Historic Fort Ontario

The Golden Cage

75th anniversary of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter

75th anniversary of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter

An operetta, “The Golden Cage,” with words by Fort Ontario refugee Miriam Sommerburg, German sculptress, and music by Fort Ontario refugee Charles Abeles, Austrian composer, is the inspiration for the 75th Anniversary Logo of the Fort Ontario Emergency Shelter.

“The Golden Cage” was an ambitious work composed before President Harry S. Truman’s 22 December 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” traced the entire history of the shelter residents from their refugee period in Allied occupied Italy, to their final release.

The libretto of the “Golden Cage” revealed the refugees’ hatred of confinement, and their exaltation 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, 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 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 war.

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;
Too find our life, our work and move
At liberty on earth!

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