Life Stories: Eliska Chanlett, former refugee and activist, dies at 91

CorrespondentJune 22, 2014 

  • Eliska LowBeer Chanlett

    Born: Sept. 14, 1922, in Brno, Czechoslovakia.

    Family: The outbreak of World War II forces Chanlett, a secular Jew, to flee Europe for Brazil in 1941. She marries Emil Chanlett in 1946 and they move to Chapel Hill, where they have two children, son, Chris Chanlett of Hinton, W.Va., and daughter, Dr. Claudia Prose of Chapel Hill. She becomes a U.S. citizen in 1948 and goes on to have four granddaughters, and two great-granddaughters.

    Education: Earns a B.A. in sociology from UNC-Chapel Hill, then an M.A. in sociology. She is certified to teach French from the University of Geneva and the University of Aix, and is also fluent in German, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish in addition to English and her native Czech.

    Career: For six years she teaches languages and advanced population studies at N.C. Central University, also teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. She retires in 1979 as associate director for scientific information at UNC’s International Program for Laboratories for Population Statistics Program, authoring 10 publications.

    Activism: In the mid-1950s she joins the League of Women Voters and becomes its local president, beginning a lifelong commitment to the Democratic Party. She focused much energy on women’s issues, helping found Planned Parenthood of Orange County.

    Dies: May 21.

— It wasn’t until Eliska Chanlett’s two teenagers started asking questions that she was forced to address her past.

Most people knew Chanlett as a stalwart activist with a lovely, hard-to-place accent, not as the survivor of wrenching personal trials born of war.

She was raised in Czechoslovakia, and World War II scattered her secular Jewish family. In high school she was forced to flee Switzerland – alone – and she later reunited with her mother in the south of France. Distant relatives died in the Holocaust, but Chanlett never identified as being Jewish and once in America, raised her children in the Christian faith.

“She controlled her memories and she controlled the information she gave,” said her daughter, Dr. Claudia Prose.

Once she moved to the U.S., a young bride embarking on an entirely new existence, she rarely brought up her tumultuous past. But once she revealed her history, her family said, her stories shed light on her commitment to many causes and to personal freedom .

Chanlett’s activism meant that she aggressively took any opportunity for action in situations that threatened her personal views or freedoms.

Chanlett, a founder of Planned Parenthood of Orange County, died last month. She was 91.

From Brazil to Chapel Hill

Chanlett, the youngest of three children, was raised in a privileged, industrialist family who had owned a textile factory in the Moravian region of Czechoslovakia for generations, her son Chris Chanlett said. When Jewish families were targeted by Nazism, Chanlett was studying abroad at the International School in Geneva.

Alone, she made her way to France, where she was able to reunite with her long-widowed mother. They fled to Brazil, where she fell in love with a young Army Corps of Engineers officer working to improve public hygiene for rubber workers.

She married Emil Chanlett in 1946 and they settled into life in Chapel Hill. He embarked on a career teaching at the newly formed School of Public Health at UNC, and she spent their first few years in North Carolina focused on raising their two children.

But once she began to volunteer, it soon became habitual. Though she would earn degrees and teach languages and population studies at the college level, she spent the majority of her energy as an activist.

Pushing equal opportunities

Her early days of involvement took place with the Democratic Party and League of Women Voters. She soon became the local league president. She became a founder and board member for Triangle Hospice, counseled at the Women’s Health Crisis Center, worked the phones at the helpline, and joined a seemingly endless number of groups and boards.

Chanlett was driven by a desire to provide equal opportunity for all. She understood what her privileged upbringing gave her, and cherished what becoming an American citizen had done for her. She wanted to pay it forward.

“She believed that environment was really significant in what one accomplished, and people should really have opportunity,” her daughter said.

Among her most meaningful endeavors was in helping found the Orange County chapter of Planned Parenthood. Friends say she had high expectations and little tolerance for inefficiency. As an organizer, Chanlett was a force to be reckoned with.

“She started from zero,” said Janet Colm, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina. Through the efforts of Chanlett and others, Colm had a desk, bylaws and a strategic plan when she was hired. The operating funds for the entire first year had been raised.

Chanlett’s loved ones say that feminism was simply a part of her fabric.

“Obviously she was a feminist, and a very, very strong woman in a time it really took a lot of strength and courage to accomplish the things she accomplished professionally and personally,” Colm said. “Time really gave her a vehicle.”

“She thought women needed to have babies when they wanted to have babies and that the whole world would be better off if women could do that when they wanted to and define their lives. Population control was always a big topic at home,” her son recalled.

‘Always wanted to know’

Chanlett, even at 91, was still interested in new adventures.

She had always enjoyed arts and crafts and just a few months ago took a glass workshop, delighting in the new medium.

Her children recall the voracity with which she read up on politics and news.

She had to catch the news at 8 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and then before bed.

“She always wanted to know what was going on to analyze it,” Prose said. “Especially political events. I think that was one of her ways of dealing with this period when she was powerless.”

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