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Fort Ontario Used for Hiding Refugees

Fort Ontario (

In the 20th century Fort Ontario had become deactivated as a military fort, but was still actively in use by the United States of America. Towards the end of World War II when the minorities in Germany were desperately trying to avoid the extermination camps, many fled overseas to the United States.

The Back Story

The current structure that is standing today as Fort Ontario is not the same fort that was originally built. Today the shape of Fort Ontario is in that of a star, which resembles a bastion fort. In previous wars, such as the French and Indian War, the American Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, the fort was used for much more than a refugee camp. At these times of war the fort had actually been occupied by the active military forces. Hence, seen battles and had been attacked causing the fort to be badly damaged.  Thus, Fort Ontario is currently sitting on the remains of the three previous forts that had once stood in its place.

The Fort in World War II

As the late 1930’s approached so did World War II, since it was fought over seas, the United States did not have to watch their homeland for battles. However, in the mid 1940’s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order’s Fort Ontario, located in Oswego New York had found a new use. The fort had become a refugee camp for those minorities, mostly those of the Jewish race, fleeing from Adolf Hitler’s domination in the mid 1940’s. To all such change showed that, President F. D. Roosevelt’s was indicating “primarily as a token of the United States; willingness to do its part in meeting the refugee problem” (August 1944, Greek Refugees Arrive in the U.S.). Our European allies, France and Great Britain had fist allowed their borders to become open to the Jews under in Hitler’s domain of Europe. F. D. Roosevelt had seen the importance of allies in the war and thus made the right call to allow those in need to come to the United States of America. Fort Ontario was the “only refugee camp in the United States for victims of the Holocaust and World War II” (May 2016, States News Service) from overseas. 

What life was Like on The Inside

Fort Ontario still had the military fort feeling, with barbwire protecting the outside. Never the less, the refugee camp was not all bad, especially compared to the concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazi’s under Adolf Hitler’s rule overseas. “Each family had its own barracks, plenty of food and eventually access to education.” (2003, 59 Years Ago, They Fled To an Internment Camp., Pg. B5); it was almost like each family had their own new little home where they would be safe from the previously harmful situation overseas. Once a family had been settled into the fort, and had lived there, in the camp, for so long passed they just had to pass all necessary inspections to be given more freedom. That included letting children attended the local public school and even having social workers come into the camp and teach the adults the American-English language so that they could adapt to the United States’ culture. While being housed in the refugee camp of Fort Ontario’s teenage boys, were given the opportunity to become a part of the Boy Scouts of America organization. Many young men had taken much pride in wearing their uniforms with the American flag on them. (October 2004, Scouting in a World War II refugee troop: belonging to a Boy Scout troop or a Cub Scout pack inside a New York State emergency refugee shelter helped young Holocaust survivors team to become Americans.)

Ultimately during World War II Fort Ontario, located on New York’s harbor, had served as more than a refugee camp for some; it had helped minorities in part of Europe to get a second chance at a happy life.

The Effects of the Fort after the War

Roosevelt had originally planned for the refugees to return home after the war, however he died in April of 1945 as the war in Europe was winding down, and the vice President, Harry S. Truman had then became President of the United States of America.(Peterson, 2004) By this point many of the young men had thought of the United States as being their country now, and even with the war being over, had not wanted to return home, to Europe. (Peterson, 2004) Luckily for these young men, the current President Harry S. Truman was on their side, when he directed officials to adjust the immigration status of any Fort Ontario resident who “wished” to stay in the United States. (Peterson, 2004) However, in the article posted on the 26th of June in 1945, there is a direct quote by current representative, Fisher,  that states: “’The attorney general doesn’t think these people should be retained.’” (GOTTHART, C., 1945). Which to some degree shows that not everyone was as supportive of having the refugees in a camp on American soil. Never the less, the United States was founded on the foundation of a “melting pot” which has yet to change. As World War II came to an end, these refugees wanted to stay as much as those who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1700’s. President Truman had recognized their patriotism for the United States and used his power to help as many of the men, woman, and children that wanted to stay. By January of the following year, 1946, the refugees had gotten what they wanted. “Truman said ’It would be wasteful and inhuman to require all these people to go all the way back to Europe to apply there for immigration visas.’” (Alien Refugees Quit Camp, Begin Hunting Homes, 1946) There was a process set up for those that wanted to seek United States citizenship that ended with a train ride out to cities to live with family or friends to get them on their feet as citizens rather than refugees.

Ultimately, Fort Ontario, as a refugee camp had influenced the many men, woman, and children as World War II had come to end to seek American citizenship. No one could have predicted it at the start of the war, when all The Untied States had set their focus on was to do their part, as a nation to help those in need in Europe from Hitler’s domination.



Primary Sources

  1.  Greek refugees arrive in U. S. (1944, Aug 06). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963)
  2. GOTTHART, C. (1945, Jun 26). REFUGEES OPEN FIGHT TO RETAIN SHELTER IN U. S. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963)
  3.  ALIEN REFUGEES QUIT CAMP, BEGIN HUNTING HOMES. (1946, Jan 18). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963)

Secondary Sources

  1. Rowe, Claudia. 59 Years Ago, They Fled To an Internment Camp. (2003) New York Times, 21 July 2003, p. B5.
  4. Peterson, Robert. (Oct. 2004). Scouting in a World War II refugee troop: belonging to a Boy Scout troop or a Cub Scout pack inside a New York State emergency refugee shelter helped young Holocaust survivors team to become Americans.

Further Sources

  1. Fort Ontario historical site