Forty years after their August 3, 1944 arrival at New York harbor as refugees from Hitler, some of the 982 survivors who were sheltered at Oswego, New York returned here to reunite, remember, and share their stories with families and friends.
The Oswego refugees are unique, because they were the only Jews rescued by America and brought here during World War II: 872 of the refugees were Jewish, and the rest were Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, or of mixed marriages.
In a “humanitarian gesture” that was never repeated, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to bend immigration rules for this one group of survivors from 18 countries. Sailing from Naples on the troopship Henry Gibbins, they were brought here in a convoy of warships, with prisoners of war and wounded soldiers.
The refugees were intemed for 18 months at Fort Ontario, an abandoned army camp in upstate Oswego, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior. In order to be accepted for rescue, each had to sign papers agreeing to return to his or her country of origin after the war. Only a special directive by President Truman prevented their deportation in December, 1945.
MUTUAL LOVE CONTINUES
Author-journalist Ruth Gruber, then special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold lckes, was sent by him to Italy to escort the refugees to America. With love and compassion that went well beyond the call of duty, she became their symbol of hope and salvation in America. Forty years later, the mutual love was still evident, and her title of “Mother Ruth” was repeated by many of those at the reunion.
Gruber’s book, “Haven,” describes some of the survivors so vividly, that one expected to meet them 40 years later and find them as they were in 1944. But 40 years have brought with them better circumstances and two generations of growth:
*Olga Maurer gave birth to the Henry Gibbins’ youngest passenger on her way to the ship. Delivered in an American jeep by Gl medics and a Jewish Brigade doctor from Palestine, the baby was nicknamed by them “International Harry.” Now a computer expert living in Canada, Harry Maurer was at the reunion with his mother, his wife, and two children.
*Manya Breuer, who survived five concentration camps, sang to entertain the refugees and wounded soldiers on the Henry Gibbins. She was the first bride at Fort Ontario. She now works in an art gallery in Los Angeles, and has also sung professionally. At the reunion, she sang in Italian, Yiddish and English.
*Another Oswego refugee at the reunion, Yolanda Bass Fredkove of Minneapolis, was only two when she arrived at the camp. Her mother, Eva Bass, had been a nightclub singer in Paris and lived in Milan before the war. When the Allies landed, she carried Yolanda and another child 60 kilometers through the fighting lines. Eva Bass’ singing was remembered at the reunion, although she died in 1971. Yolanda introduced and played a recording by her mother, and Yolanda’s brother, Jack, also attended.
All of the survivors had 40 years of changes to report to each other, and for the most part, they were success stories: among them are a vice president of the American Stock Exchange, a composer of classical music, a pathologist, an anthropologist, film makers, artists, psychologists, and owners of large and thriving businesses.
“Those who opposed (our entry) have been relegated to historic oblivion, but many of you have succeeded in leaving indelible marks on this country’s culture, arts, society, “Dr. Adam Munz, director of psychological services at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, told his fellow survivors.
Governor Mario Cuomo, who has always emphasized that he is a child of immigrants, attended the reunion and said: “Whatever debt the (Oswego) refugees had to this state, they have repaid.” He spoke of their contributions to New York City, New York State, and the “great strength of our nation.” He also referred to the “anonymous heroism of a small number of Italians,” righteous gentiles who harbored some of the refugees during the war.
The reunion was held at the Public/Newman Theatre on the East Side, former headquarters of HIAS, which served as a shelter for many refugees. Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theatre, welcomed those at the Oswego reunion, and spoke of the history of the building.
A permanent Holocaust exhibit being planned for the New York State Museum in Albany will highlight the experience of the Oswego survivors. According to New York State Senate Democratic Leader Manfred Ohrenstein, chairman of the Advisory Board for the exhibit, the uniqueness of Fort Ontario as the only sanctuary for Jewish refugees in the United States during the Holocaust is an important part of the history of the state.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.