Although the popular image of the Statue of Liberty welcoming refugees is ingrained in American popular culture, there has always been a deep strain of xenophobia reflected in United States immigration law. The Shelter and the Fence, by Norman H. Finkelstein, describes how fewer than one thousand refugees, mainly Jewish, were housed at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, during the last year of World War II. The book’s title refers to the paradox of this life-saving program, whose beneficiaries were completely protected from violence and poverty, but were also restricted to one location and granted little freedom. A barbed wire fence enclosed the camp. Combining historical background material, personal accounts, and numerous primary sources, Finkelstein tells a unique story little-known to most Americans.
Finkelstein carefully traces the history of laws which, by the 1920s, virtually closed the doors to Europe’s Jews through restrictive quotas. Suspicion of immigrants in general, combined with toxic antisemitism, ensured the rejection of pleas to admit the victims of Hitler before it was too late. Although the American government’s response to the emergency was almost wholly inadequate, there was a limited program initiated in 1944, the War Refugee Board, which authorized a minimal number of applicants to find temporary shelter through various international interventions. The center at Fort Ontario was carefully structured to avoid confronting changes to existing laws; those admitted were informed that, after the war, they could not expect permanent residence in the United States. Throughout the book there is a careful balance between extolling the positive impact of this unusual program, and criticizing its obvious limits. As one resident summarized his situation, “I felt that I should have been free…I had nurses. I had food…What good is it to have all the amenities of life if one still isn’t free?”
Throughout the text, carefully selected documents complement the refugees’ story. Along with information about the history of immigration, the plight of Europe’s Jews, and disagreement even within the Roosevelt administration about its obligation to help, these primary sources are impactful. Not only photographs, but menus, letters, and official forms paint a full picture of the program. Readers will empathize with Jews required to sign an application form stipulating that they would only be guests of the American government with no right to expect long-term support. Refusal of these terms would have consigned them to remain in the Italian camps where many were living under oppressive conditions, with the possibility of eventual deportation to Nazi-controlled regions. They were not allowed to visit relatives outside of Oswego, nor could they work for wages outside of the camp, a privilege which was actually extended to some German prisoners of the war in the U.S. The children at Fort Ontario were permitted to attend local public schools, where they received an overwhelmingly supportive welcome. Nevertheless, it is instructive to read the letter sent by the Oswego School Department to parents of incoming students. It reminds them that their children will be expected to assimilate to American standards of presumably unfamiliar “democratic procedures.” These students would become some of the most successful and respected in the district, yet they were initially cautioned that “American boys and girls are taught not to attract attention to themselves by being noisy, disobedient, or uncooperative…Speak English in the school at all times…”
The story of Fort Ontario does not end when the Axis powers are defeated. Many political leaders, local community members, and Jewish activists protested the original inflexible terms of their wartime sanctuary. Finally, a large percentage of the residents were allowed to make their home in the United States. Yet even while narrating this happy conclusion to an imperfect but well-intentioned solution, young readers will have learned how exceptional it was. American attitudes toward immigration have always been conflicted. Tragically, suspicion of foreigners cost many Jews their lives, even while a few found a safe haven here during the Holocaust.
This highly recommended book includes a timeline and a bibliography.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.