A piece of Central New York’s history is about to become part of a new exhibit in Washington D.C.
Visitors from around the world will see a section of fence that once surrounded a Jewish refugee center at Fort Ontario in Oswego.
In 1944, during World War II, more than 900 mostly Jewish refugees were allowed on a ship to America. On land, the anxious group had their first chilling encounters boarding the train, then arriving at an enclosed shelter.
“The Fort was surrounded by barbed wire. That barbed wire was another symbol that they had been brought back to a concentration camp. To many of the refugees, this was both scary, terrifying and a very emotional experience,” explains Kevin Hill, President of the Board of Directors for Safe Haven Inc., which operates a museum on the edge of Fort Ontario.
He says the fence was not built for the refugees. It had been put up during previous military operation for security – with the intention of intimidating anyone trying to sneak in or out.
In time, fear of the barbed wire would fade…on both sides.
“The residents of Oswego would go to the fence, interact with the refugees, provide them with items from local stores, candy, toys, gifts,” Hill said. “There’s even a well-known story of someone passing over a bicycle.”
“This is the only section that has remained here since WWII. So, that’s why it is so important,” added Paul Lear, who manages operations at Fort Ontario today for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Lear was willing to part with just a piece of this local history after a special request.
“We were contacted by the National Holocaust Museum in Washington and they wanted to come up and visit,” he recalled. “They are putting together an exhibit on America’s response to the holocaust.”
Crews dug out a post, removing several feet of the fence for a careful cleaning before the exhibit debuts sometime next year. It’s a small link to Oswego’s past, offering a lessons for the future.
“Fort Ontario’s role in World War Two as the only refugee shelter for mostly Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust is going to be recognized on an international scale,” Lear said. Millions of people visit the Holocaust museum in Washington. So, it’s a great thing.”
At the same time, the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum already located on Fort Ontario is preparing for an upgrade. The board of directors were just awarded a $100,000 grant, according to Hill.
Though there isn’t a clear timeline, board members hope to develop an interactive exhibit, using guides to give visitors a more personal experience as they learn about the journey of refugees.