Facing a Day When They Didn’t Have to Die

Registration at the the Fort Ontario Refugee Camp, August 1944.
Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority. Photo: public domain

By Barbara Davis

We like to think of America as a haven, a safe haven, a melting pot that welcomes all who seek liberty and fortune in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The reality, of course, is quite different. The rejection of refugees and immigrants is, regrettably, a recurrent theme in the history of the American “nation of immigrants,” particularly with respect to Jews. Lutherans, Catholics and Jews were expelled from the Puritan colonies of New England; Jews and Protestants were banned from French North America; the Spanish Inquisition persecuted converted Jews in the New World. The early Dutch colony of New Amsterdam accepted Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil with the greatest reluctance, only “so long as they do not become a burden to the company or the community.”

The United States could have saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps. Instead, they turned away a ship carrying 900 asylum-seeking German Jews and rejected a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to America, because, as the wife of the immigration commissioner declared, “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

When the Allied armies liberated Rome in June 1944, Manya Hartmayer was hiding in a Catholic convent. She knew that her situation was dire. “Even there the Germans came in… It was very close, every day … I knew that when they got me, I would not come out alive.” But Manya got lucky. She was one of 982 refugees to be admitted to the United States as “guests” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On August 5, 1944, after a long voyage from Italy and a train ride from New York City, Manya arrived in the upstate New York city of Oswego, where she was interned at the 75-acre Fort Ontario Military Reservation, the only refuge in the United States for victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

The refuge was called Safe Haven, and was established to convince America’s allies that the United States was serious about rescuing the Jews of Europe, so that they would do likewise. Those given passage had to sign documents agreeing to return to their homelands after the war ended. From August 5, 1944 to February 5, 1946, three hundred and ninety-one families, representing 18 nationalities and 982 individuals, were interned behind barbed wire at Fort Ontario. Fearful of being forced to return to homes and families that no longer existed, facing potential persecution by former neighbors if they did, and unable to continue on with their lives, one way or the other, the Fort Ontario refugees nonetheless knew how fortunate they were. “For the first time I woke up without having the pain of facing a day that I was supposed to die,” said Manya Hartmayer.

At 7:30 on the morning of August 5, 2019, church bells in Oswego will ring out to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the train that carried the mostly Jewish (but also Protestant, Catholic and Greek Orthodox) refugees to Safe Haven. Former refugees and their families, public officials, representatives of the Jewish Federation of Central New York and religious leaders will then visit cemeteries and conduct memorial services at the graves of refugees who died on the ship and at the shelter during the year and a half of its operation.

The refugees were not permitted to leave Fort Ontario. They struggled to create a community within the camp, aided by kind citizens of Oswego and by Na’Amat, the Pioneer Women of Syracuse. Meanwhile, advocates for their cause lobbied Congress and President Roosevelt to allow them to stay. Finally, after a year and a half, President Truman permitted their legal entry into the country. Safe Haven closed a short time later.

Today, Fort Ontario and Safe Haven National Refugee Shelter in Oswego are on the path to becoming a National Park. “The foundation of the ideals that the United States was created from are centered in the history of Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Museum,” said Jeffrey Grimshaw, Chair of the Fort Ontario National Landmark Committee. “The sacrifices and the passion for the truths we hold true have been part of the experiences and events that have taken place here at this location. We owe it to generations to come to preserve what happened here for all Americans and the world to know the essence of the American experience.”

As the 75th anniversary of Safe Haven is being celebrated, all Americans – and particularly Jewish Americans – are urged to recognize the truly unique role that Ft. Ontario’s emergency shelter played in America’s history.

Barbara Davis is the Special Projects Associate for the Jewish Federation of Central New York. She is an educator, author and local historian.