The Secret History of America’s Only WWII Refugee Camp

Ben Alalouf with his wife, Martha, at their home in Naples, Fla., on Aug. 12, 2020. (Eve Edelheit/The New York Times)Elfi Strauber was 11 years old when she boarded the USS Henry Gibbins in Naples, Italy. It was the summer of 1944, and she was traveling with her parents and sister, hundreds of wounded soldiers and close to 1,000 other Jewish war refugees. The overcrowded troop ship was heading to New York, escorted by a convoy of warships and two transport vessels carrying Nazi prisoners of war — protection against German attack.About midway through the 20-day journey, word raced among the passengers: A Nazi U-boat had been detected. The ship engines shut down. Parents clasped their hands over their children’s mouths. It was late at night, and Elfi couldn’t find her mother during the silent scramble to go on deck in case the ship was torpedoed. They were told to be prepared to jump into lifeboats.Not in two years of running from the Nazis, not even in an Italian concentration camp, had Elfi been separated from her mother. She wasn’t ready to start now. She decided she would refuse to jump into a lifeboat without her.But before she had to act on the decision, the danger passed. They’d managed to evade detection. Within minutes, her mother emerged, sheepish. She had accidentally locked herself in a bathroom.When the ship arrived at a pier on the West Side of Manhattan, Elfi looked on as the adults around her wept with joy, overcome with relief at the lights of the city. They were among 1,000 people whom President Franklin Roosevelt had invited to stay at what would be the only refugee center in the United States during World War II. Most were Jews who had lived through concentration camps. They’d lost their homes and loved ones. They were the lucky ones.After the night on the ship, the refugees were herded by U.S. soldiers into a Quonset hut on the pier where men and women were separated. They were ordered to strip and were sprayed with DDT. Elfi obeyed, mortified, as the soldiers sprayed her hair, and all over her body, down to her toes. None of the refugees set foot in New York City proper.The next evening, an overnight train took them to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, an hour north of Syracuse. Elfi remembers the adults’ fear and confusion when they arrived Aug. 5, 1944, and from the train saw fences encircling the camp.“All we saw was a barbed-wire fence and American soldiers,” said Ben Alalouf, another child refugee who made the journey. Alalouf had been born in a bomb shelter in Yugoslavia in 1941, and although he was just a toddler, he recalls the adults’ panic. “Obviously, everyone thought it was a concentration camp.”This is the overlooked saga of one of the more complex refugee experiences in American history — and it is the single example of the United States sheltering people fleeing the Nazis. The public response to rescuing refugees in 1944 was no less confounding than it is today, 75 years after the end of World War II.The world is experiencing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II: Nearly 79.5 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant ideology is on the rise, and global anti-Semitism is alarmingly resurgent.In 1944, Americans were by no means eager to welcome refugees; many actively opposed their arrival. Before the chosen “guests” arrived in Fort Ontario, nativists were saying it was dangerous for “Nazi-controlled peoples in Europe” to immigrate.Sen. Robert R. Reynolds, D-N.C., introduced a bill in 1939 that called for halting all immigration into the United States for 10 years. “Let’s save America for Americans,” he argued. “Our country, our citizens first.” In 1941, Reynolds would suggest building a wall around the United States that “no refugee could possibly scale or ascend.”For decades, nativists had lobbied Congress to guard against a “foreign invasion.” In 1924 a national-origins quota limited immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Africans, Asians and Arabs. By the 1930s, nativists focused on a new slogan: “America’s children are America’s problem! Refugee children in Europe are Europe’s problem!”This was the political landscape when Oswego — a city of just over 18,000 mostly blue-collar factory and mill workers — became home to the shelter. It was supposed to be the first of many temporary relief camps. It turned out to be the only one.As the refugees settled in, some Oswegans regarded the camp with suspicion. Rumors circulated that the group was living in luxury. After a month’s quarantine to ensure the refugees weren’t carrying diseases, Fort Ontario held an open house — partly to introduce the newcomers to the local community and partly to dispel rumors of fancy stoves and lavish accommodations.The camp was made up of nearly 200 buildings. Army barracks had been converted into two-story dormitories partitioned with slats of paperboard so families could live together, according to Paul Lear, a historian and superintendent of the Fort Ontario State Historic Site. Elfi and her sister shared a room with two cots; their parents were on the other side of the paperboard. Communal bathrooms and showers were down the hall. The arrangement was comfortable, although the thin, uninsulated walls provided no privacy. They would learn soon enough about Oswego’s frigid winters.Frances Enwright, then 17, had lived across the street from the fort her entire life. She was used to waking up to the sound of the morning gun and