FDR’s Fort Ontario: where the Holocaust came to America

Refugees & towns people by the fence.  As the refugees arrived they began interacting with Oswego citizens who observed their destitute condition and began passing them food, clothing, shoes, dolls, money and more over the barbed wire fence surrounding the post. Oswegonian Frances K. Enwright (age 92) who passed her bicycle over the fence will speak at the 2 p.m. program.

OSWEGO – A special event commemorating the Aug. 5 1944 arrival of 982 Holocaust Refugees at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, New York, and likely the last reunion of the shelter’s surviving refugees, is planned by the 75th Anniversary Planning Committee for Aug. 5.

On June 8, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Ambassador Robert Murphy in Algiers to select 1,000 refugees to be brought to the United States from overcrowded camps in Italy. They were “to be placed in an Emergency Refugee Shelter to be established at Fort Ontario, where under appropriate restrictions they will remain for the duration of the war,” and that “It is contemplated that at the end of the war they will return to their homelands.”

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. 

Upon their arrival, the refugees encountered a barbed wire fence behind which they would live in confinement and uncertainty for 18 months, and where they began interacting with everyday Americans and reporters for the first time.

Finally, more than 12 years after Hitler took power, at Fort Ontario the press heard first-hand accounts of Nazi-persecution from its victims that they could relate to, and Holocaust stories moved from the back to the front pages of American newspapers. Fort Ontario is where the Holocaust came to America.

At 7:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 5, church bells will ring in Oswego, New York, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of 982 living and one deceased Holocaust refugee at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.  Weakened by malnutrition, six-month old Yugoslavian refugee Elia Montiljo became sick and died on the ship the day before it docked in New York City. 

At 8:15 a.m., 19 of the approximately 30 surviving refugees and their families will board buses and travel to cemeteries in central New York to remember and visit the graves of Elia and 13 refugees who died at the shelter while it operated from Aug. 5, 1944 to Feb. 5, 1946. Rabbi Yossi Madvig of SUNY Oswego and the Rev. George DeMass of Oswego will accompany the refugees and families to the cemeteries. 

At 1 p.m., the refugees, their families, and guests will enjoy a kosher lunch together at the site of their first reunion at Fort Ontario State Historic Site, near where their living quarters and dining halls once stood. At the time in 1981 they helped dedicate a monument to the “Fort Ontario Refugees and the millions of victims of the Nazis who never had an opportunity to live out their lives.” The kosher lunch is also available to members of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum and Friends of Fort Ontario by advance reservation.

At 2 p.m., a formal 75th Anniversary Commemorative program will begin by the Refugee Monument. It is free and open to the public. 

Fort Ontario Superintendent Paul Lear will act as Master of Ceremonies and provide closing remarks. DeMass will deliver the invocation. Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York will be a featured speaker.  As Consul General, he represents the State of Israel to communities from throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware.

Other speakers will include refugee Bruno Kaiser; Linda Cohen, daughter of refugees Sarinka and Leon Kabiljo; Geoff Smart, son of shelter Executive Director Joseph Smart; Frances K. Enwright of Oswego; Michael Balanoff, president of the Jewish Federation of Central New York; Kevin Hill, president of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum; Congressman John Katko; Senator Patti Ritchie; Assemblyman William Barclay; Oswego County Legislator Shane Broadwell; City of Oswego Mayor William Barlow Jr.; and others. 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, curator and historian of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and author of “Rescue Board, The Untold Story Of America’s Efforts To Save The Jews Of Europe,” will present her insights on Fort Ontario’s unique historical significance during the program. Holocaust Historian Dr. Erbelding is the nation’s leading expert on U.S. Refugee policy in Europe during World War II. She will describe the circumstances leading to the establishment of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, the policies, guidelines, and conditions under which it operated, and its influence on U.S. refugee policy since WWII. 

Dr. Erbelding was part of the team which produced the “Americans and the Holocaust” Exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This landmark exhibit features a gallery on Fort Ontario and includes a section of the iconic barbed wire fence that surrounded the shelter.

Madvig and Cantor Ken Rosenberg will deliver the final prayer.

The Fulton Amateur Radio Club will be on the air during the event reaching out to ham radio operators around the world.

Fort Ontario staff historian Corey King will utilize historic maps, plans, and photographs to direct refugees to the sites of their former living quarters and other shelter activities. Volunteers of the Art Association of Oswego and fort volunteer Christina Groves will set up a table for people to decorate memory stones of the event.

The public is invited to attend a 6 p.m. dinner with refugees and their families at the Lake Ontario Event and Conference Center, 26 East First St., Oswego (Best Western Hotel). Reservations and payment are required by July 29 to attend the dinner. 

Hill will act as master of ceremonies. The dinner will feature remarks and recollections by the refugees. Buffet dinners as well as plated Kosher dinners will be available. Dinner reservations and event sponsorship forms may be obtained by contacting Judy Rapaport at 315-591-1050 or jcrap53@gmail.com.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site is located at the north end of East Fourth Street and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum is located at 2 E. Seventh St., Oswego. For more information on the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, or 75th Anniversary commemorative events, contact Lear at 315-343-4711, the Friends of Fort Ontario Facebook page, or visit www.fortontario.com.

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