European Refugees in the United States During World War II

Today’s post comes from National Archives volunteer Cynthia Peterman. She created a new online teaching activity on DocsTeach called Analyzing a Writing Assignment by a Teenage Refugee in New York During World War II in which students analyze a composition written by a 15-year-old refugee about resettlement and his life after the war.

In August 1944, 982 European refugees, the majority Jewish, came to the United States and were settled at the Ft. Ontario army base near Oswego, NY. They came from 17 European countries, and were hand-picked from refugee centers in Italy. The selection criteria included both Jews and non-Jews; skills to run camp independently; and being disease-free. Most of the refugees were over the age of 40. In addition, there were nearly 200 children, with an additional 23 born inside the camp.

Declaration for Refugees Entering the United States for Fort Ontario
Excerpt of a declaration that refugees agreed to, requiring them to return to their home countries or another location after the war

The Emergency Refugee Shelter was the only refugee camp in the United States, and was run by the Department of the Interior. All refugees were instructed to sign a declaration that they would return to their home country at the end of the war. (This was overturned in a 1945 directive by President Truman.) Adults were given six-hour passes to visit the town of Oswego, and children were enrolled in the town’s schools.

The Interior Department’s Field Representative, Ruth Gruber, had accompanied the refugees across the Atlantic. She helped them settle in at Ft. Ontario, and she kept Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes updated on their progress. Her work with the refugees was lauded in a letter to Ickes from Congressman Lowell Stockman (R-OR) following his visit to the camp in June, 1945.

On December 9, 1944, Ms. Gruber wrote to John Ryckman, Director of the Division of Information at the Interior Department, with a composition by a 15-year-old refugee. Ralph Kuznitski attended high school in Oswego. According to the Ontario Chronicle, December 21, 1944, the teenager at Oswego High School made the honor roll just months after his arrival in the United States. He composed “The Flower and I” for an English class.

The composition offers fascinating insights into the experience of a teenager and the mixed emotions of missing his home despite persecution and his hope for a new life in a new country.

"The Flower and I" written composition

“The Flower and I” is featured in the DocsTeach activity Analyzing a Writing Assignment by a Teenage Refugee in New York During World War II. This “spotlight” activity directs students to study a few key phrases in the composition and analyze them for tone to determine what they say about Kuznitski’s life at Ft. Ontario. This activity is appropriate for students in grades 7-12 and takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.

Highlighted English composition
…Born far away, it stayed in its calm life only for a short time. Where was it born? I don’t know. It didn’t answer me when I asked it. In its youngest years the wind of nature brought it and the tornado of Nazis brought me away from our mother place. Many things we saw, we… life, till the cruel feet of a boy came to take it away. I found a place too, but will this place be my fatherland, my place where I can settle down, develop and finally — die?…

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