Scouting: a warm welcome in a “strange land”
Walter Greenberg was just a boy when he arrived in America in August 1944.
Part of a group of 982 refugees brought to the US to escape the war in Europe, Greenberg and his family found safety on the shores of Lake Ontario in a place called Oswego.
After the horrors of the Nazi occupation - including a year in an Italian concentration camp and nine months hiding in the mountains from the Germans - Greenberg was relieved to have finally reached safety, but he was also shocked to discover that his new home – a former army base - was behind a fence topped with barbed wire.
“I experienced that wonderful feeling of knowing that there will be a tomorrow, safe and sound together with my parents and friends,” Greenberg recalled in comments now in the archive of the State University of New York, Oswego. “But Fort Ontario was also a great disappointment for me; again, I was inside a camp with a fence around it, people on the outside looking in, and I on the inside looking out. I suppose this little boy grouped all camps into one, and all fences were the same, not understanding the subtle political differences of confinement.”
The Oswego refugees had come from 19 central European countries, and about 90% of them were Jewish. A fifth were children. They’d travelled to the US by boat from Naples under a special order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt that was designed to avoid the strict immigration quotas that had been imposed by countries including the US and UK. Arriving in the country as “cargo,” the new arrivals were confined to the camp, but the local community rallied around.
Among them was Harold Clark, a local Scoutmaster who worked as a welder at a defence factory next door to the camp. At lunch time, he’d see the children gazing through the fence. “Working there, next door, I guess I had compassion for them,” he said, according to the archive.
Clark decided to set up a Scout group for the boys - Troop 28 of the Boy Scouts of America – gradually collecting together the scarf, shirt, trousers and other elements of the uniform. Greenberg became one of Clark’s assistants.
“I was very proud of my uniform,” Greenberg said. “Coming from my time and place where uniforms meant terror, to have my uniform which meant goodness, be prepared, help others, don’t cheat, and all the values that the boys have, love of nature, which I like.”
It wasn’t only in the US where Scouting provided support to children and young people affected by World War Two. Appeals to help those forced to flee Germany, and later the countries occupied by the Nazis, started to appear in The Scouter from the late 1930s, and Scout groups were urged to welcome the refugees.
Among the first to arrive in Britain, were Jewish children brought from Nazi Germany and occupied countries as part of what was known as the Kindertransport. As many as 10,000 children made the journey between 1938 and 1940, and Scouts stood ready to welcome them into their groups or to set up new troops, as Clark was to do later in Oswego.
In January 1939, International Commissioner Richard Frost noted that many of the young people arriving in Britain had been Scouts in their homelands, and urged local Scouting groups to make them feel welcome.
In March, in between the usual snippets on gang shows, moots and a “gluttonous” annual dinner, an update from the Southeast Lancashire District in The Scouter reported Scouts and Rovers were welcoming refugees as they arrived at Manchester station.
“Boys (were) given the cheery welcome and hospitality of a Scout troop and Rover crew,” the district report said. “This is more than encouraging. It is practical Scouting to give these unfortunates a welcome in a strange city in a strange land.”
By the time war was declared six months later, membership rules had been relaxed to allow groups to be set up without the approval of headquarters, and foreign citizens to join existing groups. The following March, a relief fund was started with an advance of £1,000 from the trustees of the International Friendship Fund, and Frost provided regular updates in The Scouter on the appeal and Scouts helping refugees – Scouts or non-Scouts – even after he himself joined the Royal Air Force. (Frost spent the war as an intelligence officer).
The allies retreat from Dunkirk, and the Nazis’ occupation of Paris, only added to the sense of urgency.
“I can think of no more striking and unanimous reply, which Scouts can make to our common foe, than by a huge contribution to the Appeal Fund, which will tell him in actions and not in mere words, that Scouts of all nations are our Brothers and that our common Scout Promise is scared and inviolable,” Frost wrote in July 1940.
The relief efforts caught the attention of Robert Baden-Powell who had by then retired to Kenya. Beneath a sketch of refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught - a likeness of Hitler’s face drawn on the nose of the attacking planes - and Scouts waiting to protect those in need, he wrote: “I want to thank you for helping to give friendly shelter and assistance to our distressed refugee brothers.” The drawing was later turned into a thank you card.
In a world at war, Scouting groups also helped young people held captive in Japanese-run prisoner of war camps in Southeast Asia. In Singapore’s Changi, groups of Cubs and Scouts were established to give children a sense of purpose in the harsh conditions.
In Oswego, the young Greenberg, who went on to become a filmmaker, also found a sense of hope in Scouting.
A formal photo of Troop 28, shows 16 boys holding their troop banner and pennants, dressed in Scout uniforms; their scarves tied at their necks.
“To be part of a Boy Scout troop in America meant we were free,” Greenberg told Scouting magazine in 2004. “We were still behind a fence in the refugee shelter but (the Scout uniform) symbolised a great change in my life.”