In 1944 they escaped the Nazis and were allowed to stay in the United States, so to speak. The refugees, all of them above the immigration quotas set by the State Department, were allowed to stay, provided they each signed an agreement to return to Europe at war’s end. All signed, but most did not want to go back.
Housed at a hastily assembled shelter at Revolutionary War Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., on the shore of Lake Ontario, many of the nearly 1,000 refugees regarded the barbed wire and chain link fences as a too-chilling reminder of the concentration camps some had endured.
With no legal status and with limited freedom of movement (adults were forbidden from seeking employment outside the shelter) some refugees published their own weekly newspaper; others attended schools in the community and learned English; still others—accomplished musicians and composers—organized several choirs and an orchestra in Oswego and performed concerts, plays and operas. Meanwhile, their fate uncertain, many began petitioning to remain in the U.S. after the war.
The war ended but months passed with the refugees’ status still in limbo. Prominent Americans including Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied to allow them to stay. It was under these circumstances that The Golden Cage came into being—an operetta, written and performed by the refugees as a three-dimensional dramatic petition for freedom. The musical drama detailed their escape of the Holocaust, the perilous journey by troopship from Italy, dodging U-boats and finally arriving, only to be caged once again in the Oswego shelter.
Composed by Charles Abeles—an orchestra conductor in Vienna before his arrest—with libretto by Miriam Sommerburg—herself a distinguished German artist before fleeing—The Golden Cage was not the usual light and fluffy fare one would expect from an operetta. It spared neither detail nor emotion in depicting the in-limbo refugees hating their confinement yet trapped like birds in a golden cage, so tantalizingly close to freedom that the proximity itself was a kind of torture.
Art, fortunately for the refugees, in this case did not reflect life, and the operetta’s unhappy ending was dropped when, in December 1945, the refugees learned that they would be included in President Harry S. Truman’s directive to prioritize refugees in the nation’s immigration quota system. Within weeks the refugees—now legal immigrants—began leaving Fort Ontario. With the original purpose of the operetta fulfilled, the refugees no longer needed to produce a full-scale production, but instead, performed a reading accompanied by piano on New Year’s Eve with a new finale announcing the happy ending.
And with that, The Golden Cage receded into oblivion. Until 64 years later, in 2009. Marilynn Smiley, a retired SUNY Oswego music professor, had already spent years researching the music of the refugees, at first uncovering only references to the operetta but nothing substantial.
But then, in 2009, she connected with a German visitor to the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego, The Golden Cage composer’s nephew. Smiley learned that after leaving Fort Ontario, Charles Abeles tried to market his trove of musical works in New York City, but they were stolen instead. That seemed to end the search. But then two years later Smiley received a package.
“Well, I opened it and here was all this music of The Golden Cage,” she said. It was a rough draft of the operetta.
“It had almost been forgotten,” she said. “It was in a trunk of some of his belongings.”
The libretto was found at the National Archives and copied. The prospect of an actual performance of the piece by the Oswego Opera Theatre was suddenly very real. But the music was incomplete. Entire sections had words but were missing music, while others had music with no words. Smiley turned to the theatre’s artistic director, Juan LaManna to fill in the missing parts.
The result is not so much a re-enactment of a piece of history as much as a slightly reconstituted version, using the words and music for a contemporary audience. Stage Manager Benjamin Spierman describes the production as thematically as relevant today—regarding how America deals with immigrants and refugees—as it was nearly 80 years ago.
“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.”
Billed as “The powerful true story of Oswego’s Holocaust survivors during WW2,” The Golden Cage had its world premiere performance with orchestra and full production—76 years and 11 months after its initial piano-accompanied read-through—at the Charlotte Waterman Theater at the State University of New York Oswego.
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