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"Behind the Fence": Inked Print by Miriam Sommerburg

Sommerburg Behind the Fence
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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. 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

Sommerburg was one of only 982 refugees accepted into the United States outside of pre-established immigration quotas during the war. See the USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia for more on the US immigration system during the war.

One segment from Sommerburg's play read as follows: "We are in a cage without reason,/ We are in a cage, golden cage;/ We’re missing nothing but our freedom. . . ./ Behind the fence of Fort Ontario/ We are sitting, awaiting the glorious day,/ When our unchained feet may finally go/ Over the most wonderful country's way."

Find this segment of "The Golden Cage" reproduced in Edward Marks, Token Shipment (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1946), 84. 

Dr. Ruth Gruber, who worked for the Department of the Interior, was tasked with supervising the refugees' journey and became a constant advocate for them. For more, see Ruth Gruber, Haven. New York: Coward-McCann, 1983. To learn more about Japanese American internment during World War II, see the Densho documentary project.

See the August 21, 1944 issue of Life magazine.

For local newspaper coverage of the Truman Declaration in December of 1945, see the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's citizen history project History Unfolded.

Several recorded testimonies from those housed at Fort Ontario are available online.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number 1989.316.5
Date Created
1944 to 1945
Photographer / Creator
Miriam Sommerburg
Fort Ontario, Oswego, New York, USA
Still Image Type Artwork
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