OSWEGO – “Fort Ontario is where the Holocaust came to America,” said Paul Lear, Historic Site Manager at Fort Ontario.
The Port City commemorated the Aug. 5, 1944, arrival of 982 Holocaust refugees at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. Other special events and activities linked to significant dates and life at the refugee shelter will continue into 2021.
“Thank you for joining us on this historic and emotional day,” Lear said.
Monday’s program got started with the playing of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” The legendary singer/songwriter has been a staunch supporter of Safe Haven since its opening in 2002, Lear said.
“I cannot put into words how much pride that I have and how much pride I know this community has when I get to say we were the only place in the United States of America that offered refuge to folks escaping the Holocaust. That is such an important story,” Mayor Billy Barlow said. “We love to tell that story. And, mark my words, we will continue to tell that story. 75 years ago we welcomed you proudly and today we welcome you back once again – not as visitors, not as guests, but as family! Your presence then and now exemplifies what this community and this country is all about. We were here for you then and we’re here for you now and we will always be here in the future with a welcoming heart and an ever-lasting invitation forever.”
When US Rep. John Katko was running for office, he was given a tour of Safe Haven, “And I was hooked,” he said.
“I realized that of all the things I could do in Congress, it would be to make sure that this place is not only preserved but it gets put on the map national and international,” he said, reaffirming his efforts to make the Fort Ontario complex, which includes Safe Haven, as a national park.
Geoff Smart shared memories of his father, Joseph Smart, director of Fort Ontario during the refugees’ stay.
He resigned his post to assist the efforts of the refugees’ Committee for Freedom.
With his help, the refugees were allowed to enter Canada and then return to America legally after the war.
The Nazis occupied his small hometown in Yugoslavia, refugee Bruno Kaiser said.
He and his family wound up in Italy where they heard about the chance to go to America. About 4,000 applied and about 1,000 were selected, he said.
“I was asked to speak two and a half hours,” refugee Simon Kalderon quipped. “It was an adventure for us to be (in Oswego). I was 9 years old, it was an adventure. We played in the fort. The kids from town came and we made friends. Sometimes, we just ran around like crazy. I felt like a part of the community.”
His younger sister played with someone her age. Years passed and everyone went their separate ways.
Her friend called Safe Haven trying to find her. But she had married and changed her name.
“But they found me!” her brother said. And he facilitated the re-connection.
Linda Cohen, daughter of refugees Leon and Seri Kabiljo, said she was so honored to part of the event and just say a few words.
“This camp provided much needed refuge after my parents, Leon and Seri Kabiljo, were hiding in the forest in Yugoslavia before they were finally on their way to Italy,” she said.
They were fortunate to be selected to come to America; but not fortunate enough to have any family members in America, she added.
Oswego resident Mary Richardson became friends with her parents and took them around Oswego and even invited them into her home.
“I wish I could personally thank Mary Richardson,” Cohen said. “But at least I’m here today to thank everyone involved to keep this safe haven open to visitors and educate all who visit about this little known part of our history.”
“The refugee shelter saved my parents’ lives! They could have been sent back, but of course they had nothing to go back to,” she said.
The support from Oswego helped convince (President) Truman they should not have to go all the way back to Europe, she said.
Her parents remained in America.
After the shelter is when they began to feel anxious, but well-prepared, thanks to the shelter, she said.
“This camp saved my parents. And, for that, my family and I will always be grateful,” Cohen said.
With all the contributions the refugees have made to America over the years, how many other achievements could have been made if more (refugees) were saved? she asked rhetorically.
“I lived right across the street from Fort Ontario. So I could see the refugees from my front porch,” Fran Enwright said.
Her family emigrated from Italy, so she understood what the refugees were facing – a new culture and new language as well as other issues, she said.
“So I went over and talked with them,” she said.
A young girl wrote (in Italian) in Enwright’s autograph book: “We will always be friends and thank you for coming over.”
Flash forward 59 years later – Enwright was volunteering at Safe Haven. She was looking at her book and the director asked to see it.
“She went ‘Oh, my God!’ And I thought what is she reading because everybody wrote in this book,” Enwright said.
She pointed to the note and told Enwright, “This is the girl that’s coming today!”
The two ladies re-connected and “Since then I have been invited to the bar mitzvahs, I sit at the head table; we’ve become best friends …” Enweight said.