The following first appeared in September 2002
OSWEGO – A large piece of American history is ready to come alive in a small corner of Oswego.
Workers are busy putting the finishing touches on what will become the permanent home to the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center at Fort Ontario Park.
The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego was the only site in the United States where holocaust survivors were provided a “safe haven” during World War II.
Most Americans are still unaware that the shelter existed.
For years, the story of Oswego’s generosity remained untold.
From August 1944 until February 1946, 982 refugees from war-torn Europe lived in Oswego.
It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later, in 1981, that this historic event was recognized, according to Jerry Rockower, secretary for Safe Haven, Inc.
Celia Meren, Belle Shriro, and Alice Pearlman, members of Na’amat, co-chaired a committee to place a monument where the shelter once stood, he explained.
Now, more than 20 years later, Safe Haven, Inc., a not-for-profit organization administered by an 18-member board of directors, is nearly ready to dedicate a museum-learning center at the very site the refugees called home.
Work began on renovations to the building in January 2002, and it is essentially completed, except for some remaining electrical work associated with the exhibits, according to Rockower.
“The design firm of Exhibits and More was selected by the board as the designer in 2001, but work began in earnest on design and construction in early spring of 2002,” he said. “It will be completed by Oct. 3.”
The dedication of the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center is slated for Oct. 6.
Several of the former refugees and their families are expected to attend; some of them will be featured speakers during the ceremonies.
Bob Davidson, a Liverpool-based museum designer, was hired by the board to help get Oswego’s museum set up.
Davidson, Rockower added, has already designed a holocaust museum in Florida.
Funding for all the work comes from private sources (contributions), state and federal grants.
The dedication ceremony will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. under a tent at Fort Ontario near the museum.
Viewing of the museum will follow from 2:30 to 4 p.m.
A celebratory dinner is planned for 6:30 to 9 p.m. at historic Sheldon Hall on the Oswego State campus.
For more information, contact Carol Rosenberg, Safe Haven president, at 343-0070.
The board would welcome any archival materials members of the public would like to donate to the museum, Rockower said.
“This is going to be a very special place. This isn’t a ‘holocaust’ museum. It’s about the refugees and the people of Oswego. It’s about a story of triumph,” he said. “We would greatly appreciate anything someone would like to donate to help us tell the story.”
Meren and Shriro live in the Fayettville area and attended an open house for the site this spring
They were at a meeting in Syracuse in 1981 and met a young lady who said when she was younger, she was a refugee at Fort Ontario in Oswego.
“She said, ‘my husband and I took a trip and we stopped at Oswego. I wanted to show him where I lived when I first came to this country, I was 12 years old.’ To her amazement and dismay, there was nothing at the fort to indicate 982 people had lived here,” Shriro said.
They came back and with the help of some Oswego officials, they put up a monument near where the museum is being constructed currently.
Still they wanted to know more about Oswego’s “Safe Haven.”
A while later, by coincidence, they attended a meeting in Syracuse sponsored by a Jewish organization.
The featured speaker was Ruth Gruber. She was talking about her experiences. She told the story about the refugees and how she was involved with them.
“We couldn’t believe what we were hearing, Shriro said. “We couldn’t wait for the meeting to be over with so we could talk with her.”
In 1989, Oswego Mayor John Sullivan formed a group of community and college leaders to meet and discuss uses for the original brick buildings at Fort Ontario, now owned by the city. The committee suggested that one of the buildings be used to house a museum to tell the story of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.
The site of the museum is a century-old building that served as the administrative headquarters for the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.
The building is listed on the state register of historic buildings
The rehabilitation of the building was done in accordance with a plan approved by the New York Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
“This is what’s come from all that work,” Shriro said of the museum.
“When we did the monument in ’81 we never dreamed it would come to this,” Meren marveled. “The people building the museum don’t realize right now, but they’re building a piece of history.”