“A people who lives, sings; a people who sings, lives.”
Ontario Chronicle, 15 May 1945
OSWEGO – In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day Sunday, Jan. 27, Musicologist Marilynn Smiley, Ph.D, will present a special program on the “Music and Musicians of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.”
The program will be held at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Francis Marion Brown Theatre in Fort Ontario Park, Oswego.
The Oswego program is one of many International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and commemorative events occurring worldwide.
The 1½-hour program is free and open to the public, and there will be plenty of free parking.
Dr. Smiley is Emeritus Professor of the State University of New York at Oswego.
She has conducted extensive research on the music and musicians of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario State Historic Site, the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Archives, and other repositories of refugee shelter records and artifacts.
During World War II, Fort Ontario served as the only refugee camp or shelter for mostly Jewish victims of the Holocaust in the United States.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the United Nations as a Memorial Day for victims of the Holocaust; it is observed annually on Jan. 27, the day in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp of World War II.
Nearly 1,000 European refugees from 19 countries, speaking 22 languages, were interned at Fort Ontario from Aug. 5, 1944 to Feb. 3, 1946.
“Music was an important part of the lives of the refugees,” said Fort Ontario Historic Site Manager Paul Lear. “Several refugees were professional musicians who had held prominent positions in Europe, and many were talented amateurs, all eager to perform. Concerts, recitals, operas, plays, and other programs were presented regularly at the fort theatre, and were attended by refugees, Oswegonians and others.”
Refugee musicians also gave programs for local churches, clubs, schools, and other organizations.
Programs were performed by talented pianists, singers (opera, classical, popular and cabaret), chamber ensembles, a small orchestra, and choirs of different religions and nationalities.
Two of the fort refugees were composers.
Austrian Charles Abeles wrote operettas, songs, piano music, conducted the orchestra, and taught music theory and appreciation courses.
Some of Abeles’ piano pieces will be performed by Juan Francisco Lamanna, Professor of the Music Department at SUNY Oswego.
Songs by Abeles will be sung by Leon Carapetyan, Emeritus Professor of the SUNY Oswego Music Department.
A second composer among the refugees was Leon Levitch from Yugoslavia, who was just a teenager at Fort Ontario, but wrote choral music for the shelter’s youth choir.
A recording of some of his numbers sung by the State Singers at SUNY Oswego will be played.
Levitch later settled in California where he composed chamber and orchestral music and had a distinguished career as a piano technician at UCLA.
“The musical contributions of the refugees were quite impressive,” said Lear. “As was stated in the May 17, 1945 issue of the shelter newspaper published by the residents, the Ontario Chronicle, ‘A people who lives, sings; a people who sings, lives.’”
The Francis Marion Brown Theatre is located in the old red brick Army Quartermaster Storehouse (Building 30) at the north end of East Fourth Street in Fort Ontario Park, Oswego.
Seating is limited to the first 100 persons.
For more information on the program, Fort Ontario, and the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, contact Lear at (315) 343-4711, or e-mail [email protected]
The Safe Haven Museum and Education Center, located nearby at 2 E. Fourth St., is open year-round and is dedicated to interpreting the history of the refugee shelter.
Contact (315) 342-3003 or visit www.safehavenmuseum.com for winter hours of operation.
For more information on Fort Ontario call (518) 474-0456, or visit www.nysparks.com, www.fortontario.com.
For visitor information and more Oswego County history, go to www.visitoswegocounty.com or call 1-800-248-4FUN.