Monday, March 21, 2011

Oswego and Arizona, among other places

Maybe you know the Oswego story. I only heard it last winter, by chance, in a catching-up chat with a family friend. I mentioned studying the Japanese American Internment, and talked a little about the Tule Lake detention site. She told me the Oswego story in return.

It's about 982 war refugees, mostly Jewish, who managed to board a special rescue ship from U.S.-occupied Italy in 1944. They were admitted to the United States, conditionally and at arm's length, and then detained by the War Relocation Administration (the agency that also managed most Japanese Americans' detention) at a guarded ex-army compound in Oswego, New York. The site was carefully labeled an "Emergency Refugee Shelter" to discourage ideas of permanence. The Oswego refugees were eventually released to live in the U.S. -- but first, for about two years, they had to live in a fenced enclosure amid unfair uncertainties and restrictions.

The Oswego group were, relatively speaking, lucky -- token "poster children" to be saved amid favorable publicity, while many other refugees were fatally rejected under xenophobic U.S. immigration policies. (The story of the refugee ship St. Louis is particularly tragic: turned away from Cuba and advisedly ignored by the United States, it returned to Europe, where many of the passengers were later deported to their deaths.)

Sharon Lowenstein's classic work Token Refuge: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Shelter at Oswego, 1944-1946 tells the Oswego story in detail. There's also some good Oswego material online in author Carol Garbuny Vogel's page about her great-aunt and -uncle, who survived the war by way of Oswego.

But I think Gilda Haas of Dr. Pop pulls it all together best in this striking essay. In a few paragraphs, she makes a tour of civilian detentions from the Heart Mountain and Manzanar camps for Japanese Americans, to the wartime killing fields of Europe, back to the U.S., where she reveals her own mother was in Oswego, and right along to present-day roundups in France and Arizona of people viewed categorically as strangers. She provides a telling quote about Oswego along the way:
Refugee Walter Greenberg comments, “I felt deceived. I felt that I should have been free. I mean, I felt wonderful. I had doctors. I had nurses. I had food. I came to school. Oswegonians were very kind… What good is it to have all the amenities of life if one still isn’t free?”
The person who told me the Oswego story last winter was struck by another quote in the Haas article, from an exhibit text in the Japanese American National Museum:
"...all concentration camps have one thing in common: people in power remove a minority group from the general population and the rest of society lets it happen."
The Oswego story offers thought-provoking comparisons with the site of the Tule Lake camp in California, which I've been visiting and studying for a book project. Tule Lake became a politically turbulent "segregation center" for people viewed as "disloyal," within the larger network of West Coast detention sites that held Japanese Americans during World War II.

Oswego detainees had a much better reputation than Tule Lake detainees, both locally and nationally, yet the Lowenstein book describes some incongruous wrongs that echo stories I've heard at Tule Lake. In both cases there were false rumors among nearby townspeople about luxurious conditions inside the detention site. In both cases, civilian detainees, who were not accused of any wrongdoing, ended up living under worse and more restrictive conditions than German POWs, housed nearby -- that is, civilians were trusted less than captured soldiers from an actual enemy army.

There's an intriguing contrast, though, in the ways local people treated the two sites after the war. At Tule Lake, members of local farming families kept on living in and around the detention site, even inside its actual buildings. However, until very recently, local leaders refused to admit the site had historical significance.

Oswego, also a U.S. detention site, but more favorably remembered than Tule Lake, found a different postwar interpretation. The site has been a museum for some years. However, there might be some glossing-over at Oswego too. Judging by its Web site, the museum emphasizes the happy sides of the detainees' wartime experience. Barbed wire notwithstanding.

I wonder how historians and site curators will present the U.S. immigration detention sites of 2011?

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