Museum preserves the story of World War II refugees

Photos provided by the Beit Hatfutsot Museum

“Sometimes things just stay with you,” Mary Hess, a professor in the history department, said in her office last week. “And I think this has stayed with some of my students.”

Hess was referring to the students in her History of the U.S. since 1865 (HIS 203) class. Her class has been examining the American experience since the Civil War, and they have been paying particular attention to efforts made by the U.S. after World War II to assist European refugees.

In 1944, as the Allies continued to gain ground in Europe and the atrocities committed by the Nazis came to light, President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to make a crucial decision. Roosevelt decided that the U.S. would accept 1,000 displaced refugees into the country as personal guests. These guests would be staying at Fort Ontario in the city of Oswego.

Refugees came from Italy, Germany, and many other countries throughout Europe and eventually 982 of them would make it to Oswego. They lived in the old Army barracks around the fort from 1944 to 1946. These refugees went to the Oswego schools, including the college. Many would go on to leave the fort, once it ceased to be a refuge for them, and go on to become American citizens.

While these events took place over 60 years ago, the Oswego community and the college have worked hard to preserve the memories of the refugees. The prime example of this is the founding of the Safe Haven Museum in 2002. Located on East 7th Street by the fort, the museum is dedicated to telling and preserving the story of the 982 brave souls who came to escape the horrors of war.

This week, some of Hess’ HIS 203 students will be interviewing people with stories of the refugees. This assignment was designed to examine the tradition of oral history. Other professors from the college have discussed the museum and the refugees in their classes as well. Gwen Kay, associate professor in the history department, speaks of the refugees in her classes.

“I do often mention the story in classes, especially when I teach the 1940s, or social movements, or women’s activism,” Kay said.

The museum is completely run by volunteers, so they are often looking for student help from the college and surrounding area. Kay says that a large number of students have done internships with the museum, especially those studying history or museum studies. Interns are not limited to these majors though. Annie Syso, a senior cinema and screen studies and broadcasting double major spent the past semester interning at the museum.

“I’ve been making DVDs from a reunion they had at the fort this September and I help the other interns out any way I can,” Syso said.

The next event that the interns and volunteers are working on is an art exhibit the museum is hosting on June 10. The exhibit will be featuring Miriam Sommerburg, Eric and Marc Finzi. Sommerburg was one of the refugees that stayed at the fort back in the mid-1940s.

Safe Haven is currently looking for student interns and volunteers for the summer and fall to promote museum events and draw in new visitors.

“The museum brings a piece of Oswego’s past to the town, and to the college, as we house the archives,” Kay said. “There are school trips to the museum, which is good as a museum without visitors is pretty ineffective. More than that, though, the museum serves as a reminder of what the town once did, and how small actions can make profound differences.”