by Chris Clemens
The United States wasn’t always fighting in World War II of course. We arrived late to the game after Japan forced our hand when they bombed Pearl Harbor. Long before we joined the Allies, Hitler was condemning Jews, and anyone else he didn’t like, to Concentration Camps. Those who didn’t perish under his hateful watch were coerced into finding respite wherever possible, often in a safe house and under an assumed identity. Though rumor has it that he had to be convinced by his wife, President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt devised a plan to use a small plot of land here in the U.S. to provide refuge for a few of those who found themselves country-less as the result of the war. It’s the story of those who FDR brought here to Oswego that the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center aim to tell.
Before arriving, I arranged to meet with a volunteer docent. At 87 Lois has more energy and smiles than I have on even my best days. She volunteers all four days of the week that the museum is open and has been at it for years. I had already been interested in the story she was about to tell, but something about her passion for wanting to share made me that much more intrigued.
The property where the museum is located has been used for a number of different things over the years and as a result it already had a compound of vacant housing. FDR’s proposal was approved by Congress to bring 1,000 refugees from Italy provided that they each signed a contract agreeing to go back “home” once the war ended. One thousand of the 3,000 applicants were provided arrangements to board a ship to voyage westward and live in the U.S. However, on the day the boat set sail, only 982 refugees climbed aboard. No one has any idea what became of the other 18.
In August of 1944, the 982 arrived safely at a port in New Jersey, though their high hopes of finding solace in the free world quickly soured. Not knowing of course that Oswego is a few hundred miles from the Jersey shore, they all were instructed to board a train to their next destination. I can’t say I blame any one of them for being suspicious, all they knew of Jews getting on trains was a story that ended sadly. When their train arrived to the Safe Haven campus and stopped outside the tall fences and barbed wire, they simply refused to get off the train and trust they could be safe. Imagine traveling all that way for safety and arriving to have your hopes shattered only because you thought that the only option for the end of a train’s passage meant certain death? U.S. troops ultimately took all of the food that had been set up in celebration of their arrival and individually served the refugees right on their seats in the train cars. Legend has it that one sole man managed to convinced the others to finally deboard simply based on the fact that they hadn’t eaten so well in years.
While sleeping on cots and being quarantined behind a fence wasn’t exactly living the life of Riley, there are countless records of interviews indicating that the respite and safety provided was met with great gratitude and was worlds better than what they had left behind in Europe. Once the quarantine ended, children attended public schools and the adults were tutored in English and helped to adjust to the American way of life. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited, Oswego residents regularly visited with refugees and chatted through the fences (and may have even helped smuggle in some contraband food occasionally), 22 babies were born, and a couple was married legally by the City Hall.
“I had no country. I was a Jew. No one wanted me…but I was wanted here.” – Safe Haven Refugee
On September 2, 1945, eighteen months after the arrival of the Safe Haven refugees, World War II officially ended. The 982 who had spent the last year and a half living and acclimating to the New World were told it was time to return home to the various countries in Europe they originally hailed from. Of course, if you were Jewish, there was no such thing as home in 1945. Families, homes, cultures, governments and entire cities lay in a ruined aftermath of the previous six warring years. Despite countless Americans insisting that the refugees be granted permission to remain, Congress reminded both the refugees and those advocating for clemency that all 982 had signed an agreement upon their arrival and insisted they return.
Lois smiled the entire hour and a half she told me the story of Safe Haven, but it was at this point that she seemed to really enjoy being able to share. She said, “That FDR, he insisted he’d find a way to let them remain and sure enough, he did.” Though as refugees the 982 weren’t welcome to remain in the U.S., as immigrants they were an entirely other group of people. Roosevelt brought in multiple buses to caravan any who were interested to the Rainbow Bridge at the Canadian border. They were told to get off the buses, walk across the border and get their passports stamped and then to walk back across the border into the U.S.–as immigrants who could go wherever they wanted.
Apparently 100 or so did indeed return to Europe, but the remaining refugees who were now Canadian immigrants walked freely back into the free world to find permanent homes. Though each individual was welcomed with open arms back to Oswego, many shared that despite their gratitude for such hospitality, Oswego’s winters were no place to celebrate freedom and many migrated to states with warmer climates.
I’ve read stories of the sadness and ruin that came from the Holocaust but I left Safe Haven with a new sense of America’s role in World War II. The site and FDR’s work was the only government sanctioned effort during the war to rescue Jews seeking safety. The museum is an effort toward preserving the stories that sailed the ocean to find respite on our shores. I’m grateful for folks like Lois who continue to keep the stories alive and to celebrate our humanitarian effort. If you plan to visit, be sure to do so during the summer months when Fort Ontario is open for tours. And, cause let’s face it, the majority of those refugees are right–Oswego’s winters are friggin’ brutal!!
**Correction: One of Exploring Upstate‘s readers sent a question asking how FDR could have arranged for the refugees if he was dead. Indeed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 which was before the end of the war. I wrote this while the visit was still fresh in mind, so I was sure I had the story right. Looking in to it a bit deeper, it appears that Congress didn’t want the refugees at all, so FDR exercised his executive order to bring them as his personal guests. Ruth Gruber was one of the ones to lobby for their being able to stay at the end of the war. Ruth’s story is a big one and rather than just mentioning her briefly and not being able to do her story justice, I chose to leave out her name from this post before this late correction. If any historians have a better feel for this story than I have received, feel free to leave a comment!!**
Sources and Additional Reading
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens