Visit Safe Haven in Oswego, the Only WW2 Refugee Shelter in the US
Tucked away in a corner of Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, you’ll find the only World War 2 Refugee Shelter in the United States. The unassuming restored gate house is Safe Haven, a museum dedicated to the lives and history of the 982 refugees who were saved from persecution. While the initiative was started with the best intentions, the operation had a rocky journey through its history. But their lives and stories live on through the help of the local community. Learn all about the US’s efforts to aid refugees when you visit Safe Haven in Oswego.
A Promise from FDR
The year was 1944 and the war was raging on in Europe as thousands of innocent lives were being taken away with no end in sight. It was finally time for the US to step up and help. On June 12, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a document allowing 1000 refugees in Italy to enter the United States to seek refuge from the war. The decommissioned military base at Fort Ontario was to be their new home.
Unsurprisingly, the response was overwhelming. Thousands of refugees applied for the chance at safety and freedom. In the end, 982 refugees, mostly from Yugoslavia, made their way to Oswego, New York. The group was chosen based on the skills they could provide to their new community, with preference being given to those who had escaped from concentration camps. They were promised they could return to their home countries once the war was over. They even signed documents stating they would.
The Journey to the United States
The journey across the Atlantic was not an easy one. Refugees were tagged as baggage, and the ship was overcrowded. After two weeks at sea, in hot, cramped quarters, there was a glimmer of hope once they spotted the Statue of Liberty. A new future waited for them in New York.
Upon arrival in Oswego in August 1944, the refugees were immediately uneasy. The barbed-wire fencing surrounding the shelter reminded them of the barbed wire of the concentration camps in Europe. They didn’t know what to expect. Were they being tricked? Or was it a sign of safety? Only time would tell. To begin, each family moved into their own barrack and quarantined for the first 30 days.
Life at Fort Ontario
Life at the fort was a rollercoaster of emotions for the refugees. Yes, they had safety, food, healthcare, work, school, and a community. But they weren’t fully free. They were limited mostly to the shelter, the majority of their interactions with the local citizens being through the fence.
Nonetheless, friendships were formed between refugees and Oswegonians. Once quarantine was over, the refugees were offered chances to visit the city of Oswego. And the local community was welcomed into the shelter. In fact, thousands of local residents visited the shelter to welcome them as soon as they were able.
The refugee community was vibrant. They established their own newspaper, put on theatrical performances, sang, danced, and supported each other. Through the year and a half at the shelter, the community experienced a wedding and 23 births.
Once the war was over, most of the refugees wanted to stay. They remained hopeful of their lives in America. Many of the families were establishing new lives in this country.
Luckily, the US Government reversed their requirement to send the refugees back to their home countries. Instead, those who wished to stay would become US citizens and find new homes. Grateful for this act of kindness, cities across the country offered to welcome refugee families with open arms. Ultimately, only 69 refugees decided to return home. The rest stayed in America.
Visiting Safe Haven in Oswego
In 2002, volunteers established the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in an old gate house at Fort Ontario. Their mission? To share the story of the 982 refugees who once called the fort home. Now, visitors can wander through the exhibits, learning about the shelter, the people who lived there, and the impact they had on the local community.
Artifacts from the refugees are on display, including dolls, clothing, photos, books, and newspapers. When you visit the museum, be sure to watch the videos and listen to the audio for firsthand accounts of life at the fort. Their stories are moving and need to be remembered.
The museum is open daily 11am – 4pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and Thursday-Sunday the rest of the year. The cost is only $5 per adult or $3 for children and students. Group tours are available.
Lastly, you can experience the museum from home as well! Visit Safe Haven’s website to listen to some of the stories from the survivors.