OSWEGO — The yearlong commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter will crescendo today as the Port City remembers one of its most indelible heritage pieces.
Nineteen Holocaust refugees and family members will reunite today to commemorate their arrival at Fort Ontario 75 years ago today. A total of 982 refugees fleeing Nazi persecution landed in Oswego at the invitation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Church bells in the city of Oswego will ring at 7:30 a.m. to begin the day. Fort Ontario Site Director Paul Lear said today likely marks the last reunion of 19 of approximately 30 surviving refugees and their families.
“Many of them are in their 70s — late 70s — and 80s,” Lear said speaking with The Palladium-Times on Sunday.
The historic day includes commemorative activities from early morning to the evening, when the refugees and their loved ones will share a banquet dinner. The 19 refugees and family will embark on bus tour through bus tour of central New York to visit the gravesites of family and friends who died while at the shelter, followed by a public remembrance ceremony at Fort Ontario at 2 p.m. Lear will act as master of ceremonies, Oswego Town Historian Rev. George DeMass will deliver the invocation for the free and public event.
Featured speakers at the 2 p.m. ceremony include Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York and Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, curator and historian of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Erbelding is a leading expert in World War II refugee policy and will speak about about the unique history of Fort Ontario and its establishment as a refugee shelter.
For its rich history as a shelter for refugees and training camp for African American soldiers, Fort Ontario asserts Oswego on the stage of history as a unique and welcoming city, Lear said. When Roosevelt needed to choose an army post to house 982 asylum-seekers from overcrowding Italian camps, the fort was at the top of his list as a favorite site from his statewide tours as New York’s governor, according to Lear.
“Fort Ontario was the only refugee shelter in the United States during World War II, so it’s historically unique,” Lear said. “Oswego was a welcoming community — they had no problems at all.”
Lear said Roosevelt’s goal in opening a camp in the U.S. was to set a precedent for allies and spur an effort to rescue Jews and others fleeing the Third Reich. Upon their arrival in Oswego, refugees encountered barbed wire, Lear said, that would guard them for an uncertain 18 months.
In a Tuesday interview with The Palladium-Times, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said Fort Ontario has earned the city of Oswego national and international renown, as the site frequently comes up in her interactions with scholars of Jewish history and refugee activists.
“People in New York City talk about what happened at Safe Haven,” Hochul said. “I go to a lot of events and they talk about this all the time as a shining light on an otherwise black mark on history. The people of this area were kind and generous at a time when much of the world was not.”