Refugees share odyssey from war-torn Europe to Fort Ontario
FORT ONTARIO — Baltimore engineer Simon Kalderon was five years old when Nazis occupied his native Yugoslavia and began rounding up Jewish men.
It was 1941 and a decade of fascist aggression under Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy forever changed the lives of bona fide general store owner Avram Kalderon, his wife Berta and their children, Simon and Flora. In only three years, they would be forced to relocate to Fort Ontario’s Emergency Refugee Shelter.
“My dad — he was good to the people in the town, and his store was in the center of things,” Simon Kalderon, 83, said in an interview with The Palladium-Times on Monday. “The local nuns told him that the Germans were coming to get the Jewish men and that they wanted my dad.”
The Kalderon family acted swiftly, leaving behind their belongings to board a train to Belgrade and later to Italy. In Naples, the family applied for relocation to President Franklin Roosevelt’s newly established refugee shelter.
Now in his first year of retirement as of Jan. 1, 2019, Kalderon reunited with 19 other surviving refugees on Monday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 982 refugees’ arrival in Oswego. Joined by his children and grandchildren, Kalderon toured regional cemetery sites where deceased Safe Haven inhabitants are interred.
The bus tour’s 40-minute intervals between Onondaga and Oswego county cemeteries flew by as refugees and descendants swapped family histories.
For Stacy Kensli and Cori Toler, Kalderon’s daughters, the story of how their father and grandparents journeyed from eastern Europe to Oswego is a sprawling mosaic of history and family lore, preserved by their father’s charismatic story-telling and repository of family history.
“Everybody always loves hearing him tell stories,” said Stacy Kensli, who traveled from Denver, Colorado for Monday’s commemoration event of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Safe Haven refugees. “He’s got an energy or something that makes you want to listen.”
Upon his family’s arrival in Belgrade, Kalderon recounted that his family joined the entourage of charismatic communist partisan Josip Broz Tito, more commonly recognized on the world stage as simply Tito, who would go on to serve as Yugoslavia’s President in 1953.
“We went into the woods with Tito and his merry band and we went with them until we reached the border of Italy,” he said.
During his family’s time in Italy, his parents attempted to forge an education for their son by sending him to local Italian schools, increasingly dominated by Benito Mussolini’s fascist dogmatism. One school administrator tested the naive Simon Kalderon by asking him “Who is Il Duce — Benito Mussolini or Victor Emmanuel II?”
“Of course, I said Emmanuel II,” he said. “She grabbed me, told me to stay here and that was the end of my education.”
Sympathetic local Italians, who Kalderon said were “very helpful,” and Avram Kalderon’s familiarity with European geography from his international trade enterprises, guided the family’s itinerant travels.
By 1944, the Kalderon family arrived in Naples, Italy, where U.S. refugee relocation authorities were accepting applications for a hastily created emergency shelter across the Atlantic in central New York.
President Roosevelt’s War Relocation Board vetted candidates for their industriousness and ability to be self-sustaining members of Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee shelter. Authorities also required them to be “free and contagious of disease,” according to The Plattsburg Press-Republican’s Aug. 29, 1944 article. Doctors, engineers, skilled laborers and entrepreneurs like Avram were given primary consideration.
More than 3,000 refugees applied, but only 982 were granted trans-Atlantic voyage on the USNS Henry Gibbons to Fort Ontario. A large portion of the refugee families were Jewish who, like the Kalderons, were seeking asylum from fascist persecution in 18 different home countries. The refugee population also included 108 Roman Catholics, Protestants and Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians, according to the ship log.
Oswego Mayor Joseph McCaffrey, first Fort Ontario Site Director Joseph Smart, National Director of the War Relocation Authority Dillon Myer and local clergy members greeted refugee families at their Aug. 5 arrival, reported by The Pulaski Democrat.
Rabbi M. Tzechoval headed a Jewish seminary in Belgium and reportedly “brought tears” to locals on Aug. 5, when he remarked it had been the first time in more than four years he could speak Hebrew in public without “fear of a Nazi bullet.”
Each refugee was given a nominal monthly allowance, $4.50 to $8.50, depending on their needs.
The next 18 months would see Kalderon, aged 9 upon his arrival at Fort Ontario, complete a full academic year at a local elementary school and play on the fort’s waterfront environment. He said as a kid, he wasn’t as aware of the pain caused by such radical relocation.
However, history almost took a drastic turn. Within a few months of the shelter’s operations, rumors surfaced that the federal government had chartered a ship for the refugees’ return to Europe.
For Joseph Smart, Fort Ontario’s first site director and monumental force in Safe Haven’s establishment, the decision to throw his support behind the refugee shelter came with anxiety over the reputational costs, said his youngest son, Geoff Smart of Salt Lake City, Utah. Geoff Smart said anti-Semitic and anti-refugee sentiments were firmly ingrained in both the government and society.
“My brother once told me something that I had heard all the time — people just hated Jews,” he said in a Palladium-Times interview Monday morning. “Obviously today is about the refugees but it’s also about needing to speak up and do the right thing about wrongs and injustices.”
Joseph Smart contacted War Relocation Authority National Director Dillon S. Myer to confirm or deny the rumor he heard from refugees that the government was covertly attempting to return them to Europe.
“Myers said, ‘Well, that story isn’t exactly correct, but essentially yes. The final decision has been made and they’ve got to go back; there is nothing that I can do about it,’” Smart said in a 1984 interview with NPR. “If a Jewish organization were to undertake to do this then you immediately would have a wave of anti-Semitism and anti-immigration as a result. So the consensus finally was that if anybody is going to do it, Joe Smart will have to do it; having had the experience at the shelter, understanding the problem perhaps more than anybody, a Christian, interested primarily in the Jewish group, plus the other experience I had.”
Defying the federal government could mean losing his pension or retirement for the first site director, who spent his career in the government sector since illegally enlisting in the military as a teenager, according to Geoff Smart.
Joseph Smart resigned from his post at the fort, but launched a successful national campaign to pressure the government into withdrawing the charter thanks to his insider roots from working in the state department, and refugees were allowed to stay.
“My dad was adopted by some pretty key people,” Geoff Smart said. “He was a very charismatic person.”
Without legal citizenship in the country as “guests,” and without a war to qualify for refugee status, Safe Haven’s refugees were detained at the fort another seven months following allied victories in Europe and Japan. Each had been required to sign an agreement to return to their home country after the war, but only 100 journeyed back to the war-torn continent. The remaining population endured a grueling naturalization process.
Kalderon said he was blind to many of the refugees’ institutional turmoil, preoccupied with completing a year at the local school and exploring his new home.
“As a kid, you know, it was all kind of a grand adventure,” he said.
With a deeper understanding of the historical significance of the sole refugee camp in the U.S. as a grown man, Kalderon urged site visitors on Monday to carry the fort’s story moving forward.
When Kalderon’s family was released in 1946, his father set his sights on Baltimore for their relocation. After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, Kalderon nabbed a job as a junior industrial engineer at Dow Chemical Corporation. He spent the majority of his career was spent as president and CEO of Advanced Packaging, Inc. for 41 years, and regional sales manager for another 14, before retiring on the first of this year.
“What happened from there on out was: I lived and now I have many children and grandchildren,” he said.