Today’s post comes from Cynthia Peterman, education volunteer at the National Archives at College Park.
We recently featured historical documents in a webinar about U.S. immigration policy and the refugee crisis during World War II and the Holocaust. It was the second part of “Teaching Americans and the Holocaust with National Archives Primary Sources,” a collaborative program between the National Archives and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) Levine Institute for Holocaust Education.
Webinar participants were introduced to primary sources, DocsTeach classroom activities, and resources from USHMM’s new exhibition “Americans and the Holocaust.” Participants joined from USHMM’s Museum Teacher Fellows program, as well as from other teacher networks affiliated with the USHMM.
The documents presented here are used in a classroom activity for high school students and develops the skill of “Historical Issues-Analysis & Decision-Making.” Documents on the subject of refugees during World War II and the Holocaust in the holdings of the National Archives can be found in Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State and RG 48, Records of the office of the Secretary of the Interior.
In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in a military coup prompting thousands of Jews to try to emigrate to the United States. The restrictive immigration quotas from the Immigration Act of 1924 left more than 100,000 Germans and Austrians, mostly Jews, on a lengthy waiting list with nearly 8,000 visas unissued. Public opinion was strongly against easing immigration restrictions, with 71% of Americans against allowing more Germans to come to the U.S.
By 1940, officials in the State Department were exploring ways to further curtail immigration. At a series of June meetings, Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long established procedures to tighten the visa review process during the war in order to “safeguard the best interests of the United States.” These included limiting certain nationalities from entry, and advising consuls “to put every obstacle in the way” in order to “delay and effectively stop” the number of immigrants to the U.S.
In 1943, officials in the Treasury Department’s Foreign Funds Control Office became aware of the delays at the State Department. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. brought evidence to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked the President for immediate action to rescue imperiled European Jews.
Within days of meeting with Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9417 “Establishing a War Refugee Board.” The order stated that it was the policy of the U.S. Government “to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.”
On June 2, 1944, President Roosevelt held a press conference at which he announced that the War Refugee Board was exploring converting the Ft. Ontario army camp in Oswego, New York into a refugee center. All refugees would have to agree to the provisions in a “Declaration for Refugees Entering the United States” that included they would come not as immigrants but as “guests” and would return to their homelands after the war.
In August 1944, 982 European refugees arrived in New York on the USS Henry Gibbins en route to what became known as the Emergency Refugee Shelter at Ft. Ontario. They were accompanied by Dr. Ruth Gruber, a field representative working for Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who spent a considerable amount of time helping the refugees to settle into their new lives (see “Oral History with Ruth Gruber”). In a letter to Secretary Ickes in June 1945, Congressman Lowell Stockman (R-OR) wrote of his visit to Ft. Ontario as a member of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee: “…all hailed her as they would a long-lost, close friend and relative.”
In September 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp accompanied by Elinor Morgenthau, wife of the Treasury Secretary, where they received a tour given by refugee Ernst Wolff. Wolff wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt in February 1945, asking her to “save to [sic] the souls of this 1000 bodys [sic]” by working for their release from the camp. Though many of them had relatives in the U.S., including 40 with family members serving in the U.S. armed forces, they were not permitted to leave the camp for visits or to go to the town of Oswego. However, children did attend school in town and, in November 1944, 15 year old Ralph Kuznitzki wrote an essay for his English class, “The Flower and I,” in which he compared his experience as a refugee to the experience of a flower: “In its youngest years the wind of nature brought it and the tornado of Nazis brought me away from our mother place…I found a place too; but will this place be my fatherland, my place where I can settle down, develop and finally — die?”
Following the end of the war and the death of Franklin Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman closed the camp, and refugees who wanted to enter the U.S. were admitted with immigrant visas. The Emergency Refugee Shelter at Ft. Ontario was the only center for European refugees in the United States during World War II.