A Dispatch from
"The Wandering Jews of Ocean Beach"
By: Nowell C. Wisch and Diana “DJ” Barliant
What do Jews from the Holocaust and the War of 1812 have in
There is an important historical site sitting on
the shore of Lake Ontario in Upstate New York. After a 28 mile drive
through rolling hills you arrive in Oswego, New York, a nice sized town.
It is typical of an upstate village that has become a regional commerce
center. There are colleges, community centers, tall buildings which one
could leap in a single bound and the historic Fort Ontario, the site of
Prior to World War II, most nations ignored the
evidence that Hitler was embarking on an ambitious project, “The Final
Solution”. As more and more people were rounded up in Germany and
incarcerated in “The Camps,” the leaders of the Western world simply
ignored the plight of what was to become more than 11 million victims of
the heinous project. Much has been written and filmed about the
callousness shown by American and British politicians and the effect of
their utter disregard for the events being reported from “The
Continent”. Here at home, we were no different, but for one small
incident that began on August 4, 1944.
After repeated refusals to allow Jewish refugees
into the country because there was no coherent immigration policy that
would accommodate them, the Roosevelt administration finally allowed 928
escapees from eleven different regions in Eastern Europe to enter the US
and take residence at Fort Ontario.
It was an unlikely place to house Holocaust
escapees. The fort’s history, dating back to 1755, had played key roles
in the French and Indian Wars as well as the War of 1812. In 1944, Fort
Ontario occupied more than 125 buildings which were home to officers and
enlisted men of several different US Army units. However, because of its
remote location and its available facilities, it seemed the perfect
place to park 156 children and 826 adult Jews.
The residents of the Fort Ontario camp did not fit into their new
surroundings. They came from eighteen different countries and spoke many
different languages. Consequently, a school was established to teach
them American English as well as introduce them to the customs of the
United States. As is typical of Jewish refugees everywhere, the schools
The students were motivated and engaged. They
wanted to learn as much as possible about their new land and
surroundings. To help pass the time, their formal structure included
recreation and social activities as well as the formal schooling. The
curriculum also included theatrical productions and vocational training.
The refugees at Fort Ontario had mixed memories of
the shelter. While they were thankful to be safe, they still felt
confined. Upon reaching America, a place they envisioned to be
completely free, they continued to be held behind barbed wire and
allowed to leave the camp only with a special permit. They could not
visit relatives or serve in the army.
At the end of the war, their status continued in
limbo. Because of bickering factions within the Roosevelt Administration
over their status as immigrants, they were interred until January of
1946. When the decision was made to allow them to become citizens, the
camp quickly dispersed and by February all of the Jewish refugees had
left the Fort for the homes of families and friends.
Today you can get a sense of what this period in
our history looked like by visiting Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York.
The Fort became a New York State Historic Site in 1949 and is one of
many that figure prominently in the history of American Jews. It is open
for visitors during the late spring and the summer months. There are
tours of the main complex and you can visit some of the historic out
buildings which now house various community groups and organizations.
We found The Safe Haven Museum and Educational
Center in Building 22. The museum houses numerous books, photos and
articles detailing the activities and memories of the refugees. During
the tourist season from late April through September, the Center is open
Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm in Building 22.
Admission is: Adults- $4.00, Seniors- $2.00 and Children 5-12 $1.00.
Links to source material: