rized his sit­u­a­tion, I felt that I should have been free…I had nurs­es. I had food…What good is it to have all the ameni­ties of life if one still isn’t free?”

Through­out the text, care­ful­ly select­ed doc­u­ments com­ple­ment the refugees’ sto­ry. Along with infor­ma­tion about the his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion, the plight of Europe’s Jews, and dis­agree­ment even with­in the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion about its oblig­a­tion to help, these pri­ma­ry sources are impact­ful. Not only pho­tographs, but menus, let­ters, and offi­cial forms paint a full pic­ture of the pro­gram. Read­ers will empathize with Jews required to sign an appli­ca­tion form stip­u­lat­ing that they would only be guests of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment with no right to expect long-term sup­port. Refusal of these terms would have con­signed them to remain in the Ital­ian camps where many were liv­ing under oppres­sive con­di­tions, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of even­tu­al depor­ta­tion to Nazi-con­trolled regions. They were not allowed to vis­it rel­a­tives out­side of Oswego, nor could they work for wages out­side of the camp, a priv­i­lege which was actu­al­ly extend­ed to some Ger­man pris­on­ers of the war in the U.S. The chil­dren at Fort Ontario were per­mit­ted to attend local pub­lic schools, where they received an over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ive wel­come. Nev­er­the­less, it is instruc­tive to read the let­ter sent by the Oswego School Depart­ment to par­ents of incom­ing stu­dents. It reminds them that their chil­dren will be expect­ed to assim­i­late to Amer­i­can stan­dards of pre­sum­ably unfa­mil­iar demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­ce­dures.” These stu­dents would become some of the most suc­cess­ful and respect­ed in the dis­trict, yet they were ini­tial­ly cau­tioned that Amer­i­can boys and girls are taught not to attract atten­tion to them­selves by being noisy, dis­obe­di­ent, or uncooperative…Speak Eng­lish in the school at all times…”

The sto­ry of Fort Ontario does not end when the Axis pow­ers are defeat­ed. Many polit­i­cal lead­ers, local com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, and Jew­ish activists protest­ed the orig­i­nal inflex­i­ble terms of their wartime sanc­tu­ary. Final­ly, a large per­cent­age of the res­i­dents were allowed to make their home in the Unit­ed States. Yet even while nar­rat­ing this hap­py con­clu­sion to an imper­fect but well-inten­tioned solu­tion, young read­ers will have learned how excep­tion­al it was. Amer­i­can atti­tudes toward immi­gra­tion have always been con­flict­ed. Trag­i­cal­ly, sus­pi­cion of for­eign­ers cost many Jews their lives, even while a few found a safe haven here dur­ing the Holocaust.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes a time­line and a bibliography.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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