Two New Sisters (1941)

Memory I shared at November 2018 services for Catherine Vakar Chvany after her death on October 19, 2018. Full bio and obituary are here.

On a cold night in January 1941 my mother drove with my sister Holley and me down to the Wellesley Farms station to meet Daddy, arriving on a train from New York City. I don’t remember what we had been told to expect, but I guess we knew that he had met a ship from Lisbon and was arriving with two refugee sisters from occupied France—Catherine (“Katya”) and Anna Vakar. Of the train trip itself I remember only that Daddy said he was asked by Anna, “Is there a dog?” Upon his response in the affirmative she slept for the rest of the trip.

The arrangements for them to stay with us had been made through Ms. Martha Sharp of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Ms. Sharp was, in fact, the wife of our local Unitarian Church minister Waitstill Sharp and was active in Europe making arrangements to rescue displaced children. She needed homes for them and Mother and Daddy had agreed to sign on. They were with us at 85 Ledgeways [our home in Wellesley, Mass.] for more than a year.

At first the two girls shared the small guest room, but once established in school they needed expanded study space. For adventurous Anna we fixed up an otherwise unfinished space in the attic, and Katya had a desk in the upstairs hall. I remember only that their integration into our family was virtually seamless. Holley and I started out with fractured French but it wasn’t long before English took over completely. Mother and Daddy became Madame and M’sieur.

That spring Katya and Anna attended the local schools at a grade level below their natural abilities until English was no longer a serious impediment. For their age levels they were clearly ahead of us in arithmetic and language, and in September moved up into their natural public school grades. I was 16, Holley 15, Katya 14, and Anna 13.

In the spring of 1942 their parents, Nicholas Vakar and his wife Gertrude, arrived safely and it wasn’t many months before they became well enough established to take their girls back to a new home in the Jamaica Plain suburb of Boston. Their education hence forth was at Boston Latin. Over the years my mother and father maintained a close friendship with the Vakar family and we visited with them often.

Katya attended Radcliffe from 1946-48; later graduated PHD from Harvard in 1970, and became a professor at MIT. Anna became a well-known Canadian haiku poet residing in Oliver, BC.

One year I came home from Cornell to the news from my father that Katya was to be married—“She’s marrying a man with a Chvany name.” he said.


Ken Burns’ documentary film “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War“—directed by Artemis Joukowsky III—tells the story of the Vakars and the other refugee children who were placed with American families like mine. Catherine Chvany (“Katya” Vakar) features prominently in on-camera interviews.

Cover photo (L-R: Nicholas Vakar, Anna Vakar, my mother Elsie Church Atkinson, Gertrude Vakar, my father Kerr Atkinson, Catherine Vakar): Picture taken on the occasion of the arrival of Katya and Anna’s parents to visit us in Massachusetts in 1942.

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