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, 2011-15. 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,, 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)

Safe Haven Museum –

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.

    1. I was fascinated when I heard about this. Their stories have stuck with me all these years. I kept the cassette tape of the reports that were aired and have played it for my students when we read a fiction story, “Suzy and Leah,” about the refugee center. Thanks for your comments, Kate.

  1. What a touching and inspiring post, Judy. The interpretations of the high fences–for some they were security, for others a repeat of what they’d left. War is hell, so the opportunities for living in heaven are special, life-altering gift; I would not have wanted to be the one who offered or refused the opportunities.

    1. To know that you can offer a safe haven to some … and not others … had to be heart-wrenching indeed. Ruth Gruber, who helped relocate the refugees and had a lot of contact with them, will be 102 on Monday, Sept. 30th. I really admire her.

  2. Judy, in the light of what’s happening today, it’s an interesting and of course depressing story; refugees and the need for safe haven seems to be never ending. I’m forever going to wonder what that little girl with the scrunched up face in your first picture is thinking.

    1. That little girl intrigued me also. Thanks for your comments, Mary. I wish that everyone could live in harmony and have no worries. It is disheartening to know what people must deal with just to survive.

    1. The link to Ruth Gruber’s story (below) reveals just how amazing she is. I only got to meet her in a phone interview. She was charming, intelligent, and had a great story to share.

      Tracy, thank you for linking my name to your post. Folks, Tracy is a fellow writer who is married to a chef. Among the stories she shares are food and travel in New England. This is a link to her most recent tasty post:

  3. A moving, inspiring story. Ruth and those made Safe Haven possible are heaven sent. A proof that miracles exist and prayers answered prayers. My grand parents experienced a similar situation with the Japanese invasion in the Philippines during WW II; there haven was the mountains but I was told a few relatives didn’t make it. Stories like this are humbling. Reminds us to appreciate the comforts and freedom we enjoy now. Thanks

    1. The people stories certainly put a face on the horrors of war, the scramble to reach safety and to survive. Hearing them and reading about them does make me appreciate life even more. I’m glad you liked this post, Island Traveler.

  4. Wow, I had no idea about this. Great story Mom. It is too bad that they were not able to open for more people..but they helped so many and that should be something to be commended for. I can only imagine how scared they must have been to go into this place and see all the high fences and barbed wire, but it is nice to know that people ilke Ruth tried to calm them and help them get settled.

    1. The plight of those seeking safety is troubling. It’s good that nearly a 1,000 did find a haven. Ruth’s efforts to help them relocate are commendable. She will be 102 on Monday, Sept. 30th.

  5. It’s a lovely story and post but just so achingly sad at the same time. Sad because so many were turned away. I find it hard to wrap my mind around the scale of the tragedy of the number of lives that were ended for no reason during this time.

    1. I agree, Amy. I find it difficult to understand ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ It seems that whole Golden Rule, that is practiced by all major religions, is set aside when it is considered an inconvenience that disrupts their agendas.

  6. I’ve never heard about this refugee camp before, such an interesting fact story and video Judy! It’s sad though that in times when people are rescued from dire circumstances they often end up being taken to a similar environment than the one they have left, not in every way, but it’s not really true freedom either, for a while anyway. But at least they had sheets on their beds, and some hope of a future ahead of them. Would be interesting to hear some individual stories as to how the lives of some of those people ended up.

    Yes, and I don’t think much has changed, the same ‘system’ still applies in many countries, and genocide certainly is not a thing of the past. I wonder how many of us are under false illusions that something like this couldn’t happen to the countries we live in, it really wouldn’t take that much for everything to shift in another direction, as it did in the second world war. An alarming thought really!

    1. I suspect that Ruth Gruber had more details about those who lived at the refugee center. She wrote about the Haven as well as other topics. She was fascinating, as were the two former refugees I talked to for my news reports. One became an artist. Another a top official in the Liberal Party in New York State.

      Some want to dismiss what happened thinking it was an anomaly. You’re right. It wasn’t. Others try to deny the existence of the whole Holocaust. That also is alarming.

    1. Thank you, Kate. When I first learned of The Haven, it was a surprise to me, too. I lived about 35 miles from it. Ruth Gruber, who turned 102 on Monday (Sept. 30th), has written several historic books.

    1. When you do, Lisa, please let me know. I have only seen it via the website. My interviews were done via the phone and the museum was still in the planning stages when I wrote about it for the radio station I worked for.

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