Stories of Hope 2015: Catherine Chvany and Alexander Strasser

This story of Catherine Chvany and Alexander Strasser is presented as part of UUSC’s Guest at Your Table program.

We see them sometimes, trapped in grainy, black and white lm documentaries. They were the most poignant of victims — young children caught in the maelstrom sweeping across Europe in the early days of World War II. Even today we wish, impossibly, that we could save them from their hopeless fate.

At UUSC’s 75th Anniversary Gala in April, we were honored to be joined by some of the children who were saved: Catherine Chvany and Alexander Strasser. They are living testimonials to UUSC’s founding mission and the enduring values that carried Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp to Europe 75 years ago.

Even before reaching the United States, the story of Alex and his family featured a near-miraculous escape. His father,
a prominent physician in Vienna, was interned at two concentration camps — Dachau and then Buchenwald — and freed only after Alex’s mother sold some of her jewelry to bribe a guard at Buchenwald.

The family escaped to France, where they were interned by the Vichy government. Their future looked even darker when cancer took the life of Alex’s mother.

But then their fortunes shifted: Alex’s father met Martha Sharp. Working in unoccupied France, Martha was nally nearing success on two extraordinarily dif cult tasks: getting the Vichy government to issue exit visas for 29 children — and convincing the U.S. State Department, riddled with anti-Semitism, to let the children into this country.

Alex’s father arranged with Martha to include six-year-old Alex and his older brother Joe among that fortunate group. And in December 1940 they joined hundreds of other refugees in setting sail from Lisbon on a ship that had been stripped of almost all furnishings so it could pack as many passengers as possible. Today, Alex has little memory of the crossing — except, he adds with a laugh, that fellow passengers labeled him and as his brother “the two tigers.”

That ship also carried to safety 13-year-old Catherine Vakar (now Chvany) and her younger sister, Anna. The two girls had
been born in Paris to émigré Russians but were spending the early months of the war in the Pau region of the French Pyrenees. That’s where Martha Sharp was arranging for shipments of desperately needed milk for thousands of hungry children — in fact, it had been the repeated pleas of parents in Pau that first motivated Martha to find a way to help children escape the continent.

Cathy and Anna were late additions to the emigrating group. Their father had met Martha Sharp’s secretary, a fellow Russian national, just a few days before departure and pleaded with her to take his daughters — a request made possible only later by the late withdrawal of two other passengers.

After reaching the United States, Cathy stayed in touch with the Sharps, babysitting the couple’s young son and establishing a lifelong friendship with their daughter. And she has never forgotten her good fortune in escaping Europe during those dark days. “What I owe Martha is my life in America. Perhaps my life itself.”

If hope is a promise to the future, Catherine Chvany and Alexander Strasser devoted the rest of their lives to making the most of that promise. Catherine studied at Harvard, married, raised a family, and became a distinguished professor of Russian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Alexander earned his medical degree, married, and raised his family in Rochester, N.Y., where he still practices medicine.

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Stories of Hope 2015: Irish Grace M. Ramirez

This story of Irish Grace M. Ramirez is presented as part of UUSC’s Guest at Your Table program.Photo of Irish Grace Ramirez

With years of experience as a public health nurse in some of the most impoverished communities in the central Philippine islands of Cebu and Bohol, Irish Grace M. Ramirez thought she was prepared for anything. But that was before November 8, 2013.

Before Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm to make landfall in recorded history, cut a devastating swath through the island nation, killing 7,000 people, leveling entire villages, and displacing 6 million people.

Before she understood how profoundly traumatizing it is to lose everything — one’s home, crops, livelihood, entire community. And before she realized how her years of medical training and experience were insufficient to relieve the debilitating trauma afflicting so many of her people.

But UUSC has long understood that healing those hidden wounds is one of the most important and difficult challenges in responding to any large-scale humanitarian disaster. In the Philippines, in partnership with the nonprofit Trauma Resource Institute (TRI), we are deploying a successful new approach to this longstanding and difficult challenge.

We first brought TRI to the Philippines in January of 2014 to conduct a series of train-the-trainer workshops in what is called the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), which gives first responders and other caregivers the tools they need to help displaced communities recover from the profound emotional trauma that accompanies disaster.

Irish Grace was one of the first participants — and she immediately not only understood but personally experienced CRM’s effectiveness. Although she had not lost her home or any loved ones,

Irish Grace had been deeply affected by the typhoon, especially by the emotional dif culty of giving care to so many devastated survivors. Today she credits CRM with giving her the strength to maintain her own resiliency in the face of so much suffering.

That personal experience, combined with her training in public health, made her the ideal coordinator to bring CRM to psychologically shattered communities: “Because of my own trauma, I was able to empathize with them.”

Irish Grace put together a team that, over six months from late 2014 through early 2015, trained more than 100 community health workers throughout her region in the Philippines. Part of what makes CRM so effective is that it focuses on the connection between individuals and their communities, and the skills it develops are easily passed throughout those communities. That means the healing process that she and her team delivered is “going viral”!

As the secretary of the Philippine Association of Community Resiliency Model Trainers, Irish Grace today works with other organizations interested in this novel approach. And the more she learns, the more grateful she is that UUSC brought this novel approach to her country: “I saw in the communities how thankful they were with the CRM trainings. It gave them a new hope.”

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Welcome to Guest at Your Table

What is Guest at Your Table?

Guest at Your Table (GAYT) is UUSC’s annual intergenerational program to raise support for and awareness about our work to advance human rights. Since UUSC works in over 25 countries, with over 75 grassroots partners, there are thousands of individuals involved in and who benefit from the work that our members make possible. GAYT is an opportunity to celebrate grassroots partnership, support human rights, and learn about just four of these individuals – the “guests” in Guest at Your Table.

Guest at Your Table 2017-18

UUSC’s grassroots partners make a big difference in their communities, and so does your participation in GAYT. That is why this year’s program theme is Small Change is Big Change.

This year’s guests include a leader of local efforts to respond to climate change in the South Pacific and a Burmese human rights activist. For more information about UUSC’s work in Burma over the past 15 years, please visit this page. Program resources include a sample sermon, a “Story for All Ages,” collection boxes, and a brochure called Stories of Hope that introduces you to this year’s guests.

To register as your congregation’s Guest at Your Table coordinator, or if you have questions about GAYT or about connecting your congregation with UUSC in other ways, please contact Carly Cronon, Associate for Congregational Giving Programs, at ccronon @ uusc.org.

Make a Guest at Your Table Gift

  • Make a gift to Guest at Your Table using UUSC’s secure donation portal.
  • To give a donation via the mail, please make Guest at Your Table checks out to “UUSC” with “GAYT” in the memo field, and send donations to the following address:
Guest at Your Table
UUSC
PO Box 808
Newark, NJ 07101-0808

Program Resources

GAYT collection boxes, envelopes, Stories of Hope brochures, and posters are now available!  If you have placed a GAYT materials order before, please use this link to sign-in or retrieve your password.  If you are ordering for the first time, please do so here. Materials will arrive within 8 days of ordering.  Please contact Carly at ccronon @ uusc.org if you have any issues or would like materials to arrive sooner!

Download GAYT 2017-18 resources here: