Sunday, April 21, 2024

Q&A with Ann Callaghan Allen




Ann Callaghan Allen is the author of the new book Holocaust Refugees in Oswego: From Nazi Europe to Lake Ontario. She also has written the book The Madame's Business. She retired from teaching at Le Moyne College's Department of Communications and Film Studies in Syracuse, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Holocaust Refugees in Oswego?


A: It started about a year ago with a Facebook post, of all things! My husband was on the board of the local Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum at the time.


He was hoping to get more people from Oswego and Central New York to learn about the museum, to visit, and to learn about the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, which was the only shelter established in the US during World War II for victims of Nazi oppression.


While much had been written about the refugees who lived at the Fort, not as much was known about the people who lived in the area at that time who interacted with the refugees. I suggested this might be a new focus for the museum to draw visitors.


Then a few weeks later I saw a Facebook post from a man named Ron Spereno whose father, Joe, apprenticed with one of the refugees, a man named Jake Sylber. Ron’s father learned the tailoring business from him, and eventually bought Sylber’s tailor shop and operated it for more than 20 years in downtown Oswego.


I said to my husband, see, I told you so. (I love to do that;) There are probably more stories like this still to be told.


Then I took it one step further. I found a story in the local Palladium-Times from the mid-1950s telling Jake Sylber’s story. He was a tailor in Paris when war broke out; joined the French army; ended up at the battle of Dunkirk; captured by the Germans and put on a train to certain death in a Nazi concentration camp; jumped from a window of that train; made his way back to Paris; joined the resistance fighters; finally made his way with his family to Italy where they were selected to come to the emergency refugee shelter at Fort Ontario.


I said to myself after reading this story, wow, I wonder what Joe Spereno, Sylber’s Oswego apprentice who eventually bought the tailor shop, was doing during that time. I got in touch with Joe Spereno’s son, Ron, to find out.


The story of how these two young men, separated by geography, religion, language, culture, and experience, would ultimately cross paths in a most unlikely place because of the war, launched me on the path to write the book.  


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Once I had this idea of individual paths crossing, people who, except for the extraordinary circumstances of the War, would never have gotten to know each other, I looked for other stories linking the Oswegonians and the refugees.


I was able to speak with six people, now all in their 90s, who were teenagers at the time and who shared great stories with me. They were very special resources.


In 1994, the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the refugees in Oswego, a number of video interviews were done with the refugees and the Oswegonians who experienced this event. They are digitally preserved at Oswego State University, and those were key to literally giving voice to the story.


Newspaper accounts from that time that are digitally preserved and primary source materials from the Emergency Refugee Shelter held by Fort Ontario, the Oswego County Historical Society, and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum were very helpful as well. 


What surprised me was the level of support the community offered to these 982 Holocaust refugees. Oswego is not a perfect community. There is no perfect community. Believe me, I looked for the flaws!


In 2001 there was a made for TV film released titled "Haven" about Oswego and the refugee shelter. Besides containing factual inaccuracies, it portrayed Oswego people as mostly anti-Semitic, anti-refugee. This could not have been further from the truth. A great many people, from all parts of Oswego, stepped up to support the refugees.


So this is also a setting of the record straight for my hometown. 


Q: What do you see as the legacy today of the refugee program in Oswego?


A: I began this project while the refugee crisis was raging along our southern border, but I delivered the manuscript before war broke out between Hamas and Israel. The disturbing rise in anti-Semitism since then continues to shock me. 


Personal experience is a powerful informant of attitude and for me, the legacy of the refugee program in Oswego is that when those Oswegonians decided to bridge barriers of distrust or fear and get to know the refugees through personal experience, the integration of 982 refugees in a population of about 20,000 worked.


The current superintendent of Fort Ontario calls this time in the city's history "Oswego's finest hour" and he is absolutely right.  


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: When I read or listen to the news today, the refugee crisis, the situation between Israel and Hamas, they seem like such complex and insurmountable problems. How can I, one person, make a difference in such events?


The late Walter Greenberg, who was a school-age boy when he arrived at the shelter, reflected on the importance of the Fort Ontario story.


He said, “I think it’s important to study what happened, not because of us 982 refugees, but more important, historically, what happened to a country and more specifically to a world which I [believe engaged in] ‘world amnesia.’ I think so much was overlooked conveniently by good people. The bad guys are easy to identify. The question is, what could the good guys have done to make it a little bit easier...for more people to survive?” 


The lesson I take from this book is that if I think first about the humanity that binds us all, I can at least make a difference in the life of one other person. And that person can make a difference in my life. And that’s not just a lesson for me or for Oswego or for Central New York. It’s a lesson for the world.   


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I am keeping very busy doing book events, something I know you can appreciate! I really enjoy that part of the process because I meet so many interesting people I wouldn't otherwise get to know.


I hope to get this story out beyond upstate New York because I think there are lessons applicable in it for so many other communities struggling with the refugee issue today. I am certainly willing to travel far and wide to do this! 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes, and this gives me the opportunity to pitch buying the book! The book is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and also from independent bookstores.


My personal favorite is Oswego's Riversend Bookstore ( and they will ship the book just like the big retailers. The publisher is The History Press and they have copies available as well. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ann Callaghan Allen.

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