Former Holocaust refugees and their families were among the speakers at an event honoring the 75th anniversary of nearly 1,000 refugees arriving from Europe to Fort Ontario in Oswego during World War II. Fort Ontario was the only emergency shelter for victims of the Holocaust in the United States.
Linda Cohen is the daughter of two refugees who came from Yugoslavia. She said the camp saved their lives.
“It gave them an opportunity to make a new life in America,” Cohen said. “They learned English. They learned American ways. They experienced kindness and help. They knew that this country is where they wanted to stay, if it all possible. As difficult as we can all imagine it must have been, the camp equipped them for what they needed to survive in the United States.”
Refugees spent about a year and half at the fort before they were allowed to officially enter the U.S. as new immigrants. Rebecca Erbelding is a curator and historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She said the camp was largely forgotten by the wider world and the 75th anniversary could be the last reunion of the refugees at Fort Ontario.
“That means for everyone younger than 75, this story is our responsibility now to learn and to share," Erbelding said. "The refugees, the town, the U.S. government, this is a unique moment, but there is so much that we can learn from it.”
Israeli Ambassador Dani Dayan thanked the city of Oswego and its residents for welcoming the refugees.
“One of the reasons that Jewish refugees from the Holocaust were not received in other places were because the communities didn’t want them there," Dayan said. "Oswego made a historic difference.”
Among the former Holocaust refugees that returned to Fort Ontario was Simon Kalderon, who was nine years old when he came over. He said it was a thrill to play in the fort and remembers his time at the camp fondly.
“I never felt that I was different from the community," Kalderon said. "For that, I thank you.”
Two years ago, a WXXI-TV production about Fort Ontario, Safe Haven, marked its 30th anniversary. It was written and produced by Paul Lewis.
On Monday, Lewis said that as they celebrate the welcoming of the refugees, the emergency shelter also represents a failure in U.S. policy.
“This was supposed to be a model for safe havens around the country and around the world," Lewis said. "This was not the case. This was the only one.”
Lewis said there should be more kindness and welcoming of refugees today.
You can see the Safe Haven documentary and an interview with Paul Lewis on the WXXI website at this link
Local elected officials including Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) also attended Monday’s ceremony. Katko said making Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven museum into a national park is his highest priority in Congress.