FULTON — Cayuga Community College kicked off the brand new Hometown History series at its Fulton campus on Tuesday with a presentation on the story of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, commonly called Safe Haven.
The Safe Haven shelter at Oswego’s Fort Ontario housed nearly 1,000 mostly Jewish refugees from 1944 to 1946 and was the only location in the United States that housed refugees fleeing Europe and the Holocaust during World War II. Local historian George DeMass spoke at the Fulton campus about the Safe Haven shelter in Oswego, highlighting the refugees’ journey from Europe and eventual settlement in the United States.
More than 50 people gathered at the Cayuga Community College (CCC) Fulton campus Tuesday morning for DeMass’ presentation, which detailed the refugees’ travels and the history of Fort Ontario dating back to the French and Indian War. The presentation included stories of the Roosevelt’s and others’ involvement and the local leadership of individuals such as Ralph Faust and Harold Clark, who DeMass said are fondly remembered by the surviving refugees.
DeMass, who has been interested in Safe Haven for decades and served as president of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, noted the importance of local history and bringing the story of Safe Haven to light. He calls the Oswego community’s response to the European refugees one of the finest hours in the area’s history.
“They welcomed the people in,” he said. “The people of Oswego accepted the refugees, who looked different and spoke a different language.”
The response from the majority of people living in Oswego and the surrounding area was positive, DeMass said, noting Oswego “showed just how deep their compassion ran and their ability and willingness to help those in need.”
DeMass said the story of Safe Haven for years was rarely told, but in recent years the public is learning what really happened and recognizing its importance to our nation’s history.
“The story has so much significance, both back in 1944 and today,” DeMass said. “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.”
Tuesday’s presentation was the first in a series of talks about local history that spotlight significant events and characters from Oswego County and their roles in shaping history.
CCC Associate Vice President and Dean of the Fulton Campus Keiko Kimura previously said the story of Oswego County is “filled with significant moments and notable figures,” adding the Hometown History series is dedicated to recognizing the community’s contributions.
“We’re eager to remember and relive some of the greatest moments in Oswego County’s history, and we look forward to welcoming our community to these presentations,” Kimura said earlier this year.
Kimura said the story surrounding the refugees, the shelter and the local community is perhaps one of the most important in Oswego County’s history.
The Hometown History series continues in October with a presentation entitled Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario by local historian and shipwreck explorer Jim Kennard. The presentation is scheduled for Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. and is free and open to the public.