A Legislative Column by Assemblyman Will Barclay
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an emergency shelter for victims of the Holocaust and World War II refugees to be created at Fort Ontario in Oswego.
The refugee camp, known as the Fort Ontario Emergency Rescue Center, would become the first and only refugee center established in the United States during World War II.
To carry out the President’s orders, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, sent Special Assistant Ruth Gruber to Italy to bring back war refugees to the U.S.
It took more than two weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean but, according to documented accounts from the refugees, the journey was well worth the wait when they saw the Statue of Liberty.
On Aug. 5, 1944, men, women and children from war-torn Europe arrived at Fort Ontario.
From August 1944 until February 1946, Fort Ontario sheltered 982 mostly Jewish refugees who escaped persecution in Europe.
Priority was given to refugees who were in concentration camps and had escaped from or who lost relatives in the Holocaust.
The surrounding community of Oswego embraced the refugees and children were allowed to attend schools and, though not allowed to seek residence outside the fort due to their immigration status, refugees were permitted daily access into the city.
Eventually, after citizen advocacy, Congress and the President granted the refugees immigration status – refugees were provided visas in 1946.
The fort is said to be where the Holocaust came to America because, in many cases, it was the first time the American public and members of the press encountered victims who survived the horrifying Nazi reign.
After their arrival in Oswego, their personal stories of survival circulated in newspapers all across the country and helped educated Americans about the starvation, torture, and persecution.
Realizing its special place in American history, in 1989, Safe Haven, Inc., was founded in Oswego with the mission of honoring and keeping alive the stories of the Holocaust.
This museum has enabled the region, the state, and a larger international community to take pride in Oswego’s contributions to world history and we are fortunate to have caring stewards in this community who value what it symbolizes and work to preserve and promote its history.
Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, will mark the 75th anniversary of the first refugees who entered Oswego.
Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, Fort Ontario State Historic Site, Friends of Fort Ontario, and the community will commemorate the anniversary with events throughout the city and at the museum.
Surviving refugees and their families have been invited back for the occasion and guided tours will be offered free of charge to the public.
A complete list of events, which begin at 7:30 a.m. and run until the evening, can be found here: https://historicfortontario.com/news/75th-anniversary-refugee-reunion-commemorative-event/
A resolution passed the State Legislature on June 19 marking the event and commending organizers for preserving this important history.
The full resolution, which outlines a brief history of the refugees and the creation of the museum, can be read here: https://www.assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&leg_video=&bn=K00627&term=2019&Summary=Y&Text=Y.
Personal accounts of holocaust survivors that found refuge at Fort Ontario have been recorded and archived by SUNY Oswego and can be found at https://www.oswego.edu/library/safe-haven.
More about Safe Haven can be found at the museum’s website at http://safehavenmuseum.com/.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this or any other state issue, please contact me.
My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.
You can also friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.