At the height of World War II, as Adolf Hitler was presiding over the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept our borders closed. Informed of the ongoing slaughter, he decided to permit only a thousand refugees entrance to America and allowed them to remain here only until the war ended.
Seventy-five years ago this month an Army ship, the Henry Gibbins, sailed past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor, carrying about 985 of those refugees to our shores. They were considered enemy aliens, citizens of countries with which we were at war. These fortunate few, Jews and non-Jews, had escaped the Nazis. Some hid in forests or miraculously survived the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. They had all somehow made it past Nazi lines to southern Italy, which had been liberated by the Allied armies.
In Naples, they boarded the ship bound for New York. Upon their arrival in 1944, they were escorted by military police onto trains shipping them to Fort Ontario, a decommissioned Army base in Oswego, N.Y.
Roosevelt used his executive power to designate them as temporary guests, thus circumventing our restrictive immigration laws. Even as “guests,” they could not leave Fort Ontario, confined by a wire fence topped by three rows of barbed wire. When they arrived, there was no medical care and no provision for school for almost 200 refugee children.
Eventually the restrictions were eased, and the refugees were allowed to enter nearby Oswego. Their family members already settled in the U.S. could visit them, and the children enrolled in local schools.
I grew up with two families: a traditional one, and the one we called our “Oswego family,” these refugees and their partners and children. My mother, Ruth Gruber, was the special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes when he sent her to escort the refugees from Naples to Fort Ontario. When the war ended, members of Congress demanded that President Truman “send them back.” But after my mother and others fiercely lobbied him, Truman allowed them to cross into Canada and immediately return to the country as new immigrants.
Almost all the refugees had lost their entire families in the Holocaust, but they became a new family here, one that included my family and me. These refugees also became proud Americans. Some would become famous scientists and artists, others factory workers and truck drivers — all contributing to the growth and vibrancy of our nation. Their stories were wonderful and remarkable, like those of so many refugees to this country.
When I was young, my Oswego family seemed enormous. Later I came to realize how few they were. All through World War II, countless Jews and other persecuted minorities attempted to escape to countries not occupied by the Nazis. Rejecting their pleas, the U.S. closed its borders.
Jews were considered dangerous foreigners and unfit to be Americans by many of our citizens and elected leaders. In November 1938 — after the Nazi attacks on Jews now known as Kristallnacht but when it was still possible for Jews to leave Germany — 72% of Americans said “no” to a Gallup poll that asked: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?”
Sen. Robert Reynolds (D-N.C.), who advocated closing our borders and deporting noncitizens, proclaimed on the Senate floor in 1941: “If I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of the Earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
Roosevelt intervened to save my Oswego family but allowed countless others to be slaughtered. The U.S. rejected thousands of requests for visas, even turning away a German ocean liner, the MS St. Louis, with more than 900 Jews fleeing Germany on board. The passengers were denied entry and the ship eventually took them back to Europe, where more than 250 were believed to have been murdered.
The failure of the U.S. and other non-occupied countries to accept refugees during the Holocaust led to the 1951 Refugee Convention, now embraced by most of the world. It established the principle that individuals forced to flee their homes because their own countries are unwilling or unable to protect them may seek asylum elsewhere.
But under President Trump, the nation is turning back the clock, inventing bureaucratic systems to deny safe refuge to people fleeing danger or persecution. We are closing our borders, threatening and carrying out immigration raids to terrorize families here illegally and confining refugees to camps far worse than those encountered by the “enemy aliens” taken to Fort Ontario.
Politicians in the mold of Reynolds are also damaging the soul of the nation. They are creating and magnifying xenophobia, and turning that fear of others into hatred. Officers of federal agencies responsible for protecting asylum seekers have dehumanized them, and in doing so, have diminished their own humanity.
Until recently, the children and grandchildren of those passengers on the Henry Gibbins who barely escaped Nazi Europe lived in a country where they did not have to fear violence if they attended religious services. Now Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and African American and white Christians have been attacked by gun-wielding extremists in their houses of prayer.
As the mass shooting in El Paso painfully reminded us, inciting hatred of foreigners leads to more hatred and far worse. Leaders who describe refugees as animals and demand we arrest and expel them — or build walls to stop others fleeing oppression — have learned nothing from the tragic consequences of our country’s regrettable, short-sighted policies of the 1940s.
David Michaels is a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and author of the forthcoming “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.” He served as assistant secretary of labor for the Department of Occupational Safety and Health from 2009-17.