Former WWII Refugees Mark 75th Anniversary of the Only US Safe Haven During Holocaust

Some of the 982 civilian war refugees from occupied Europe are shown outside the mess hall buildings at Fort Ontario, Oswego, N.Y., on Aug. 5, 1944. The refugees, who arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 4, lived in the emergency relief shelter established by the U.S. War Relocation Authority. (AP Photo)

Suzanne Krauthamer Gurwitz remembers little about the 18 months she spent at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Center in Oswego. She was 5 when she, her parents and two older brothers arrived at the former military post near Lake Ontario.

“Like other children, I played,” said Gurwitz, 80, of Plainview, N.Y. “I don’t remember being unhappy.”

Gurwitz was among 982 refugees at Fort Ontario, the only U.S. shelter for Europeans fleeing World War II. Of the 30 surviving refugees, 19 attended a 75th anniversary reunion on Monday (Aug, 5). The event commemorated the 1944 arrival of refugees in the small upstate New York city.

Survivors and their families crowded Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, once the shelter’s administration building, and wandered the Fort Ontario State Historic Site. More than 200 people attended a memorial under heightened security. Some guests expressed concern for their safety, an official said, citing the weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

Several former refugees and Oswego residents didn’t want to talk about those worries or about the  Trump administration’s policies barring asylum-seekers. Instead, the former refugees, surrounded by descendants and greeting old friends, were eager to talk about how they came to live at the shelter.

Gurwitz, born in Paris to Polish Jews, remembers crossing the Alps and hiding in the woods before her family ended up living with nuns and priests in Rome in 1943. In June 1944, her father learned a ship would soon leave Naples, Italy, for a shelter in the United States.

By then, the Nazis had killed about 5 million European Jews.

After June 6, 1944, when Allied forces attacked German forces on France’s Normandy coast, at least 200,000 Jews remained in concentration camps or in hiding. Three days later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a refugee camp would open in six weeks at Fort Ontario.

The refugees came to the U.S. as Roosevelt’s “guests” and agreed to return to Europe after the war. President Harry S. Truman in December 1945 signed an executive order that allowed the refugees to enter the U.S. and the shelter closed in February 1946.

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Source: Religion News Service