Safe Haven Story to Start Cayuga’s Hometown History Series

The new interpretive panel, as well as the refugee memorial which was dedicated in 1981, are both situated at the former site of a major intersection in the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. Located between the living quarters, dining hall, and recreational and administrative facilities, it was an important meeting place in the daily lives of the nearly 1,000 refugees that were housed in the shelter. Image courtesy of Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

The new interpretive panel, as well as the refugee memorial which was dedicated in 1981, are both situated at the former site of a major intersection in the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. Located between the living quarters, dining hall, and recreational and administrative facilities, it was an important meeting place in the daily lives of the nearly 1,000 refugees that were housed in the shelter. Image courtesy of Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

FULTON –  The first presentation in Cayuga Community College’s new Hometown History Series will illuminate the story of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, the only location in the United States to accept refugees fleeing the Holocaust during World War II.

“Safe Haven: Where the Holocaust Came to America,” will discuss the incredible story of how the United States in 1944 welcomed 982 refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, and housed the refugees at Fort Ontario in Oswego for almost two years before allowing them to remain in the country.

The presentation shares its name with this year’s 75th anniversary commemorations of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego.

Noted local historian Rev. George DeMass will lead the presentation, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. to noon on Sept. 17 at Cayuga’s Fulton Campus.

The event is free and open to the public.

“Oswego County is an area full of historic moments and events, but the entire story surrounding the refugees, the shelter and the local community is probably the most important in its history,” said Cayuga Associate Vice President and Dean of the Fulton Campus Keiko Kimura. “Rev. DeMass’ presentation is a great opportunity to learn more about this important story, one that is unique across the country to Oswego.”

A past president of Oswego’s Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, DeMass plans to discuss the entire Safe Haven story, from the refugees’ flight from Europe to their eventual permanent welcome in the United States.

However, he said he will devote additional time to the Oswego area’s compassion for the refugees and the refugees’ vast societal and cultural contributions.

DeMass believes that the Oswego area’s response to the European refugees represents one of the finest hours in Oswego’s history.

“The response from the majority of people living in the Oswego area was just incredible, especially once they realized what the refugees had gone through, how poor their health was and how little they had,” said DeMass. “Oswego showed just how deep their compassion ran and their ability and willingness to help those in need.”

For DeMass, the Safe Haven story has been a passionate interest for decades.

Now the Oswego Town historian, he first learned about the refugee shelter when he was 5 years old, when his grandmother would walk him to Fort Ontario.

“She brought me to the fort, and told me the story of the refugees, or as much as I could understand when I was only 5 years old,” he said. “But the fence that encircled the refugee shelter was still there, and I could touch the fence. That was my first encounter with their story, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten.”

The story of the refugees and the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter is remembered at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, which this year marked the 75th anniversary of the refugees’ arrival.

A series of commemorations have drawn renewed attention to the refugees’ story, as has an ongoing effort to have Fort Ontario and the museum established as a national park.

DeMass, who served as president of the museum for three years, said more and more people are learning about the refugee shelter, and realizing its importance in local and national history.

“The story has so much significance, both back in 1944 and today. It’s encouraging that today more people are realizing what an important moment this was in our history, and that it happened right here in Oswego,” he said.

The Sept. 17 presentation is free, and no registration is required to attend.

For more information about Cayuga’s Hometown History Series, visit https://www.cayuga-cc.edu/blog/cayuga-launching-hometown-history-series-at-fulton-campus/.

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