Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter
The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter also known as "Safe Haven," located in Oswego, New York was the first and only refugee center established in the United States during World War II. From 1944 to 1945, the shelter housed almost 1000 European refugees, predominantly of Jewish descent. The whole "rescue" effort was called "Safe Haven." The Refugee shelter is now the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center.
Refugee Shelter Creation
On June 12, 1944, the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was established in Oswego, New York by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was operated by the War Relocation Authority. It was the first and only refugee center established in the United States. In August 1944, the shelter received 982 refugees of predominantly Jewish descent and of various national backgrounds, especially Yugoslavian, Austrian, Polish, German and Czechoslovakian.
Location and History
Fort Ontario was located on 80 acres that overlooked Lake Ontario. The purpose of the fort changed multiple times throughout its history. At various points, it was a British fur trading post, then an active military post for the US Army from the war of 1812 all the way through World War II as well as a major supply depot for its whole active service, then an educational camp for people who were illiterate, before finally being closed on March 15, 1944. Oswego, New York, which had benefited from the revenue that came from the soldiers at the fort, sent a delegation to Washington, D.C. to ask for the fort to be reopened. The answer was to reopen the fort as a Refugee Shelter.
The War Refugee Board was responsible for creating the camp, selecting the occupants and the overall policy until the closure of the camp on June 6, 1945. While creating and implementing their policies, the War Refugee Board always kept in mind the possible influence of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter on other, larger, refugee concerns.
The War Relocation Authority already had previous experience running a refugee camp within the United States. They had been responsible for formulating and implementing policies in the Japanese Relocation Centers. Their concerns were based solely on responding to problems of daily camp life. As such, there were sharp differences between how the two agencies thought the camp should be run. The WRA had found, while running the Japanese Relocation Centers, that in order to run a camp smoothly and prevent rebellion, policies had to be set out before the establishment of the camps. While the WRB wanted to implement camp policies gradually after the establishment of the camp in order to test public opinion and gain public support.
A big concern with the establishment of the camp was the issue of immigration. However, President Roosevelt made himself very clear that immigration laws were not going to be ignored. The refugees would merely be in the United States, not a citizen of the United States. They would have no visa status. President Roosevelt also assured Congress that the Army would not permit any refugee escapes. Initially, plans were made to install spotlights along the existing 6-foot chain-link fence, as well as having 150 armed guards around the camp perimeter. Neither of these things were implemented. Because of their immigration status as “guests”, the refugees would not be able to work, and they would not be allowed to travel beyond Oswego.
When Germany surrendered on May 6, 1945, twenty-four days after President Roosevelt’s death, the question of what to do with the camp became a pressing issue. Internment was becoming increasingly difficult to support. The problem was whether to return the refugees to their home countries or to admit them into the United States. Most of the refugees wanted to stay. In fact, 60% of them had active immigration cases pending.
A subcommittee voted to close the camp, and the shelter was closed in February 1946. Some refugees chose to return to Europe, whether to find family members, or under the impression that their homes and businesses still remained as they had left them. Some were desperate to remain in the United States and not return to a country where they believed they had no future. Many were granted permanent or temporary status and allowed to stay in the country, sometimes ending up in the homes of family or friends.
Selection and Early Processing in Italy
When it came to selecting the refugees who would be permitted to come to the United States, there were special criteria established by the WRB and President Roosevelt. Special Representative Leonard Ackermann traveled to Italy, to conduct the selection and then bring those selected to the port at Naples. The criteria established for the refugees were that they should be refugees for whom no other havens were available. Roosevelt also stated that the group should include mostly women and children – able-bodied men of military age would not be included – along with a couple rabbis, half a dozen doctors, and enough skilled workers to maintain the camp.
The President of the United States has announced that approximately one thousand non-Italian refugees will be brought to the United States from Italy. The refugees will be maintained in a refugee shelter to be established at Fort Ontario near Oswego in the State of New York, where under appropriate conditions they will remain for the duration of the war. The refugees will be brought to the United States outside the regular immigration procedure The shelter will be equipped to take good care of the refugees and it is contemplated that they will be returned to their homes at the end of the war. It is planned to select and move applicants for this refugee shelter as soon as possible. Preference will be given to those refugees for whom no other haven or refuge is immediately available. Therefore, if you desire to make application for admission please fill out the form below. Please use only one form for yourself and all members of your immediate family. Notification of acceptance for movement will be given as quickly as possible after your applications has been received.— Displaced Persons Sub-Commission; Allied Control Commission, Notice And Application, June 20, 1944, 
An abandoned mental asylum in Aversa, Italy was used a central collection area for the refugees. After the selection, Ackermann brought the refugees to Naples, Italy, where The Henry Gibbons, a troop transport ship, was waiting to join a convoy.
