The Passing of a Courageous Person: Aspasia Christopher
By Catherine Tsounis
“Go speak to your Godmother,” said my late mother, Cleo P. Tsounis. “She knows. She is usually right and has great ideas.” This was my role model growing up. She was a petite brunette, who wore the finest dresses in bright colors. She had the respect of everyone on our block in Astoria. A heart of gold, she tried to help everyone.
Aspasia, as she asked all to call her, lived and respected her in-laws. She lived in harmony with them until their deaths. She created the definition of Godmother as the magical model in Cinderella. Mrs. Aspasia (ne Couloumbis) Christopher passed away on Tuesday evening, November 20th, surrounded by family in her Astoria home. She is survived by her two children, Diane and Nicholas, their spouses Scott and Penny, four grandchildren, Vanessa and spouse Shawn, Simone, Alexander and Jacqueline, her sister-in-law, Mrs. Mary Rallis and goddaughter, Sally, spouse and son Mark and William. The wake was held on Friday, November 22nd at Farenga Funeral Home at 38-08 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria, NY. The funeral liturgy was performed at St. Catherine and St. George Greek Orthodox church at 22-30 33rd St., Astoria, NY. A memorial dinner followed at Xenon, Astoria.
This unique survivor of WWII Greece, a role model to many, was born in Utica, New York. Mrs. Christopher’s moved to Greece during the “Great Depression”. A person close to her said “I think of her (Aspasia) as being someone who was low key, but had a lot to brag about. Someone who was accomplished. She did not blow her horn. She didn’t feel the need to have attention and acknowledgment, believing it took away from her class.”
The Couloumbis and Livadas families were from Argostoli, Cephalonia. The diverse members of her family include the Philiki Etairia (1821 Greek Revolutionary Committee), educators, physicians, [cousin] Dr. Gregory Livadas (who worked with WHO in the early part of the 20th century to eradicate malaria from Greece and regions of Africa), WWII nationalist guerilla forces, Professors of the Sorbonne, present-day members of the Greek Parliament and the educated middle class of Greece. Her grandmother Ianthe Livadas was “presented” as a debutante in the late 1800’s Athenian equivalent of our “Debutante Ball” prior to the European Depression of the 1800’s. Both sides of her family immigrated to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. While growing up in Helandri, Greece (a suburb of Athens) she attended Greek elementary and high schools during WWII when permitted. “My family experienced the trauma of the German occupation, while we were residing in Athens,” she said. “As soon as the war ended in 1945, we returned to the United States.” German Officers commandeered their home during the German occupation of Greece making it an “Officer’s Quarters” and divided it between themselves and her family until the war’s end.
She recently told me a WWII story. “Our gardener died during the Famine (created by the occupying forces) leaving three children and his widow. His widow did not have money to bury him. My mother and a neighbor arranged for the cemetery caretaker to dig a grave. They would wheel the body to the site for burial. His payment was a small bottle of olive oil (which was scarce during the war and therefore ample payment). The two women wheeled the deceased in his garden cart. The caretaker opened the gates and showed them to a freshly dug grave. He took the blanket off the body and threw it into the grave saying, “Where he (the dead gardener) is going cannot be worse than where he came.” What the caretaker did not know was that the gardener was Jewish and he was assisting in an illegal burial under the auspices of the occupying German forces.
In addition to this selfless act, her family was involved in many dangerous, heroic efforts to save persecuted people during WWII in Greece (Non-Jewish and Jewish). Ultimately, on behalf of herself and her family, Aspasia Christopher was presented the “Righteous Among the Nations“ award. This is an honor awarded by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The term originates with the concept of “righteous gentiles,” a term used in rabbinical Judaism to refer to non-Jews, as ger toshav and ger zedek, who abide by the Seven Laws of Noah. This is quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Righteous_among_the_Nations. An excerpt of her family’s experiences is described in the book, “War Games”, written through the perspective of her younger brother, Akila, who experienced the WWII German occupation of Greece as a youngster.
Mrs. Christopher is a graduate of the Hunter College undergraduate division. She was granted a Master of Arts degree from CUNY Graduate Center in the field of Counseling. The late educator’s versatile background was that of an elementary school teacher, education advisor for the High School Auxiliary Services and Greek Bilingual Counselor in P.S. 70. She became the first Greek Bilingual Counselor in New York City in the 1970’s. She was engaged in professional research on the topic of “School Maladjustment and Parental Depression among Greek Immigrant Children”. She was listed in “Who’s Who in the East”. In addition, she was a member of the following organizations: American Association of University Women; Hellenic-American Educators Association; Executive Board of the Greek-American Behavioral Sciences Institute and the Sunday School Committee of St. Demetrios in Astoria.
Her philosophy was “the child needs to develop a new language, behavior patterns and positive attitude towards school and the host culture. We must encourage, support and aid him/her in his/her communication with students and teachers. In working with parents, it is especially important to keep in mind the Greek’s sensitivity to criticism and feeling of individualism and independence.“
She was a champion of woman’s rights. “Women have been unable in previous years to fulfill their right place in American society,” she said in a previous interview. “I am in full support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Hopefully, my daughter and all young women will not have to contend with the discrimination and social pressures that women of past generations labored with.” It was revealed to me Mrs. Christopher had aspirations of becoming a doctor and had a vast interest in architecture (later in her life she designed the floor plans of her home to assist in her mobility).
Mrs. Christopher was a founding member of the “Greek American Behavioral Sciences Institute” (GABSI) around 1977. “A major organization goal of GABSI is to help make parents aware of existing health agencies,” she once said. “As professionals, we must see that Greek American students get the best health care available.”
She was married to the late Chris Christopher, my Godfather, a son of immigrants from Limnos. He was a WWII veteran who worked with Rand McNally after the war, then became the Chief of the Cartography Section of the United Nations. As such he was the United Nations Chairperson for international conferences in the field of Cartography. Recently, I helped evacuate a retired married couple of librarians from the United Nations during the Hurricane Sandy catastrophe. They remembered Chris Christopher as “a dedicated cartographer.’
The image Mrs. Christopher had among her Astoria neighbors of more than fifty years was that of a person who cares. One parent, whose daughter is now a Hunter College graduate, recalled how Mrs. Christopher volunteered her services in teaching her daughter to play the piano. I remember Mrs. Christopher giving up her Christmas vacation to tutor me in geometry. She helped me pass and gain admittance into Arista. I have a snapshot photo remembrance of Aspasia and my Godfather Chris, whose family had 5 koumbaria (baptisms and best man at marriages) with my father’s Lemnian family, at my wedding. Their good looks, twinkle in their eyes and vibrance along with a gift of a Liadro bridal couple, is a memory that is still alive.
“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well,” Aristotle. I came from a blue-collar family. Aspasia and her husband Chris were the first college graduates on our block in the 1950’s. Aspasia gave me pep talks on becoming an educated, independent woman. She gave me the finest gifts of my childhood that I have today and plan to give to my daughter. I honor her more than my parents. As Aristotle points out, because she helped me follow a life of living well. Her legacy can be best explained by Pericles quote “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
Photo 1 –Aspasia Christopher at her graduation from Hunter College
Photo 2 – Aspasia with her grandchildren