OSWEGO — A SUNY Oswego faculty member, Juliet Aires Giglio wants to share a piece of her family’s history with the world. The story has international appeal.
So, Giglio, a professional screenwriter and SUNY Oswego Assistant Professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, enlisted the aid of one of her former students and a December 2018 SUNY Oswego graduate.
Giglio is the director of the short documentary. Senior Mic-Anthony Hay is the cinematographer/editor. Victoria Jayne is the sound engineer and she’s a May graduate of SUNY Oswego with a degree in Cinema Screen Studies.
The documentary will preserve the memories of two cousins who were 7 years old when they fled Europe for Fort Ontario’s Safe Haven to escape the Holocaust.
The subjects of the story are Rikica Giglio, 81 (formerly Rikica Levi) and David Levi, 81 (first cousin to Rikica and her sister, Ella Levi, 73, who was born at the Fort Ontario site on March 12, 1945).
The stories the Levis tell are personal for Giglio — Rikica Levi is her husband’s mother; David, his cousin once removed.
The Levi cousins and other family members were among the 982 European, mostly Jewish, refugees who were allowed into the United States as “guests” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt from August 1944 to February 1946.
This past weekend they returned to Oswego from their homes in the New York metropolitan area to be interviewed for the documentary: “A New Home in Oswego: The Story of Two Refugees.”
“For 30 years I’ve heard the stories my mother-in-law has told about the time at Fort Ontario. If Fort Ontario had not been available for the Levis, my husband (Keith Giglio) would not be here,” Giglio told Oswego County Today. “I want to preserve Rikica’s and David’s memories on film.”
Oswego’s Fort Ontario was the only place in America to welcome and house refugees during World War II.
“The truth of the matter is, I was at an event at SUNY Oswego where Paul Lear (executive director of the Fort Ontario Historic Site) was speaking. He was talking about the fort and how they wanted to get more students involved,” she continued. “And, it got me thinking; I had this lightbulb moment, literally. I said, ‘wait a minute, I know someone who lived at the fort – I know three people! I should try to do a documentary,’ which is something I’ve done. I’m a professional screenwriter and I teach screenwriting, but not documentary filmmaking. But I had done it in the past. I worked at CNN and different places.”
At Thanksgiving 2017, she interviewed her mother-in-law, enlisting her husband to do the camera work.
“I kind of put it away and forgot about it. But then I heard about this thing called a “Challenge Grant” that SUNY Oswego has where a professor works with a student or students and the students get paid, I don’t get paid, which is fine, but they get paid and they work on it with me,” she said.
“I just heard about the grant in January and I was waling through the Campus Center when I saw Mic-Anthony. I knew him as a student in the fall and he’s a very talented Photographer and cinematographer. The next day I emailed him and said ‘hey can you shoot this movie with me and he said, ‘yes,’” she explained.
Then she applied for and received the Challenge Grant funding.
As they were talking about it – another lightbulb moment – they needed a real sound person, “who really knows what they are doing.”
I knew Victoria; we worked on the Chemistry Safety Videos project in the spring. She is really good at fixing bad sound. And, I knew the lake would have an issue with bad sound (like the powerboat that roared by during filming of the documentary). So we pulled her into the project, which is fantastic,” Giglio said.
“When I heard they were going to be outside, I said, ‘Oh boy.’ I knew there were going to be issues. That’s why (the Levis) were wearing mics. The wind makes it difficult to get good, clear sound. They do make what’s called dead cats, which you put on some mics, but it’s not going to be enough, especially if it gets really windy. And, it’s Oswego, near the lake; it’s going to get crazy with the wind,” Jayne told Oswego County Today.
She was able to get the equipment needed, “except we were going to use a sound mixer for it; the school got a new sound mixer but it ended up not working. But I was able to figure out things – that’s what filmmaking is, just figuring it out, hope for the best,” she added.
“I tell stories. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Hay said. “I’ve spent time teaching myself as much as possible to be prepared for an big opportunity like this.”
He has been perfecting his passion since arriving on the SUNY Oswego campus.
“I started out taking photos about three years ago. I mostly documented things I love, like soccer and hiking.” “When I got this opportunity, it was perfect because what attracts me to a career as a photographer and cinematographer is telling stories. This is a story that matters so much especially in this present time. So it’s an excellent opportunity for me to work with one of my former professors.”
He had been looking for the perfect way to give back to the college.
“I’ve had great experiences here and I have so many mentors, so many people to thank. That’s what also makes this such a great opportunity,” Hay said. “I am grateful for the grant and the opportunity to work with Professor Giglio.”
Shooting the documentary “changes a lot,” he explained. “I’ve gone with a flexible setup. I’m using Sony mirrorless cameras along with a gimble . “I have been fortunate to form a partnership with Sony, after their team recruited me from my Instagram page. They were very instrumental in helping me get all the camera equipment I needed for this project.”
“He’s great with the images. And, that’s what you need for something like this,” professor Giglio said. “We’re going to be pulling in a lot of old images, too.”
David was born in Yugoslavia.
“We were fortunate enough to be part of the nearly 1,000 Europeans that somehow were selected to be on the Henry Gibbons ship sailing from Naples. Fortunate also that we had most of the family come over with us.”
