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Safe Haven

The Safe Haven Museum and Education Center in Oswego.

For the past four years, the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project has sponsored a trip to the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center for the ninth-grade class at Southern Cayuga Central School. Safe Haven tells the story of 982 mainly Jewish refugees who fled Europe in the U.S. government’s Safe Haven program in 1944. The refugees from 18 European countries were brought to the former Fort Ontario Army Camp in Oswego. This camp was the only refugee shelter for Holocaust victims in the United States. The refugees were the guests of President Franklin Roosevelt, and signed an agreement to leave America at the end of the war.

I talked about the impact of this trip with a student who made the trip in 2016. I asked her what she remembered about the experience: “It was a very cold and rainy day. I thought it was interesting that we treated them like prisoners in a way. They couldn’t leave camp without permission. I always wondered why they stopped with only 1,000 people.”

I next interviewed six ninth-graders who had just returned from this year’s trip on May 25. These students discussed the barracks where families lived in very tight quarters. The first student interviewed was shocked to learn that, as soon as the war ended, Holocaust victims had to leave the country. Some went to Canada or other countries, and eventually made their way back to the states. They had curfews and were not really given the freedoms enjoyed by American citizens. One student mentioned that people in the town of Oswego were friendly and helpful. He was especially impressed with Oswego’s school principal, who made every effort that children from the camp were well-integrated into classrooms, and treated well. This same student noted that students whose families came from Germany were very helpful — especially if they knew the German language. A Boy Scout troop also welcomed refugees. There was general agreement that the trip helped the students understand how brave those brought to the haven were. They also agreed that it would be impossible to really know the terror that Holocaust victims experienced.

Our conversation progressed to a discussion of the importance of providing safe havens today. The issue of school shootings has challenged everyone’s senses of safety. As the students continued to discuss the topic, it became clear that they feel very safe in their own school. They all know the names of their school safety officers and admire them. The current protocols for school visitors provide safety, but the greatest safety feature is that they live in a “small town” where “everybody knows everybody.” One student explained, “If someone is new and different, we get to know them. It doesn’t take long for us to understand even someone with very different experience. We accept people for who they are. We appreciate anyone that wants to live and work in our community.”

The advantages of these students’ situations contrast with those of large urban areas, where it is impossible to know everyone you encounter. The students talked about a classic young adult book, "The Outsiders," that they had just finished reading. The book illustrates the problem of “us vs. them” thinking, and the barriers of getting to really know someone because of economic, religious or other social restraints. The students concluded that they are so happy to live in a school where they can really get to know their classmates, and have adults that support tolerance.

In thinking about these conversations, I reread a summary of current research at Princeton University: “Professor Fiske's research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power. We begin with the premise that people easily categorize other people, especially based on race, gender, and age. Going beyond such categories, to learn about the individual person, requires motivation. Social relationships supply one form of motivation to individuate, and our work shows that being on the same team or depending on another person makes people go beyond stereotypes. Conversely, people in power are less motivated to go beyond their stereotypes.” (https://psych.princeton.edu/person/susan-fiske)

It is clear to me that the students I talked to have the motivation described by Dr. Fiske. I was reminded of another teen who had similar motivation. She lived in cramped quarters because of the intolerance that brought 982 people to our state. In 1944, Anne Frank wrote, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

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Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the Aurora Free Library, the King Ferry Food Pantry and ABC Cayuga, as well as the Anne Frank Tree Project and the Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She also coordinates a lunchtime volunteer program at Southern Cayuga Central School.

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