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The Book of the Week is “Haven, The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America” by Ruth Gruber, originally published in 1983.
As is well known, 1944 was a presidential election (or reelection) year. In June 1944, politician that he was– FDR announced that the United States would allow about a thousand (out of millions and millions of) European refugees from eighteen different nations to cross the Atlantic via ship (funded by relief agencies) and temporarily settle in a camp in Oswego in northern New York State, near the Canadian border. They had all happened to have fled to Italy. They weren’t counted in America’s then-quotas on immigrants coming from specific countries.
Gruber, who had friends in high places in the American government, got the coveted assignment to assist them. But first, she was vetted by the War Relocation Authority, the State Department, and the Public Health Service. Upon traveling to the transport ship in Naples, she received the U.S. Army title “general” so that she would be treated like a prisoner of war (pursuant to the Geneva Convention) if she was captured by the Axis Powers.
The refugees had suffered terrible hardships and traumas prior to their arrival in Oswego. However, they continued to live their lives as best they could while confined to the camp. The Jewish ones held a bar mitzvah, a wedding and a bris for the baby born there. The able-bodied were made to do various local jobs such as farm work or shoveling coal, for which they were paid eighty cents a day; insultingly enough– paid approximately the same as the Nazi POWs with whom they worked side by side.
When the end of the war was declared in spring 1945, the immigration status of the Oswego camp’s residents became a political football. In August 1945, about a twentieth of the refugees opted to return to their home countries. Thereafter, different stakeholders– government officials and political activists argued over whether to let the refugees stay in America, or go where they wanted, such as to Palestine.
Read the book to learn many additional details about the people involved, and their fates.