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Long-lost operetta by Jewish WWII refugees gets first performance since 1945

Newly arrived Jewish refugees receive food and other refreshments at a picnic in 1944 at Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
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OSWEGO, N.Y. — During World War II, nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees who had escaped the Holocaust were brought to the United States and given safe haven at an Army post in Upstate New York.

Fearing that they would be sent back to Europe at war’s end, they lobbied to stay in America. They turned to leading citizens who drafted a petition to the president and Congress. They testified at a congressional hearing. And they wrote and performed an operetta sharing their story.

The score and libretto of “The Golden Cage” soon disappeared. Decades later, a historian tracked them down. This weekend, for the first time since 1945, the operetta is being performed.

“We feel that this is incredibly significant,” said Marilynn Smiley, president of Oswego Opera Theater, which is producing the operetta, noting that the issues it raised about how the country treats refugees remain relevant.

Antisemitic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States ran deep in the lead-up to World War II, and strict immigration quotas blocked most Jews fleeing Europe. In the most notorious incident, in 1939, the government refused to admit Jewish refugees on the German liner St. Louis; the ship was forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 of the passengers were killed in the Holocaust.

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board. Its staff — initially tasked, among other things, with getting other countries to help refugees fleeing Nazi persecution — convinced Roosevelt that the United States should take some of the refugees, partly to encourage other countries to do more. The country would ultimately accept just 982 refugees outside of the quota system. They came from 18 countries, and nearly all of them were Jewish.

To house them, Roosevelt announced the establishment of an emergency refugee shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., on the shore of Lake Ontario.

“These people definitely felt like they were being rescued,” said Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. But it wasn’t so simple. The refugees would be guests of Roosevelt with no legal immigration status. All had to sign documents agreeing to return to Europe when the war ended.

They boarded a troopship in Italy and, after dodging U-boats, arrived in New York in August. They traveled by train to Fort Ontario and settled into barracks. They were confined to the shelter, and the fort’s chain-link fence topped with barbed wire reminded them of the concentration camps some had escaped.

People in the community generally embraced their new neighbors. Refugees attended the local school and college. Adults weren’t allowed to work outside the shelter, but many busied themselves learning English and taking classes. They began publishing a weekly newspaper.

But they remained in limbo. After the war ended, some refugees voluntarily returned home. But many had relatives in the United States, and most wanted to stay.

Months after fighting in Europe had stopped, the government still couldn’t decide what to do, said Paul Lear, manager of Fort Ontario State Historic Site. Congressional hearings failed to resolve the issue.

“There was still no word of their fate, and everyone was very depressed,” Lear said.

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Local officials and many prominent figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, lobbied to let the refugees stay.

Among the refugees were accomplished musicians and composers. They had organized several choirs and an orchestra in Oswego and performed concerts, plays and operas. They decided to write an operetta as a dramatic plea for their freedom. It detailed their escape of the Holocaust, their journey to the United States and their lives at the shelter in Oswego as well as their hatred of confinement.

Composer Charles Abeles wrote the music, and artist Miriam Sommerburg wrote the text. Abeles had been an orchestra conductor near Vienna before being arrested and leaving Austria. Sommerburg was a prominent artist before fleeing Germany. The original ending of “The Golden Cage,” written in November 1945, depicted miserable refugees trapped like birds in a golden cage, Lear said.

In late December, the Fort Ontario refugees learned that President Harry S. Truman’s directive to prioritize refugees in the nation’s immigration quota system would include them, allowing them to gain legal immigration status.

“And the refugees are all elated, and that’s how ‘The Golden Cage’ gets dropped,” Lear said. “They don’t have time to finish it.”

The refugees began leaving Fort Ontario within weeks and didn’t have time to put on a regular production. Instead the actors and singers read and sang their parts to the accompaniment of a piano. The operetta was performed on New Year’s Eve with a hastily added new finale incorporating the good news about their fate. The operetta then receded into obscurity.

Smiley, a retired SUNY Oswego music professor, began researching the music of the shelter refugees years ago. She scoured archival collections, sifting through boxes of documents, but found only passing references to “The Golden Cage.”

In 2009, she connected with a visitor to the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego. The man was from Germany and said his uncle, Abeles, had been a refugee. Smiley learned that after leaving Fort Ontario, Abeles had returned to Austria, stopping briefly in New York City to try to market his trove of musical works. But they were stolen instead.

A couple of years later, Smiley received a package in the mail.

“Well I opened it and here was all this music of ‘The Golden Cage,’ ” she said. The composer’s nephews had found a rough draft of “The Golden Cage” in one of their attics.

“It had almost been forgotten,” she said. “It was in a trunk of some of his belongings.”

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Smiley began searching archival collections for the text of the operetta, without success. Then she happened to ask Lear if he knew anything about “The Golden Cage.” He soon produced a copy of the text he’d discovered at the National Archives.

Smiley wanted Oswego Opera Theater to stage a performance of the operetta, but the music was incomplete. She turned to Juan LaManna, the opera’s artistic director and a SUNY Oswego professor, to fill in the missing parts.

“And there were many, many missing parts,” LaManna said. “There were entire sections that had words, but had no music and vice versa.”

The operetta traces the plight of the refugees, their journey to the United States and their lives in Oswego. The music was written for a piano and singers. LaManna added music for a small orchestra.

“It was very exciting to kind of re-create what the score would have been had it been completed,” LaManna said.

The goal isn’t to present a historical reenactment of the operetta exactly as it was originally performed, said Benjamin Spierman, stage director for Oswego Opera Theater. A good deal remains unknown about how it was performed, and how the music and text went together.

“It was very much a piece of its time telling their story,” he said. “I don’t know that the expectation was that it would have a life more than 70 years later.”

Spierman said he and LaManna tried to take the original material and slightly reconstitute it for a modern audience. The central themes raised in the operetta about how the country deals with immigrants and refugees are as relevant today as they were then, he said.

“This particular story, both as an American and as a Jew, really has a lot of poignancy for me,” he said. “And so to be able to put it together is really an incredible privilege.”

Ken Sturtz is a freelance journalist based in Mexico, N.Y.