The Secret History of America’s Only WWII Refugee Camp

Historians in the News
tags: immigration, refugees, World War 2

Elfi Strauber was 11 years old when she boarded the U.S.S. Henry Gibbins in Naples, Italy. It was the summer of 1944, and she was traveling with her parents and sister, hundreds of wounded soldiers and close to a thousand other Jewish war refugees. The overcrowded troop ship was heading to New York, escorted by a convoy of warships and two transport vessels carrying Nazi prisoners of war — protection against German attack.

About midway through the 20-day journey, word raced among the passengers: A Nazi U-boat had been detected. The ship engines shut down. Parents clasped their hands over their children’s mouths. It was late at night, and Elfi couldn’t find her mother during the silent scramble to go on deck in case the ship was torpedoed. They were told to be prepared to jump into lifeboats.

Not in two years of running from the Nazis, not even in an Italian concentration camp, had Elfi been separated from her mother. She wasn’t ready to start now. She decided she would refuse to jump into a lifeboat without her.

But before she had to act on the decision, the danger passed. They’d managed to evade detection. Within minutes, her mother emerged, sheepish. She had accidentally locked herself in a bathroom.

When the ship arrived at a pier on the West Side of Manhattan, Elfi looked on as the adults around her wept with joy, overcome with relief at the lights of the city. They were among 1,000 people whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had invited to stay at what would be the only refugee center in the United States during World War II. Most were Jews who had lived through concentration camps. They’d lost their homes and loved ones. They were the lucky ones.

After the night on the ship, the refugees were herded by American soldiers into a Quonset hut on the pier where men and women were separated. They were ordered to strip and were sprayed with DDT. Elfi obeyed, mortified, as the soldiers sprayed her hair, and all over her body, down to her toes. None of the refugees set foot in New York City proper.

The next evening, an overnight train took them to Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., an hour north of Syracuse. Elfi remembers the adults’ fear and confusion when they arrived on Aug. 5, 1944, and from the train saw fences encircling the camp.

“All we saw was a barbed-wire fence and American soldiers,” said Ben Alalouf, another child refugee who made the journey. Mr. Alalouf had been born in a bomb shelter in Yugoslavia in 1941, and though he was just a toddler, he recalls the adults’ panic. “Obviously, everyone thought it was a concentration camp.”


Read entire article at New York Times

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