Seventy years ago, 982 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust were given safe haven at Fort Ontario in the upstate New York town of Oswego.
The “guests” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt were taken from Europe by boat to New York City and then by train to Oswego in 1944. They remained there until 1946 in the only refuge of its kind established in the United States during World War II.
Today, the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center in Oswego is keeping alive the stories of those refugees — most of whom went on to lead successful lives in the United States — while raising awareness of the Holocaust through its traveling exhibits and school programs.
From June 19-22, hundreds of bikers from the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance will visit the museum during its 10th annual Ride to Remember, which has previously raised $400,000 for Holocaust-related causes.
Serving as hosts for the 2014 ride will be Hillel’s Angels, JMA’s New Jersey chapter, who submitted the winning proposal in the organization’s annual call for destinations and worthy causes.
The idea for the Oswego ride came from Larry Edelman of East Brunswick. He first learned of the museum in 2011 from his daughter, Andrea, who had just begun a legal job at the State University of New York at Oswego.
“She met another attorney at the school who had seen these exhibits years before, when they didn’t even have a museum and were sitting in a dusty basement,” said Edelman. “He told her he always felt bad that more people didn’t know about them.” The museum was dedicated in 2002 in what was the administration building at Fort Ontario.
The ride will be coordinated with activities commemorating the 70th anniversary of the refugees’ arrival.
“No one even knows we had a refugee center in World War II,” said Alan Kane of North Brunswick, who as Hillel’s Angels treasurer is heading the fund-raising drive. “It’s an unknown chapter of that era.”
Kane, a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, described the group as “an egalitarian motorcycle association holding to Jewish ideals,” whose members “love to ride but have something more in common.”
Renowned photographer and journalist Ruth Gruber, who was appointed by the Roosevelt administration to accompany the refugees, recounting the experience in Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America; she later described it as “the defining Jewish moment” of her life.
Refugees at the camp were not allowed to leave, but their children attended Oswego public schools, while others attended SUNY Oswego. Adults were taught English and other skills.
Edelman said that descendants of the 982 rescued Jews are now estimated to number about 20,000.
“There are only about 100 of the actual refugees left,” he said. “I think this Ride to Remember holds some special significance to this area since many of the original refugees ended up settling in the New York-New Jersey area.”
One of the highlights of the ride will be a kosher barbecue at which surviving refugees, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be guests.
The sold-out hotel and conference center being used by the riders is being made kosher by the Chabad of Oswego for the JMA, which has 2,500 members in 45 clubs throughout the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and Israel.
The activities will also include a police-escorted ride ending at the museum, walking and bus tours, and speakers and ceremonies at the museum.
So far, more than $42,000 has been raised from the ride, with Hillel’s Angels contributing almost $30,000 of that total.
Hillel’s Angels president Ari Wallach of East Brunswick said the ride has added meaning because his mother was a Holocaust survivor from Lodz, Poland.
“My mother hated the fact I rode motorcycles, but loved my friends,” said Wallach. “They are just an amazing group of people.”
Edelman said that the number of descendants of the 982 rescued Jews is now estimated to be about 20,000.