Aside from the days waiting in the Naples port, it took 17 days for The Henry Gibbons to cross the Atlantic. For most of the refugees, the trip was extremely uncomfortable. There were triple-tiered canvas hammocks instead of the luxury liner with beds and sheets that they were expecting. Also, they came under enemy fire soon after entering the Atlantic. As was standard procedure, the ship released black smoke to act as camouflage, but when someone forgot to open the vents, the lower decks were filled with smoke, adding to the terror of the refugees below. In addition, the mix of a normal diet and sea travel had a bad effect on those who had been used to hunger and poor nutrition. Most were sick a good portion of the journey, and some remained for the entire time.
The Henry Gibbons arrived in New York City on August 3, 1944. The refugees had to remain on the ship one last night to allow returning wounded servicemen to be removed from the other ships in the convoy and brought to hospitals.
The experience of disembarking was traumatic for some of the refugees. They were subjected to the same routine performed on all returning servicemen, but without explanation, adding to their confusion and fear. They were sprayed for delousing under the presence of armed guards. It was only then that they could leave on a two-day train ride for Oswego.
Life at the shelter
Upon arriving at Fort Ontario, many were surprised, scared, and angered to see that the fort was surrounded in barbed-wire topped fences. They felt that they had left Europe expecting to be brought to safety and freedom but had instead been brought to another concentration camp. It was only after explanations from staff at the fort that the refugees began to accept the fence. However, there was a lack of freedom in the camp. For the first month, the refugees were not allowed to leave the camp. Even relatives who had traveled to Oswego were not allowed to enter the camp, and they had to visit with their relatives through the chain-link fence. Some local citizens visited the camp to welcome the newcomers, passing sweets and gifts through the fence.
In the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, there were 496 “units” (which are defined as either families or unaccompanied individuals). The refugees had undergone great trauma, and as a result needed to recuperate. Nearly 100 of the refugees had been imprisoned in Buchenwald or Dachau. Many of them had been refugees for 7 or 8 years, and almost all had suffered through food shortages, disease, torture and trauma.
Many had the hopes of joining relatives who were already in the United States. Others had different reasons for wanting to come to the refugee camp in Oswego. Some were interested in the health care that they could receive in the United States, and had come to Oswego to regain their health. Others were interested in the education system that may be available to their children. Others were looking for jobs or economic opportunities offered in the United States.
However, the camp was neither aware of nor concerned with the expectations that the refugees came with. Their intention was to provide for the basic needs for the refugees, and had not intended to provide more than the basics. There was no plan for health care other than that which threatened the health of an individual or the group, and there were no plans to educate any of the child refugees.
Of the 982 refugees that lived in the refugee camp at Fort Ontario, 187 were under the age of 16, and 116 were over the age of 60. A large majority of the group was Jewish, while others were Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Greek and Russian Orthodox. Religious differences - as well as differences due to age and nationality - caused tension among the refugees in the camp.
While in the camp, many complained about the loss of freedoms they encountered there. There were confiscations by customs, censorship of their mail, and they were also unable to leave the camp. In September, however, the quarantine was lifted. Residents of the camp received 6 hour passes to Oswego. Thousands of visitors poured into the camp. On September 20, 1945Eleanor Roosevelt, accompanied by Mrs. Henry Morgenthau Jr., visited the camp.
A personal discovery and family story is in reference; and see next section "see also."
In 2012, the television show "Ghost Hunters" conducted a paranormal investigation at the site.
- Ruth Gruber
- a personal discovery story is in http://www.recognitionscience.com/cgv/oswego.html
- an interesting historical "news-item" is in http://www.oswegonian.com/news/2322/2322
- another interesting historical "news-item" is in http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/07/65_years_ago_this_summer_osweg.htm
- Marks, Edward B. Token Shipment: the Story of America's War Refugee Shelter., Washington, D. C.: U. S. Govt. print. off, 1946.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter Bibliography
- 2001 CBS TV film, Haven, IMDB link
- Rotten Tomatoes review of the 2001 Haven film
- A YouTube link for a 2001 CBS TV commercial for the film
- Records of the War Relocation Authority: Records of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter (210.3.5), National Archives, Washington, D.C.
- Fort Ontario Records, MS#0444, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York, NY.
- Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter Collection; P-317; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.
- Oral Histories: Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario (Safe Haven), State University of New York at Oswego, Penfield Library, Archives and Special Collections.
- Correspondence from a shelter refugee in Arthur Lehmann Correspondence; AR 25381; Leo Baeck Institute, New York, NY.
- Documentation of a shelter refugee's experience in Lehmann Family Papers; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives, Washington, D.C.