OSWEGO, NY – The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter 75th Anniversary Planning Committee has unveiled its official logo for commemorative events and activities.
The logo is inspired by an operetta, “The Golden Cage,” with words by Fort Ontario refugee Miriam Sommerburg, German sculptress, and music by Charles Abeles, Austrian composer.
A series of 75th anniversary events and activities will begin Aug. 5 with memorial observances of the arrival of the 982 refugees at Fort Ontario Aug. 5, 1944.
The public program will begin at 2 p.m. Aug. 5 at the NA’AMAT Refugee Monument at Fort Ontario State Historic Site.
Special events and activities linked to significant dates and life at the refugee shelter will continue into 2021.
From Aug. 5 1944 to Feb. 5, 1946, the 75-acre Fort Ontario Military Reservation served as the only camp or shelter in the United States for mostly Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Established by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the shelter was intended to convince America’s allies that the United States was serious about rescuing the Jews of Europe, and that they should accept refugees within their own borders and territories.
“Having signed documents before leaving Italy agreeing to return to their homelands after the war in Europe ended, the 982 refugees who were interned at Fort Ontario lived behind a barbed wire fence in America, the land of freedom, fearful of being forced to return to homes and families that no longer existed, facing potential persecution by former neighbors if they did, and unable to continue on with their lives, one way or the other,” said Paul Lear, Historic Site Manager of Fort Ontario State Historic Site.
“The Golden Cage” was an ambitious work composed before President Harry S. Truman’s Dec. 22, 1945 Executive Order announcing that the Fort Ontario refugees could remain in the United States; it was intended as a dramatic plea for their freedom.
The President’s announcement came before the operetta was produced, and a last scene, incorporating the good news, was hastily added.
“The Golden Cage” revealed the refugees’ hatred of confinement, and their exultation at final liberation.
In a scene at Fort Ontario depicting the period soon after their arrival, during the 30-day quarantine, “elegantly dressed American ladies” hear the “poorly clad refugees” singing behind the barbed wire fence:
“We are in a cage without reason,
We are in a cage, a golden cage;
We’re missing nothing but our freedom….”
A man sings:
“I feel myself a monkey
In the zoological garden;
Are we to be on display?
There is nothing missing but the warden!
What are we, a sensation
For tedious people’s pleasure?”
Later, in another scene after 16 months at the shelter, the refugees are still “sitting behind the fence, looking longingly at the Statue of Liberty, singing sadly:
“Behind the fence of Fort Ontario
We are sitting, awaiting the glorious day,
When our unchained feet may finally go
Over the most wonderful country’s way.
There is no food we are longing for.
No material need we are suffering,
But our hearts have never been cared for,
Are we tremendously troubled.
Like a lion in the cage
We are losing health and mood;
Like a bird, which after age
Finds its wings for nothing good.”
A messenger arrives with news of President Truman’s reprieve, and the refugees laugh, dance, and sing:
“We send our thanks to Roosevelt
Who heard us beyond the stars,
Who sent an angel to the world
To free us from this farce.
We soon leave Fort Ontario
And try to find our hearth;
To find our life, our work and move
At liberty on earth!”
For information on events and activities of the planning committee of the 75th anniversary of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, contact Lear at (315) 343-4711 or e-mail [email protected]
Updates will be posted on the Friends of Fort Ontario Facebook page and website at http://historicfortontario.com/.
To learn more about the history of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, visit the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum located at 2 E. Seventh St., Oswego.
For public hours call (315) 342-3003 or visit https://safehavenmuseum.com/.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site contains an exhibit on the shelter and is located at 1 E. Fourth St. in Oswego; it will be open from May 15 to Oct. 14, 2019, Wednesday through Sunday; and seven days a week between July 1 and Labor Day.
State Parks generates $1.9 billion in economic activity annually and supports 20,000 jobs.
For more information on any of these recreation areas call (518) 474-0456 or visit https://parks.ny.gov/.
For Oswego County visitor information, go to www.visitoswegocounty.com, or call 1-800-248-4FUN (4386).