The Way It Was

Edited by Robert Peterson

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 learn to become Americans.

Troop 28 in Oswego, N.Y., came into being largely due to the efforts of Scoutmaster Harold D. Clark (in uniform, in middle row, third from right). Walter Greenberg, a refugee from Italy, is in the front row, second from left.
Photograph Courtesy of Walter Greenberg

One of the most unusual troops in the history of the Boy Scouts of America was Troop 28 of Oswego, N.Y., in 1944-46.

Its 24 Scouts were all survivors of the Holocaust that decimated Europe's Jews before and during World War II (1939 to 1945). Six million Jews and thousands of other minorities were systematically murdered by Nazi Germany in extermination camps or worked to death or starved in concentration camps.

Some Jews escaped to other countries in advance of the Nazi blitzkrieg; a few reached safety in Britain and the United States. Immigration quotas restricted the number of people from each country who could be admitted to the United States, and only a small number of people were allowed to enter compared with the number of applicants.

But in June 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to allow a thousand of those refugees to enter the country outside the quota limit, as "cargo." Two months later, 982 refugees from 18 countries arrived at Fort Ontario, a deactivated Army base in Oswego on the shores of Lake Ontario. Ralph Stauber, the state department representative who was responsible for the refugees, traveled with them from Naples and delivered them to the camp. Ruth Gruber, a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior who also accompanied the refugees to America from Italy, later chronicled her experiences in a book, Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America.

Freedom and fences

Approximately 90 percent were Jewish. Among them was Walter Greenberg, an 11-year-old native of Italy whose family had been fleeing the Germans for much of his young life. (As an adult, Greenberg became a filmmaker, and his most recent project is a traveling exhibit about the Oswego project.)

His experiences in Oswego's Emergency Refugee Shelter were mixed. On the one hand, he felt confined behind the shelter's fence.

"As a child, I knew how to survive under imprisonment and confinement, having been put in jail and in concentration camps, and had always dreamt of freedom," Greenberg said. "But I didn't remember what freedom was because I had left my hometown when I was 6. I had this tremendous, beautiful fantasy of coming to America, the land of the free. And [then] I was put in this camp, behind barbed wires."

Joseph Smart, the camp's director, welcomed the assembled refugees to their new home. "Whenever there is a knock on your door, it will be a friendly one," he reassured them.

Oswego's residents treated the refugees well, Walter Greenberg said. "There were a few incidents of friction over the [presence of the] refugees, but they were very, very minor; the overall community received us extremely well," he recalled.

Walter Greenberg
Photograph Courtesy of Walter Greenberg

Troop 28 is born

The BSA was personified by Harold D. Clark, Scoutmaster of Troop 19, chartered to the Minetto, N.Y., United Methodist Church. A welder who could see the refugee shelter from his workplace in Oswego, Clark was determined to bring Scouting to the boys there.

So was born Troop 28, a BSA international troop with Harold Clark as Scoutmaster. (There was also a Girl Scout troop and a Cub Scout pack for the younger boys; Walter Greenberg was one of two Boy Scouts who assisted the pack's Cubmaster.)

Reminiscing about the Boy Scouts more than 40 years later, Clark said: "They didn't have to think that somebody was going to cart them off to a concentration camp. Rather, they had a nice, warm place to sleep, games to play, and something to look forward to the next week. I can't get over their enthusiasm. I can see them now, so eager and so happy to be here."

Clark, who died at the age of 80 in 1987, is remembered fondly by Walter Greenberg. "He was a very nice man and spent a lot of time with us," he said. "[As a result] Scouting was a very positive experience in my life."

None of the boys could speak English when they arrived in America, but they attended Oswego's schools and soon learned. The troop collected seven tons of newspapers to pay for uniforms. "We were all proud of our uniforms," Greenberg said.

During his time in concentration camps, he had been afraid of uniforms, "but to be part of a Boy Scout troop in America meant we were free. We were still behind a fence in the refugee shelter, but [the Scout uniform] symbolized a great change in my life."

He and the other members of Troop 28 quickly absorbed Scouting's lessons about character.

"Once, we took a long hike," Greenberg recalled. "On the way back to the camp a man in a car stopped and said, 'Come on and get in,' and we said, 'No, we can't. We're Boy Scouts and we said we would hike [the entire distance], and we can't cheat.' It was very important to us to keep our word."

'One hundred percent Americans'

When President Roosevelt allowed the Oswego refugees to come to the United States, he required them to pledge that they would return to their homelands after the war. But FDR died in April 1945 as the war in Europe was winding down, and the vice president, Harry S. Truman, became president.

By then, most of the refugees had decided they did not want to go back to Europe. Their cause was championed by the shelter director, Joseph Smart, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who had visited the camp one month after their arrival. A Congressional subcommittee held hearings at Fort Ontario on whether the Oswego refugees should return to Europe or be allowed to stay in America as legal immigrants.

Walter Greenberg remembered the hearings as a defining moment for the refugees and especially for the Boy Scouts.

"We paraded in uniform with the American flag and the troop flag, and we recited the Boy Scout Oath," he said. "We were paraded in a positive way to show the congressmen how well we had acclimated ourselves to American life and American customs. I'm sure that this had a positive effect on the subcommittee."

In her book, Ruth Gruber made the same point, writing, "Our strategy was to make the congressmen see how in this one year the children had become 100 percent Americans."

However, despite a display of public support for the refugees, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization delayed reaching a final decision, and the refugees began to lose hope. But during the congressional Christmas recess, President Truman intervened. On Dec. 22, 1945, he directed officials to adjust the immigration status of any Fort Ontario resident desiring to stay in the United States.

In Oswego, the Fort Ontario camp went wild with joy and tears.

In "Scouting in World War II Detention Camps" (The Way It Was, November-December 1999), contributing editor Robert Peterson described the Scouting experiences of Japanese-Americans interned by the U.S. government following the outbreak of war with Japan. This story is available in our online archives.

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