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Before war came, they had not necessarily had much in common. Eva Bass, pictured in the first photo above, was a nightclub singer; Julius Hirschler, who appears in the seventh slide, was a banker. The 981 other people with whom they traveled had lives of their own, too. By August of 1944, however, they all shared one title: refugee.
By the time LIFE Magazine’s Alfred Eisenstaedt met these individuals to photograph them for an Aug. 21, 1944, story, they had all arrived in Oswego, N.Y., where they were given army barracks in which to live. They had come from refugee camps in Italy, to which they’d made their way from 17 different countries, and had been designated to spend the rest of World War II living there under American protection. As LIFE explained, their arrival fell outside the bounds of the immigration quotas that the U.S. then used to determine who could come to stay, so they would have to go elsewhere when that time came.
It was not until 1951 that the United Nations would—inspired by the massive wave of displaced persons that came in the wake of World War II—officially offer its own definition of what it meant to be a refugee. The narrow early definition was used to determine who would receive certain benefits, adding weight to a word that was already heavy. As the U.N. marks World Refugee Day on Monday, these 1944 photographs are a fitting reminder that, while the label “refugee” matters, so do the individuals who bear it.