Images of the Oswego Refugee Camp
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Sixty-five years ago next month, Oswego was thrust onto the world stage by a decision made by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The two world leaders, fighting a World War in Europe and Asia, decided to open havens for Jewish refugees, people in Europe driven from their homes by the Nazi regime.
Britain would open four in the Middle East, France would open two in North Africa, and the United States would open one. The United States haven opened in August 1944 in Oswego, in buildings that housed a former Army training station next to Fort Ontario.
Oswego is marking the 65th anniversary of the opening of the United States haven for Jewish refugees with special events throughout the summer at the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center.
Safe Haven Museum and Education Center
Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Labor Day.
Fall and winter hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
For information: www.oswegohaven.org
While most of the haven’s buildings are long gone, the gatehouse, which served as a brig for drunken soldiers on the Army base, still exists and today houses the museum.
The original idea to create the museum started with a phone call from the Oswego Mayor at the time, John Sullivan, said William C. Schum, a retired professor and dean at the State University College at Oswego and first president of the museum.
“The (city-owned old Army buildings) were empty, unused and disheveled. So the mayor called a group of community leaders to come up with a way to use them,” Schum said. “The mayor said maybe we could have a Holocaust museum and a children’s science museum.”
A long-time history buff, Schum knew the history of the Jewish refugee haven and thought the story needed to be told. He told the mayor he’d be interested in opening the museum.
That refugees’ story begins in the summer of 1944, when American generals complained to Roosevelt that there were too many refugees in Europe for the military to take care of. To solve the problem, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to open camps for them.
“Roosevelt and the War Refugee Board chose Oswego, because the old Army quarters was available and because Oswego represented American values,” Schum said.
A total of 982 refugees, 89 percent of them Jewish, were recruited in Italy and boarded the U.S.S. Gibbens for the trip to America — away from the terror of war and Hitler.
The voyage was dangerous, as the Gibbons “went through submarine attacks and German aircraft flew overhead,” Schum said.
When these refugees, most from what then was Yugoslavia, rolled into Fort Ontario on a train, they saw a place surrounded by barbed wire fence and a few military men on patrol.
Today and Aug. 16: Admission to the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center is free.
1 p.m. today: Songs of Freedom — Marilyn Smiley presents a program about the music and musicians that were part of the refugee experience. In the Civic Arts Center Building in Fort Ontario Park. Admission $5 for adults; $2 for seniors and students. Free to Safe Haven Museum members.
Through Sept. 6: Through His Own Eyes — images and artifacts from the collection of former refugee Walter Greenberg. At the museum
1 p.m. Aug. 2: Language, Shmanguage — Paul Glasser talks about the transformation of the Yiddish language as immigrants traveled over time and continents. In the Civic Arts Center Building in Fort Ontario Park. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for seniors and students, free to Safe Haven Museum members.
1 p.m. Sept. 6: Under the Floor Boards — Marc Dennis talks about Jewish art in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In the Civic Arts Center Building in Fort Ontario Park. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for seniors and students and free to Safe Haven Museum members.
“It wasn’t the easiest at the beginning,” said refugee Grace Ash kenazy, of New York City. She was a baby when her family arrived in Oswego and her recollections are from what her parents told her later in life.
“We were behind barbed wire, just like a concentration camp,” she said.
“They thought they were going to a concentration camp. They were very disturbed,” Schum said.
But they soon learned this was a safe haven, a place where they could live free and not be afraid.
Rena Romano Block was nine when the train pulled up at Fort Ontario with her and her family aboard. It was Aug. 3 — 12 days before her 10th birthday.
“I remember being behind the fence and the people from Oswego came to look at us,” she said. “Someone said ‘what do they think we are? Monkeys in a cage?’¤”
“We were looking at them and they were looking at us,” she said. “But then they went away and then came back with all sorts of stuff for us. They were throwing things over the fence. I think even a bicycle was thrown over the fence.”
Block, now 74 and living in Baltimore, caught a doll that came over the fence. She was thrilled because she lost her only doll back in Italy before boarding the ship to America.
The refugee children were able to play and go to school. They were able to worship in a synagogue. They ate foods they hadn’t been able to get for years since the war began. They had clothing, nice shelter, books and toys.
“Coming to Oswego for me was an everlasting party,” Block said. “Everything was wonderful. We had everything we needed. I was happy.”