The Safe Haven

Refugees registering at Fort Ontario's refugee camp

Refugees registering at Fort Ontario’s refugee camp

By Judy Berman

An Army post dating back to the 1700s served a peaceful and humanitarian purpose during the last two years of its life. But few knew of the role that Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, played in sheltering refugees.

The fort became the only refugee center in America during World War II. It was a safe haven for nearly 1,000 men, women and children fleeing Hitler’s march across Europe. Of 3,000 who applied, just 982 refugees (874 were Jews, the rest were Christian) from 18 different countries were offered shelter at the fort.

Ray Harding was 8 years old when he and his family first came to America in 1944. They were Yugoslavian refugees who had been in a concentration camp in Italy that was liberated by the British. He viewed his 18-month stay at Fort Ontario as idyllic.

“The shelter in Oswego represented hope. It was a haven, a new life in the United States, a hand being reached across the sea by the United States,” Harding told me in an interview when I was a reporter at WHEN-AM radio in Syracuse, N.Y. (Born Branko Hochwald, Harding became a Liberal Party power broker in New York. He died in August 2012.)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to provide a safe haven changed not only the lives of the refugees who stayed there, but also the small community they lived in during the remainder of the war.

Aug. 5 marked the 69th anniversary of the fort’s role in the refugee relocation during WWII. Even though I lived about 35 miles from Oswego, I was never aware of its link to history until shortly before I did these interviews.

Manya Breuer, who survived five concentration camps, told me the fort was a welcome relief from her family’s life on the run.

“It was the beginning of a new life. It was coming from Hell into Heaven,” she said, referring to what is now called the Safe Haven.

But she felt guilty being among those selected.

“Here I was from so many, many people chosen to come to the United States, and beginning a new life again. When I think about it, it hurts me. Why is it that the rest didn’t have a chance?” she said.

Not all, initially, felt this way. “They were greatly disturbed by the chain-link fence with barbed wire on top and military police at the gate,” said Dr. Willard Schum, founding president and board member of the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center.

Ruth Gruber who helped the refugees relocate in Oswego, N.Y.

Ruth Gruber who helped the refugees relocate in Oswego, N.Y.

Ruth Gruber, who worked with the U.S. Secretary of Interior to help the refugees relocate, told them that all army installations had fences.

“(Some) didn’t believe me, and they were really terrified. It brought back all the memories of everything they’d escaped from. But others saw the fence as safety.”

Gruber said the schools in Oswego welcomed those in the shelter. Some of the children had never been to school.

“There was a 15-year-old girl from Germany who had been running since 1933. The day she went to school, she said: ‘I never believed in my life that I would go to school, that I would sit in a classroom.’” The girl grew up to be an artist.

Oswego residents did open their heart to the new arrivals. They brought the refugees food and clothing, and passed it over the fence. A former city mayor, Bill Cahill, remembered biking to the shelter and bringing candy to the refugees.

Housing and education were easy to resolve. Another concern was where they would go once the war ended. That was settled after the war came to an end. They were permitted to become American citizens.

Ruth Gruber's "Haven" - the story of nearly 1,000 refugees who found a safe haven in the U.S. during WWII.

Dr. Schum said he wished more could have found asylum in the United States during WWII. But there were ships that were turned away that had Jewish refugees aboard. They were not allowed to land.

He noted that of the roughly 1,000 people at the refugee center, there were doctors and lawyers who made their mark in this country. One scientist helped develop the CAT scan, another worked dismantling atomic weapons in Russia for the American government.

“What could we have done if we had opened our gates to more,” Dr. Schum said in a video made by The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. (Link below)

Many hope that the Safe Haven will remind people what the refugees went thru before they came to America’s shores, and that this tragedy will never be repeated.

Sad to say … it has. Genocide has taken place in many countries and regions, including: Rwanda, Bosnia, Uganda, Darfur and Syria.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photo: Refugees – Registering at the Fort Ontario Refugee Camp, Oswego, New York – 1944. Author: Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority, Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter (1944-1946) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/14/Refugees_Registering_at_the_Fort_Ontario_Refugee_Camp%2C_Oswego%2C_New_York%2C_08-1944.jpg/604px-Refugees_Registering_at_the_Fort_Ontario_Refugee_Camp%2C_Oswego%2C_New_York%2C_08-1944.jpg

Safe Haven Museum – http://www.safehavenmuseum.com/about.html

Photo: Ruth Gruber – The Haven and Ruth Gruber – War Department

Video: Ruth Gruber was a woman of firsts. This fascinating short film (7 minutes) includes the nearly 1,000 refugees who she helped relocate at Fort Ontario, Oswego, New York. She will be 102 on Sept. 30, 2013. http://www.aheadoftimethemovie.com/trailer.html

The Seneca Hill Ghost

Moonrise

This story originally was posted as “A Ghost Sighting in Minetto” on October 22, 2011

by Judy Berman

One crisp, clear November night when the moon was brilliant, a scenic ride along Old Route 57 turned into a terrifying experience for one traveler.

She came over what is Seneca Hill, and started down the long, long roadway which runs down the other side of the Oswego River, through the sleepy little village of Minetto, just south of Oswego, N.Y.

It was so bright that night that the road was like a bright ribbon. The traveler was coming down, reaching almost the bottom of the hill. She thought she saw something outside the passenger’s side of the car.

She turned quickly. Looked. It was so pronounced that she had the feeling that something was there. But she didn’t see anything and thought, “Oh well. It must have been a shadow, a tree or something like that.”

The next November, the same thing happened.

This time, out of the corner of her eye, she distinctly saw something, turned and caught a glimpse of something … but, what?