“Frankly, I don’t recall my reaction as we arrived at Oswego. In hindsight, I think the main thing is that we were able to get out of Europe, get on that ship,” he continued. “We’ve made a wonderful life in America. Whenever I doubt my fortune, I go back to that and say there is nothing that can overshadow that.”
When he came to America, his father didn’t speak English. There were a number of agencies, such as the Hebrew Immigration Assistance Services (HIAS), that helped the families.
“What they decided was ‘well, let’s put David in boarding school from the Jewish Community Services,” he said. “I was there about six, six and a half years I got my boyhood all out there; we had everything. We lived in dormitories. That’s another great thing in my life that I look back on. I was fortunate to grow up with a good bunch of kids and have the proper care in every sense – health, education and socially because they did have a lot of activities.”
He went to high school and graduated.
“I thought I’d go college. I did night school at SUNY, but didn’t finish that, because I got married. Had kids and we had to do first things first, you know,” David said.
As things evolved, he never got a degree.
“But I was fortunate enough to get into the technology sector. I worked for many companies. In that day it was, it was the ‘80s and the market was just unbelievable,” he said.
He wound up at Warner Communication and banks like Marine Midland and a number of insurance companies.
“I really had a very good business experience,” he said.
Rikica and David were last in Oswego for the 60th reunion at the Safe Haven site, he said, adding, “That was a great experience.”
David said he met Ruth Gruber, who had helped escort the refugees to America, (in Scarsdale) and sought to get an answer to how it was with millions of people that wanted to come and escape the atrocities in Europe, “how was it that we were so fortunate to be coming to America, the 1,000 selected ones.”
She told him that it was a lottery system at the time.
“I told her I can’t conceive how a lottery system would be run during wartime. You’re getting people from Turkey, Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. How did they figure it all out? My cousin has some thoughts on that,” he said. “It was nice that the State Department sent Ruth over to help us in the journey, feel more comfortable on the Henry Gibbons ship. I don’t remember much. But I remember my father telling me he got very seasick “
There were 3,000 that applied to be on the ship,” Rikica said. A thousand were picked.
“Out of the 1,000 982 boarded the Henry Gibbons. Apparently, there were applications that were given out in Rome. It seemed a lot of (those fleeing the Nazis) were in Rome. My parents and I fled to Bari, Italy. I was like 6 at the time,” she said. “My mother and I were able to walk around and my dad was reportedly hiding out in a monastery because Italy was ‘friendly’ but sometimes not that friendly and sometimes the Jews were rounded up. My mother was Catholic, she was converted to Judaism. A sailor told her there were applications for a ship, going to be leaving from Naples. He gave her applications for the whole family.”
“The way I understand it, from family talking, you had to have some sort of profession even to be allowed on the ship,” she added. “You had to be self-sufficient when you came (to America). All of them were professionals, really. My father was a tailor, his father was a tailor. My aunt’s husband was a dentist who was killed by the Nazis; so she was part of a profession. We got on the Henry Gibbons and they brought us to the Port of New York. Then a train eventually brought us here, to Oswego. I was 7 when we got here. It was good. We were here 18 months. Everything was provided by the Army, the soldiers and what have you. The people, the children were very friendly to us.”
Later, her father got a job in New York City. He was working in a factory, “which he hated,” she said. “So, he started working for a tailor. And eventually borrowed money from HIAS and when the tailor retired, he bought the business. He turned the business over, made a nice lucrative living. We lived in lower Manhattan. I worked for an insurance company as a financial analyst for a lot of years.”
Rikica’s sister, Ella, was born in Oswego on March 12, 1945.
What does she remember about Fort Ontario back then?
“Nada,” Ella replied with a laugh. “Just what my family has told me through the years.”
“My mother was in the movies with my father and started having labor pains,” Ella said.
“She didn’t want to tell my father because he wanted to see the end of the movie. She was so uncomfortable, but she waited until the end of the movie and then they went to the hospital, which wasn’t far from the theater. And, that’s when I was born,” Ella continued. “Otherwise, that’s it. I’ve had a simple life, but a good life, good family. Through the years I learned about a lot of things.”
Her family’s stories didn’t exactly have a beginning and an end. They were more like snapshots of a moment in time, she explained, adding, “You just listened to the remembrances and then you wondered how did they get to this place from that place? Who brought them here? It always amazed my how my family all ended up in the same place?”
That’s luck in life, she said. Some families have good luck.
David agreed. “We have been very fortunate.”
Professor Giglio said she’ll provide the documentary to the Safe Haven Museum.
“I’d really like to also get it into festivals where people would see it. There’s a category called Short Documentary and that is what I’m aiming for, 15 minutes. And then I am going to talk to local PBS to see if they might be interested. We have to finish it by September.” She said.
She said she is very appreciative of the SUNY Oswego Challenge Grant for allowing her to do the documentary and for the help of Hay and Jayne.
“They both have really been fantastic,” she said. “I could not have done this without them.”
The SCAC Challenge Grants are awards of up to $4,500 to promote and support student-faculty summer collaborations leading to publications or performances — from William Bowers, the college’s associate provost for research development and administration.
In all, SCAC awarded more than $70,000 among 17 faculty-student projects for summer 2018.