OSWEGO – New York State Parks, Friends of Fort Ontario, and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum host a 75th anniversary event to commemorate the open house held at the fort on Sept. 3, 1944.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site, 1 E. Fourth St., Oswego and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, 2 E. Seventh St., Oswego, will both be open to the public from 10 a.m. 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3. The fort will remain open for special programming in the evening. No admission will be charged at either location.
“During World War II, Fort Ontario served as the only camp or shelter for Holocaust refugees in the United States,” said Fort Ontario State Historic Site Manager Paul Lear. “It’s where average Americans and the press first encountered victims of Nazi persecution. As a result, stories of Hitler’s reign of terror finally moved from the back of newspapers to the front pages.”
Fort Ontario Historian Corey S. King will lead guided tours of the shelter using the map of open house activities issued to guests on Sept. 3, 1944. Tours begin at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the refugee monument situated by the Lake Ontario overlook parking lot. King incorporates photographs taken between 1944 and 1946 at location stops throughout the tour.
Oswego City Mayor William Barlow Jr. opens the evening program inside the old stone fort at 6 p.m., followed by Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum President Kevin Hill. Next, Lear will introduce Oswego City Historian Mark Slosek and Oswego County Historian Justin White, and each will offer a brief presentation on the history and significance of the shelter and stories related to it. Lear provides a short overview of the 1944 open house event and Oswego residents and others with personal or family stories connected to the shelter will be able to speak.
Concinnity, a unique women’s vocal ensemble featuring primarily acapella pieces, performs several musical pieces, including “Don’t Fence Me In,” unofficial theme song of the refugees. Short videos of the refugee shelter will be shown in the Enlisted Men’s Barracks. Friends of Fort Ontario offers Hoffman hot dogs and other refreshments for sale after 6 p.m. Weather permitting, and if the crowd is large enough, 982 bio-degradable tethered sky candle lanterns – representing the number of refugees brought to Fort Ontario in 1944 – will be launched after dark.
The event commemorates “where the Holocaust came to America.” On Aug. 5, 1944, nearly 1,000 Holocaust refugees arrived at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego. They met local townspeople at the fence surrounding the camp during the first month, exchanging accents and souvenirs as curiosity and generous impulses gave way to true friendships.
An open house was held on Sept. 5, 1944 to celebrate the end of the 30-day quarantine that was imposed after the ship carrying the refugees from Italy docked in New York City. Shelter officials designed the open house partly as a “get-acquainted” gathering, but also to correct the idea circulating that the refugees were “living in the lap of luxury.” Visitors were welcome to walk around the shelter, visit refugee apartments and make their own judgments as to the scale on which the shelter was being operated. Around 5,000 people showed up for the event, including members of 50 refugee families living in the United States, which severely taxed local hotel and restaurant facilities.
The open house marked the end of the reception period which meant the refugees could then have visitors, go downtown to shop on day-passes and enjoy a more normal, though still greatly restrained, relationship with the world.
For details about the commemoration event or Fort Ontario State Historic Site, visit www.fortontario.com or contact Paul Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-343-4711. For information about the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, visit www.safehavenmuseum.com or call 315-342-3003. For more Oswego County history and visitor information, go to http://visitoswegocounty.com/ or call 315-349-8322.