The third year, she again made her way through Seneca Hill on that long ribbon of moonlight.

But, this time, there was no mistake.

There she was on the right-hand side of the road. A woman, who was in her late-30s, was running. She wore a nightgown, an old-fashioned nightgown. She had a little girl by the hand who appeared to be about 6 years old, also in an old-fashioned nightgown.

They were running. Running as hard as they could along the shoulder of the road. The traveler started to stop and clearly saw the woman’s face.

She never saw such terror, never saw such terror on a human face before. The woman was frightened beyond belief.

So, she put the brake on as fast as she could and her car came to a squealing halt.

She jumped out. She could see them. They were still behind her, running up a hill.

She shouted after them, “Stop. Wait. What’s the matter?”

They didn’t turn and she thought, “Maybe they didn’t hear me.”

The traveler ran after them, but didn’t seem to gain any ground. When the pair reached the crest of the hill, they disappeared. She went to a house, the first one she saw. She knocked, but no one answered.

no one answered when I knocked on the door

Shaken and confused, She raced back to her car and headed across a bridge to a state police substation

She told the desk sergeant he had to come with her, something terrible had happened.

It seems like he moved in slow motion as he closed his book and put it down.

“Something has happened on the other side of the river,” she said, frantic and anxious.

“There was a woman and a little girl running … “

The state trooper broke in, “You say you saw a woman and a little girl?”

“Yes, yes. But we mustn’t talk about it. You must come with me. I know something terrible has happened. She looked so frightened and she was running up the top of the hill.”

“We’ve got to go over and see what happened.”

The state trooper calmly told her that he’d heard that story many times. He said what she saw people at the station called the Seneca Hill Ghost.

(Have you had an encounter with a ghost? Please share. No gory stuff, please.)

Thanks to Rosemary Nesbitt, who told me this tale, which is one of my favorite ghost stories. Nesbitt, a professor for more than 40 years at SUNY Oswego, Syracuse University and Wells College, also was a historian and author of 15 plays for children. She died in 2009. Nesbitt said others had told her they’ve had the same experience on moonlit rides through Seneca Hill between Nov. 5 and Nov. 10.

Main Photo – Moonrise – Moonrise over Heol Ddu Taken just as the full moon was coming over the horizon at Heol Ddu, owned by Hywel Williams http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moonrise_over_Heol_Ddu_-_geograph.org.uk_-_267189.jpg

Photo – Moon – at night – at the edge of The Lincolnshire Wolds, taken by Dave Hitchborne http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%5E_…and_the_moon_at_night_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1620605.jpg

Photo – ghost story – house at night http://morguefile.com/archive/display/8794

A Ghost Sighting in Minetto

 

by Judy Berman

One crisp, clear November night when the moon was brilliant, a scenic ride along Old Route 57 turned into a terrifying experience for one traveler.

She came over what is Seneca Hill, and started down the long, long roadway which runs down the other side of the Oswego River, through the sleepy little village of Minetto, just south of Oswego.

It was so bright that night that the road was like a bright ribbon. The traveler was coming down, reaching almost the bottom of the hill. She thought she saw something outside the passenger’s side of the car.

She turned quickly. Looked. It was so pronounced that she had the feeling that something was there. But she didn’t see anything and thought, “Oh well. It must have been a shadow, a tree or something like that.”

The next November, the same thing happened.

This time, out of the corner of her eye, she distinctly saw something, turned and caught a glimpse of something … but, what?

The third year, she again made her way through Seneca Hill on that long ribbon of moonlight.

But, this time, there was no mistake.

There she was on the right-hand side of the road. A woman, who was in her late-30s, was running. She wore a nightgown, an old-fashioned nightgown. She had a little girl by the hand who appeared to be about 6 years old, also in an old-fashioned nightgown.

They were running. Running as hard as they could along the shoulder of the road.    The traveler started to stop and clearly saw the woman’s face.

She never saw such terror, never saw such terror on a human face before. The woman was frightened beyond belief.

So, she put the brake on as fast as she could and her car came to a squealing halt.

She jumped out. She could see them. They were still behind her, running up a hill.

She shouted after them, “Stop. Wait. What’s the matter?”

They didn’t turn and she thought, “Maybe they didn’t hear me.”

The traveler ran after them, but didn’t seem to gain any ground. When the pair reached the crest of the hill, they disappeared. She went to a house, the first one she saw. She knocked, but no one answered.

Shaken and confused, She raced back to her car and headed across a bridge to a state police substation

She told the desk sergeant he had to   come with her, something terrible had happened.

It seems like he moved in slow motion as he closed his book and put it down.

“Something has happened on the other side of the river,” she said, frantic and anxious.

“There was a woman and a little girl running … “

The state trooper broke in, “You say you saw a woman and a little girl?”

“Yes, yes. But we mustn’t talk about it. You must come with me. I know something terrible has happened. She looked so frightened and she was running up the top of the hill.”

“We’ve got to go over and see what happened.”

The state trooper calmly told her that he’d heard that story many times. He said what she saw people at the station called the Seneca Hill Ghost.

(An invitation: If you have a ghost story of your own that you’d like to share, please post a reply. No gory stuff, please.)

Thanks to Rosemary Nesbitt, who told me this tale, which is one of my favorite ghost stories. Nesbitt, a professor for more than 40 years at SUNY Oswego, Syracuse University and Wells College, also was a historian and author of 15 plays for children. She died in 2009. Nesbitt said others had told her they’ve had the same experience on moonlit rides through Seneca Hill between Nov. 5 and Nov. 10.