This inked print was created by Miriam Sommerburg sometime in 1944 or 1945, while she was living at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, New York. Entitled "Behind the Fence" or "The Golden Cage," the print was used as an advertisement for a musical that she wrote about her journey to the United States and life at Fort Ontario, also called "The Golden Cage."1 The refugees being held at the shelter performed this musical at the camp in 1945, noting their gratitude to the United States, but lamenting the fact that they lived behind a barbed wire fence at Fort Ontario.2
President Franklin Roosevelt had announced the establishment of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in June 1944, and the refugees, most of whom were Jewish, arrived in Oswego in early August 1944. The War Relocation Authority—which also supervised Japanese "relocation centers"—ran the camp.3 The refugees’ arrival was covered in Life magazine, and a September 1944 visit from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also received positive publicity.4 Yet as Miriam Sommerburg's print and the lyrics from "The Golden Cage" demonstrate, life in Fort Ontario was not easy. While the children were permitted to attend the local public school, none of the refugees were allowed to leave the shelter for extended periods of time.
After the end of World War II, the Fort Ontario refugees were caught in a state of limbo. Most did not wish to return to Europe and join the millions of people who had been displaced by the war and the Holocaust. Yet they had entered the United States as "guests of the President" and therefore had no legal status. After congressional inquiries into the fate of the Fort Ontario refugees did not reach a clear decision, President Harry Truman issued the Truman Declaration in December 1945.5 This Declaration announced that the US would prioritize displaced persons for immigration and that the Fort Ontario refugees would be allowed to enter the United States as legal immigrants. The camp closed in February 1946; by the time the last of Fort Ontario refugees legally entered the United States, they had physically been in the country for more than a year.6