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Vakar family collection

Document | Not Digitized | Accession Number: 2016.389.1

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    The Vakar family papers consist of correspondence, memoirs, manuscripts, news clippings, postcards, and other documents and materials related to the immigration of the Vakar family from France to the United States in 1940-1941, as well as the role of the American aid workers who helped them, Martha and Waitstill Sharp. Collection includes postcards and correspondence from the period of their immigration, later memoirs written by various members of the family recounting their experiences during their escape and their arrival in the United States, as well as news clippings and other material from later commemorations of the Sharps' activities, including a reunion in 1990 of those who were saved by their actions.

    Material from the period of the family’s emigration includes family photographs, documents of Nicholas Vakar, including his safe-conduct pass from 1940 and writers union membership card, the Unitarian Service Committee application used by Catherine Vakar that enabled her to leave France with the group of children assembled by Martha Sharp, a letter from Catherine Vakar to her mother, which was sent from Portugal, as well as correspondence to and from Nicholas and Gertrude Vakar. Among the latter there are letters that the Vakars sent to the Atkinsons and other benefactors in the United States, both prior to and after their departure from France, a telegram and letter from Kerr Atkinson related to the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Vakar in the United States, and letters from family friend Boris Pross, related to his activities in dissolving their apartment in Saint-Mandé. The Atkinsons also kept a small diary or notebook related to the arrival of the Vakar daughters at their home in January 1941, and a few pages from that are included in this collection.

    Later material includes typescript essays written by various members of the Vakar family, including accounts by Nicholas and Gertrude of their passage from France to the United States, and essays written in later years by Anna and Catherine describing their own voyage to the United States, and their early months living with the Atkinson family. A letter from 1974 by Boris Pross, addressed to Anna, describes his role in selling the family’s apartment and belongings in 1940, and a compilation of the poetry of Gertrude Vakar, gathered and published by Catherine in 1984, is also included. During the 50th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in 1989-1990, there were several events in and around Boston remembering their work, including a reunion with Martha Waitstill Cogan and the surviving adult children she had brought to the United States, and material from these events, including the text of a speech by Catherine Vakar Chvany, is included. Also included is later material, dating from 2007-2009, about a proposed documentary film by Artemis Joukowsky, the grandson of the Sharps, which was eventually released as a documentary produced by Ken Burns in 2016.
    inclusive:  1925-2013
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Catherine V. Chvany
    Collection Creator
    Catherine V. Chvany Ph.D.
    Catherine Vakar Chvany (born 1927) and Anna Vakar (born 1929) were the daughters of Nicholas (1894-1970) and Gertrude (née Clafton, 1904-1973, also known as “Gertruda”) Vakar, Russian emigres who had settled in France after the Russian Revolution. Nicholas was employed as a journalist for Russian-language periodicals in Paris, and Gertrude, whose family was of English ancestry, had been sent to England after the Revolution, and then to Paris to complete her schooling. The parents raised both daughters in Russian traditions, speaking the language at home, and taking the children to a Russian cultural center to study Russian language, history, religion, and culture.

    In 1939 the family moved from Nogent-sur-Marne to an apartment in Saint-Mandé (Val-de-Marne), but following the start of World War II that fall, the daughters, who had been away at a camp that summer, were evacuated with other children to the south of France, and after being sent to a number of different locations, they ended up in Pau, in the department of Basses-Pyrénées (present-day Pyrénées-Atlantiques). Following the German invasion of France in June 1940, and the subsequent occupation of Paris, the girls’ parents came south and joined them in Pau, entrusting their apartment in Saint Mandé and their belongings to a friend, Boris Pross (Prossiukoff), who sold everything and sent the proceeds to the Vakars. While in Pau, the Vakars learned of the activities of various relief organizations who assisted refugees and sought to help them emigrate. At this time, the Unitarian Service Committee, and aid workers Waitstill and Martha Sharp, were assembling a group of fifty children to send to the United States, all of whom were either stateless or citizens of countries other than France. Catherine and Anna were able to be included in this group, and leaving their parents in Pau, travelled with this group through Spain and Portugal, from where they sailed to the United States, arriving in New York in December 1940. After several weeks in New York, the sisters were placed with the family of Kerr and Elsie Atkinson, in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, where they remained until their parents were able to immigrate in August 1941.

    The Vakar family settled in the Boston area, eventually moving into a house in Jamaica Plain, and later in Watertown. Nicholas Vakar obtained a doctorate at Harvard, and taught Russian at Wheaton College, in Norton, Massachusetts. Catherine went to college at Radcliffe, and eventually earned a doctorate in Slavic languages and literature from Harvard in 1965, and taught Russian at Wellesley and M.I.T.

    Physical Details

    1 box
    System of Arrangement
    The Vakar family papers are arranged by document type and/or subject, as one series, in alphabetic order by folder title.

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    There are no known restrictions on access to this material.
    Conditions on Use
    The donor, source institution, or a third party has asserted copyright over some or all of these material(s). The Museum does not own the copyright for the material and does not have authority to authorize use. For permission, please contact the rights holder(s).

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    Catherine V. Chvany donated the Vakar family collection to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2016.
    Record last modified:
    2023-08-25 15:26:49
    This page:

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