OSWEGO — Monday was a day of remembrance and gratitude for 19 Safe Haven refugees, who reunited this week at Fort Ontario on the 75th anniversary of their arrival at the nation’s only World War II emergency shelter for World War II refugees.
Fort Ontario opened its gates once again to refugees, their families and the Oswego community on Aug. 5 for a program recognizing the contributions of the 982 refugees and their descendants — well over half of whom were naturalized as U.S. citizens following the close of the Second World War.
For the 19 refugees and their families, Monday began with a bus tour of central New York gravesites — Syracuse’s Ahavath Achim Cemetery, Riverside Cemetery and St. Paul’s Cemetery, both in Oswego — where a total 16 deceased Safe Haven refugees are interred.
Ceremonial cantor Kenneth Rosenberg led the bus tour in religious hymnals at the final resting place of Arpad Buchler and Emilie Buechler at Ahavath Achim Cemetery.
“May their memories be an inspiration to us,” he concluded at each prostration, prompting families to place rocks symbolic of remembrance and affection on tombstones of their departed loved ones.
At Oswego’s Riverside Cemetery, Rosenberg read aloud the names of refugees buried next to each other — Elia Montiljo, Philip Stajn, Dagobert Barnass, Karolina Klein Bleier, Ida Zeitlin, Josef Schlamm, Baschie Berta Gottlieb, Salamon Gaon and Nathan Zindwer.
Hymnals were not only intended as eulogies for the deceased; they also entailed a celebration of the lives they led as well as recognizing the “Glory of God,” said Rabbi Yossi Madvig of the SUNY Oswego Chabad House, who joined Rosenberg in prayer at the tour’s final stop at St. Paul’s Cemetery.
Fort Ontario’s 2 p.m. ceremony convened a high-profile speaker program, including Rebecca Erbelding, curator and historian at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and Ambassador Dani Dayan, consul-general of Israel in the state of New York.
“As Jews and as Israel, we owe you a great debt,” Dayan said addressing a tent of over 100 refugees, family members, elected officials and members of the community in the shadow of the Fort Ontario Refugee Memorial. “I came here to say, ‘Thank you, Oswego, from the bottom of our Jewish hearts.’”
Multiple representatives from local, state and federal levels pledged support to move Fort Ontario to National Park status to recognize its unique history as the United States’ sole World War II refugee shelter. John Katko, R-Camillus, pledged his political backing of legislation to “glide” this motion through Congress.
“In fact,” Katko said, “it’s probably the number one thing I’m working towards right now.”
Paul Lewis, film producer behind the 1979 PBS documentary “Safe Haven,” which Fort Site Director Paul Lear called the “definitive” retelling of the Safe Haven story, said Oswego was due much credit for opening its doors in spite of rampant anti-Jewish sentiments in the popular culture.
“During a time of such anti-Semitic and anti-refugee sentiments, for the city of Oswego to be as welcoming as they were — it’s amazing,” Lewis said.
Lewis qualified his praise, however, suggesting that the creation of only one refugee shelter for less than 1,000 was “a failure of American foreign policy,” because President Roosevelt’s intention to set a precedent for countries to follow wasn’t realized.
“And we have to remember that refugees are not only in history — are they?” Lewis said.
Erbelding, as keynote speaker and leading Holocaust historian, said Monday’s reunion was likely the last time surviving refugees, most of whom are in their late 70s and 80s, would come together in commemoration.
“That means for everyone younger than 75, it’s our jobs to remember their story,” Erbelding said.