One of the least known Christmas time stories from history happened on December 22, 1945, when the then President Truman issued his “Truman Directive” executive order. This order finally allowed the United States to fill immigration quotas with what were then labeled as DP’s, “displaced persons”.
This story had its immediate impact with the only refugee camp for DP’s in the United States, a camp at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY, now known as Safe Haven.
This little known piece of history is an interesting look into the policies of the United States on immigration, (especially Jewish). A time when we set tight limits on the number of immigrants allowed entering the USA, because of the war that was on.. The fact remained that as the Allied Forces swept through Europe and Nazi Concentration Camps were liberated, the many people who lived through the horrific experience had no place to go. Though countries all over the world took in DP’s the, United States did not.
With much political pressure, Roosevelt finally in 1944 allowed 982 Holocaust survivors and political prisoners of war that were liberated or displaced to come the United States as his “Guests”. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes sent Ruth Gruber an assistant to escort these refugees to the United States and to record their stories..
The people who were chosen met a criteria that consisted of those who had helped in the Allied War effort, had lost relatives in the Holocaust, had family in the United States or had talents that could help run the American shelter. The selection also gave preference to those who had several family members with them. The catch was that after the war they would all have to return to their homeland – they had no standing; they were only regarded as guests of the President.
The group left from Naples, Italy on the troop transport Henry Gibbons under heavy escort; the ship also carried another 1,000 wounded service men. Ruth Gibbons in her book “Haven” which was made into a TV movie, chronicled the trip and stories of these refugees. It also showed how much pressure had to be used to get just this small group of mostly “Jews” to the United States.
As the war came to a close in 1945, these immigrants who had learned English, whose children attended school in Oswego, and who had become part of the American spirit were to be shipped back; many to homes that no longer existed and to a world devastated by war.
The “Truman Directive” issued while Congress was on Christmas holiday came in time to keep these people from this. The fact was however, that they had to leave the United Sates and then return with visas. Taking the refugees to the Rainbow Bridge in Canada, and then allowing them to reenter with visas accomplished this. Of the 982, only 100 chose to return to their homeland.
Today the Safe Haven Museum at Fort Ontario welcomes visitors and through beautiful displays and video helps tell about this dark time in American history, a time when we ourselves turned our backs on not only Jewish immigrants, but also on our own American Japanese citizens.
The fort itself is trying to gain National Park status and it is my hope they succeed. The Safe Haven Museum located on its grounds is open year-round and for more information on its open times and directions go to www.oswegohaven.org.