going to bed with the evening gun. She would often watch the soldiers’ dress parades through the fences.Her mother, born in Bari, Italy, told stories about arriving in New York at 18 and being able to get only the worst factory jobs, like cleaning sewing machines. She often spoke to her daughter in Italian.When the refugees arrived, Frances felt a kinship with them. Her four brothers were in the Army and so was her husband-to-be. “I knew my brothers were over there fighting,” she said. “So that made it all feel closer — they were there protecting the refugees.”She first saw the refugees from her front porch. Townspeople were hovering at the fence, trying to speak to them. With her mother’s permission, she and a couple of girlfriends ran across the street.During that first interaction across the chain-link fence, Frances spoke in English. How are you? How do you like it here? But they didn’t understand. Then, she remembered that many refugees had hidden in Italy. “So I started speaking Italian,” Enwright recalled recently. She is 94 and still lives in Oswego. “Oh, my God, their eyes lit up — they were so happy to talk because now I spoke their language!”A flurry of conversations ensued. Her friends, who teased Frances when her mother spoke in Italian, were thrilled to have an interpreter. Frances took a maroon journal for autographs and asked the refugees to sign it. Pages filled up, with most messages in Italian.Seated at her kitchen table this year, Enwright said she would never forget the sadness in the refugees’ eyes. Before she came to know a teenager who introduced herself as Eva Lepehne, Enwright didn’t believe the stories of persecution she’d read in the news. She thought they were propaganda, an exaggeration.Eva signed Frances’ book, and they became quick friends. Eva shared snippets of her life. She and her parents had fled from Germany to Northern Italy, where her mother got ill and died; her father was captured and killed by the Nazis. Her grandmother had immigrated to New York before the war. At age 13, Eva had no family left in Europe. She hid in Italy for four years with a young Jewish couple until she applied to board the Henry Gibbins and was somehow picked to come to America. On her own in a new country, Eva told her new American friend about how she passed her days caring for children at the camp.In 2004, Lepehne, who now lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and has four children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, took her family to Fort Ontario to see her American refuge. Enwright happened to be volunteering as a tour guide at the Safe Haven Museum, part of Fort Ontario that memorializes its time as a refugee shelter. The two women fell into a tearful embrace, delighting in their serendipitous reunion after 59 years. They have since become regular pen pals.Interacting with the refugees, seeing their gaunt and frightened figures upon arrival and hearing their stories through the fence, many Oswegans had their eyes opened. But elsewhere, few Americans understood how dire the situation in Europe was. A 1944 poll found that less than a quarter of Americans believed that more than 1 million Jews had been killed. By then more than 5 million had been murdered. What’s more, the refugees’ arrival in the United States was at odds with the country’s immigration policy.The State Department not only enforced strict immigration limits but also concealed information on the genocide in Europe. According to Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the author of “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe,” the State Department feared that news of the mass murder of Jews in Europe would undermine its immigration stance.Her book details how, in 1943, Breckinridge Long, a patrician Missourian (and rumored anti-Semite) who managed visas for the department, suppressed harrowing information from Europe that described Hitler’s plans to exterminate Jews. He later claimed he was looking out for national security. But the Treasury Department blasted the State Department and Long in a January 1944 memo to Roosevelt.“If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration administration,” the report suggested, “we may as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty and black out the ‘lamp beside the golden door.’”Within days of receiving the memo, Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board, tasking it to rescue and provide relief for victims of Nazi persecution. Immigration quotas did not change, but the board helped relief agencies provide resources to refugees and supervised projects in Allied countries. The immediate beneficiaries were refugees stranded in newly liberated southern Italy.In June 1944, Roosevelt approved the plan for the Emergency Refugee Shelter in Fort Ontario. Within weeks, hundreds of refugees were interviewed across Italy, and 1,000 names were selected out of 3,000 applicants. Key requirements included no men of military age (who could otherwise be fighting among the Allies), no one with contagious diseases and no separation of families.The official count of refugees who arrived in Oswego was 982, since some never showed up at the port. One baby was born during the journey, and he was dubbed International Harry by those on board.Roosevelt’s invitation was not open-ended, though. The refugees signed statements agreeing to return to Europe when the war ended. They were in the United States under no official immigration quota, with no legal status. But they’d be