Fort Ontario Conference, April 25-26, Focuses On Holocaust, Ft. Ontario Refugee Shelter

OSWEGO – The annual Fort Ontario Conference on History and Archeology will be held at the Lake Ontario Event and Conference Center on April 25 and 26 at Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

The conference explores new perspectives on warfare and human conflict in North America from its first appearance in the archaeological record around 5000 BC to the Global War on Terror.

Saturday’s program will include presentations by historians of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, exhibits, author signings and an evening dinner program featuring refugee Doris Schechter.

On Sunday morning experts will lead a guided tour of the former shelter grounds.

Historian David Klevan, Museum Educator and 20-year veteran of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, will begin the program on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. with a presentation on the “Americans and the Holocaust Exhibit” which opened in 2018.

Klevan will discuss how the museum presents the story of America’s response to the Holocaust in the exhibit, the importance of Fort Ontario within the story it presents, and how the arrival of the refugees was covered by newspapers nationwide.

The “Americans and the Holocaust Exhibit” features a gallery on the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter with a section of the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp.

The fence is considered the most iconic artifact in the exhibit because it represents where everyday Americans first encountered the victims of Nazi persecution and heard their stories of survival, and, after over eleven years of Hitler’s reign of terror reporters found a Holocaust story they could relate, resulting in Holocaust stories moving from the back to front pages of newspapers.

Rebecca Erbelding, PhD, is the author of more than 20 articles related to the Holocaust and will discuss her book, “Rescue Board; The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe.”

The U.S. has long been criticized for refusing to provide safe harbor to the Jews of Europe as Hitler’s reign of terror closed in on them.

For Rescue Board, Erbelding conducted years of research in order to tell the little-known story of the War Refugee Board, FDR’s late war effort to save the Jews who remained alive in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944-45.

She will also address Fort Ontario’s unique role in the board’s efforts.

Erbelding has testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to speak about the U.S. Response to Nazi-Era Refugee Crisis, and to discuss the journey of the St. Louis which sailed from Hamburg, German in 1939 carrying some 900 Jewish passengers.

Cuba refused most of the refugees and the U.S. turned the ship away, forcing the refugees to return to Europe where most perished in concentration camps.

In his presentation Historic Site Manager Paul Lear of Fort Ontario will describe “the history of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter,” the only camp for Holocaust refugees in the U.S. established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII.

He will explore who and why refugees were chose to come to Fort Ontario, who administered the camp, the rules, regulations, and conditions the camp operated under, day to day activities, triumphs, tragedies, and recount the hard-fought struggle to reverse FDR’s policy to return the refugees to war-torn Europe after the war ended.

SUNY Oswego graduate student and historian Edward Heinrichs will address “What People Said; Oswego and the Fort Ontario Refugees, the true story of shelter-community relations.”

As members of the World War II generation who lived in Oswego pass away, relations between Oswegonians and refugees have come to be portrayed as idyllic.

However, on some occasions, such as in the case of the TV movie “Haven” which aired in 2001, the prevailing rosy depiction has been shattered by alternate interpretations of community-shelter relations.

Heinrichs will separate fact from spin and present what people really thought, said, and wrote about the shelter from its opening in 1944 to its closure in February 1946.

Musicologist Marilyn Smiley, PhD, Emeritus Professor of SUNY Oswego, will present “Music and Musicians of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter,” the history of music and the lives of refugee musicians before, during, and after the shelter.  Dr. Smiley has conducted extensive music research and is working towards producing the operetta “The Golden Cage,” written and performed by shelter residents during its closing days.  Music and the arts flourished during the 18-month life of the shelter, and refugee musicians and vocalists performed individually or in groups at community events.

Rene Chartrand, Chief Curator Emeritus, National Historic Sites, Parks Canada will present the little-known story of “German-Jewish Alien Detainees in Fort Lennox, Canada, 1940 – 1944.” Persecuted by Hitler, 1800 German Jews were rounded up as enemy aliens and sent to Canada when Great Britain was under threat of invasion in 1940.  In his illustrated lecture Chartrand will relate the story of these men initially thought to be “dangerous Nazi’s” who were greeted by troops with fixed bayonets when they landed at Quebec City. He has authored over fifty books and hundreds of articles on military history that have been published in Great Britain, France, Canada, and the United States.

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum President Kevin Hill will welcome guests to dinner at 6:30 PM.  He will speak on “Commemorating the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, Past, Present and Future.”  After dinner he will introduce refugee Doris Schechter who will present “From Refugee to Restauranteur to Author and Shelter Advocate.”  She will share her father’s story of traveling from Austria to Italy to escape the Holocaust, hiding in the small Italian Town of Guardiagrele from 1939 to 1943 with her family, their journey to Oswego, her life from refugee to restauranteur, and from cookbook author to advocate for preserving the memory of the shelter and refugees.  A photograph of Doris at age five contemplating her first hot dog has become one of the most iconic images of the arrival of the refugees at Fort Ontario on 5 August 1944.

Doris Schechter is the owner of the highly acclaimed restaurant “My Most Favorite Food” in Midtown Manhattan. Dinner will feature dishes prepared by Chef Mark Pluff from recipes in “AT OMA’S TABLE: More than 100 Recipes and Remembrances from a Jewish Family’s Kitchen,” written by Doris Schechter and published in 2007.  There will be kosher options. Dessert will be prepared from recipes in her “My Most Favorite Dessert Company Cookbook” published in 2001.

The Oswego County Historical Society will staff an exhibit table containing shelter artifacts and archival materials.  It will include a bust of Oswego Palladium-Times newspaper publisher Edwin Waterbury made by German refugee sculptress Miriam Sommerburg.  Waterbury was a key member of the Citizens Advisory Committee that coordinated relief services at the shelter with the War Relocation Authority. As malicious rumors circulated about the refugees Waterbury responded to each in a weekly column devoted to telling the truth.  He also published letters for and against the refugees and demonstrated through weight of numbers that the great majority of the community supported them and their wish not to be returned to war-torn Europe at wars end.

Weapons of the Liberators,” an exhibit featuring small arms and accoutrements representative of those carried by the 36 U.S. Army divisions that liberated concentration camps will be presented by the Continental Arms Collectors Association.  As allied troops advanced across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they found tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners in deplorable conditions. Malnutrition and disease were rampant, and corpses lay unburied.  The soldiers reacted in shock and disbelief to the evidence of Nazi atrocities.  In addition to burying the dead, the Allied forces attempted to help and comfort the survivors with food, clothing, and medical attention.

On Sunday morning at 9:00 AM Fort historians Corey King and Paul Lear will lead a guided walking tour of the 75-acre grounds of the former shelter.  The easy paced 2.5-hour tour will begin inside the old stone fort and visit locations of shelter buildings and refugee activities.  Historic photographs, maps, and examples refugee artwork will be used to enable participants to visualize the shelter as it appeared in 1944-46.

Advance registration and payment for the conference is required.  Participants may sign up for all or individual activities.  There will be no walk-ons. The Saturday program of speakers will include lunch and cost $40.00.  The dinner program will cost $50.00, and the Sunday Walking Tour $10.00.  For those who pre-register for all three activities the cost will be discounted $10.00.  Checks should be made out to the `Friends of Fort Ontario’ and sent to Fort Ontario State Historic Site, 1 East 4th Street, Oswego, NY 13126. Paypal may be used through the Friends of Fort Ontario website [www.fortontario.com]. Credit card payments can be made and information on the conference can be obtained by calling (315) 343-4711.  There are special conference room rates from the Oswego Best Western Hotel and the Quality Inn. Updates will be posted on the Fort Ontario Conference Facebook page.

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