Where The Holocaust Came to America

Where the Holocaust came to America

By Judy Coe Rapaport

A special event commemorating the August 5, 1944 arrival of 982 Holocaust refugees at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter is planned by the 75th Anniversary Planning Committee.

Paul Lear, historic site manager, said, “In the spring of 1944, a crisis developed as refugees making their way through German lines began interfering with Allied military operations in Italy, and allied refugee camps were pushed to overflowing. When America’s European allies balked at opening new refugee camps in their own countries and territories, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his intention to open the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, NY. Roosevelt’s goal in opening a camp in the continental United States was to convince our allies that America was serious about rescuing the Jews of Europe, and to accept refugees themselves. Fort Ontario subsequently became the only camp or shelter for Holocaust refugees in the United States during World War II. It is where every-day Americans and reporters first encountered the victims and their personal stories of persecution at the hands of the Nazis, and it resulted in Holocaust stories moving from the back to the front pages of American newspapers. Fort Ontario is where the Holocaust came to America.”

The Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum and Friends of Fort Ontario will host a program of events to commemorate the August 5, 1944 arrival of the 982 European Holocaust refugees to Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY. The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was the only shelter for victims of the Holocaust located in the United States during World War II. Fort Ontario was where the Holocaust came to America, and where the American public and press first encountered victims of Nazi persecution and their personal stories of survival, resulting in stories of the Holocaust moving from the back to the front pages of newspapers across the country.

On Monday August 5, at 7:30 am, the church bells in Oswego will ring to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the train carrying the refugees at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. In 1944, that is when the bells rang to signify a welcome to the refugees. Former refugees, their families, invited officials, religious leaders, and the press will board buses, visit cemeteries, and conduct memorial services at the graves of refugees who had died on the ship carrying them from Italy to the United States, or at the shelter during its 18-month operation. Afterwards, the group will gather for a private box lunch on the site of the 1944-1946 shelter dining halls and living quarters.

At 8:15 am, there will be private commemoration ceremonies at the cemeteries where refugees who died at the shelter were buried: Ahavath Achim Cemetery in Jamesville, Riverside Cemetery and St. Paul’s Cemetery in Oswego. This is open ONLY to officials, former refugees and their families, and invited press/guests. Reservations are required.

From 10 am to 4 pm, the public will have free admission to the Safe Haven Museum and Fort Ontario, including short tours of refugee sites.

At 1 pm, officials, former refugees and their families, members of Safe Haven and Friends of Fort Ontario will have a box lunch picnic at the overlook near the Na’Amat Refugee Memorial Monument at Fort Ontario. The Syracuse Pioneer Women/NA’AMAT erected the monument near the Lake Ontario overlook parking lot during the first refugee reunion 1981. Reservations are required. This will be followed at 2 pm by the public 75th anniversary commemoration program. Fort Ontario Superintendent and Historian Paul Lear will introduce the speakers, including former refugees, their families, religious leaders, Jewish groups, historians, public officials, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Curator and Historian Rebecca Erbelding, Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum President Kevin Hill, and representatives of organizations with historical ties to the shelter. They will talk about their memories of life at the shelter; how it affected and continues to affect the lives of former refugees and city residents; why and how it was administered and operated; its historical significance and legacy, and its impact on U.S. refugee policy since World War II. A memorial service will conclude the public program.

At 6 pm, there will be a 75th anniversary refugee reunion dinner with guest speakers introduced by Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum President Kevin Hill at the Lake Ontario Event and Conference Center, 26 East First Street in the city of Oswego. The dinner is open to the public and reservations are required. Buffet dinners will cost $50.00 and plated kosher dinners $40 per person. Dinner reservations and event sponsorship forms may be obtained by contacting Judy Rapaport at 315-591-1050 or jcrap53@gmail.com.

The Fort Ontario State Historic Site is located at the north end of East Fourth Street. The Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum is located at 2 East Seventh Street in Oswego. For more information on the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, or 75th anniversary commemorative events, contact Historic Site Manager Paul Lear at 315-343-4711, the Friends of Fort Ontario Facebook page, or visit www.fortontario.com. State Parks generates $1.9 billion in economic activity annually and supports 20,000 jobs. For more information on any of these recreation areas call 518-474-0456, or visit www.nysparks.com, connect on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.