safe.Ruth Gruber, a Jewish American, was assigned by the State Department to help escort the refugees from Naples to New York. She gave them English classes on deck, reassured them of their safety, befriended many of them and became their champion. Her memoir, “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” documents the journey.After the shock of seeing the barbed-wire fence when they arrived at Fort Ontario, the refugees slowly began to feel safe. The younger children took classes set up in the camp; older students, after the month’s quarantine, were bused to the city’s public school.While nearly a third of the refugees were considered unemployable because of age or health issues, most adults registered to work. Some staffed the fort hospital and kitchens; others served as janitors and teachers, shoveled coal or had office jobs. The government paid those who worked full time $18 a month. Others were permitted to work outside the shelter, usually taking on heavy labor. Everyone had to abide by a curfew, with residents of the camp allowed outside it only with permission.A group of refugees started The Ontario Chronicle, an English-language newspaper devoted to editorials and news around the camp. Another group set up an internal movie theater.As the months dragged on, though, the adults grew restive. They felt plagued by the severe upstate winter and their inability to move freely, imprisoned by the fences and curfews.There was, however, a hole in the fence. Elfi’s friends sneaked in and out at night and took the train to New York City. Her mother stealthily traveled one weekend to a niece’s wedding in Manhattan.The children, for the most part, flourished. Although she was only 11 when she arrived, Elfi tagged along with the camp teenagers, especially David Hendell, whom she’d met in Rome. She had a crush on the boy, who was four years older. In the summertime, they’d climb rocks overlooking Lake Ontario and jump in the water, where he taught her to swim. She learned to play Spin the Bottle. “It was the first time I got kissed,” she recalled.Local children would go to the camp and flip bicycles or sleds over the fence for the children there. “I remember playing in the snow,” said Alalouf, who arrived in Oswego as a 4-year-old.One afternoon Ben opened the door of his family’s barracks to find two older women on the threshold. “I didn’t understand. One spoke to me in Italian,” recalled Alalouf, who is retired in Naples, Florida, with his wife of 55 years after a career in high school administration. “My mom recognized the lady and started speaking in French with her. It was Eleanor Roosevelt. I remember the excitement of my mother; she told me after: ‘The president’s wife! The president’s wife!’”Eleanor Roosevelt, who had publicly endorsed legislation to admit refugee children into the country, visited the shelter in September 1944. She was received with great fanfare, inspecting the grounds and meeting refugees to ensure they were being well treated and had medical supplies. The legislation, called the Wagner-Rogers Bill, was never passed.When the war in Europe ended, a national debate raged over how to handle the millions of displaced people. Returning troops had trouble finding work, and anti-Semitism was rampant.The Oswego refugees had promised to return to Europe. Yet a vast majority had nothing to return to.In late 1945, despite most Americans’ disapproval, President Harry Truman issued a directive requiring that existing immigration quotas be designated for war refugees. He specifically directed that Fort Ontario’s “guests” be given visas.So in early 1946, groups of the Oswego refugees climbed onto school buses, drove to Niagara Falls and formally registered at the Canadian border. They then returned as official American immigrants, eventually dispersing to 20 states.After the war, Alalouf’s family found a dingy, mouse-filled apartment in Brooklyn, which he remembers happily as home. His father’s first job outside the shelter was selling Nathan’s Famous hot dogs in Coney Island, and his mother sold artificial flowers near their home. His brother was drafted to fight in Korea in 1951. In fifth grade, Alalouf formally changed his name from Benkl to Ben. When he was in junior high school, he became a shoeshine boy in the subway.“I appreciate everything that I have in my life,” said Alalouf, now 79. “My parents are the ones who sacrificed. I’m living off those sacrifices.”Elfi’s family moved to Manhattan, and at 18, she married her Oswego sweetheart, David Hendell. Ten years later, after having two children, they divorced. Elfi, known as Elfi Hendell, attended graduate school and has been a psychotherapist for most of her adult life.As the world has grappled with the coronavirus, she spent four months quarantined alone in her Manhattan apartment, where she has lived for 33 years. This July she finally traveled to Vermont to visit with her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandchildren for a week. “I’m fairly careful,” she said. “But I got through World War II, I can’t keep worrying about this.”She thinks back occasionally on her life during the war, before she arrived in the United States. She remembers her sister and herself as little girls in Italy fleeing the Nazis, hiding in a convent in Rome under a fake identity, but it feels like someone else’s life, like remembering scenes from a movie.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.© 2020 The New York Times Company
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