Yvette Manessis Corporon grew up hearing stories from her illiterate Greek immigrant grandmother about how she and fellow residents of the small Greek island of Erikousa sheltered a Jewish family during the Holocaust despite their meager resources and threats from Nazis.
However, it wasn’t until years later, after her grandmother, Avgerini Manessis, had died, that Corporon came to understand how extraordinary their act of kindness and courage was.
“I only realized what she did when I became a mother,” Corporon told about 100 people during an Oct. 4 Daniel Pearl Education Center program at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick. “I thought about the strength she had to open the door to let someone else’s children inside at the risk of her own child’s life, the strength it took to take food off her own child’s plate to feed another child.
“I’d like to think I would do it, but you don’t know until you’re in that situation.”
The Nazis would ransack the houses screaming, “Where are the Jews?” but the 200 residents of Erikousa shielded Savvas Israel; his three daughters, Spera, Julia, and Nina; and a young cousin, Rosa — whose family had been captured when she was away from home — warning them when the Nazis were near. Savvas’ wife had died before the war.
The family had fled the island of Corfu, whose Jews had been rounded up — on June 10, 1944, with the end of the war in sight — and deported on rafts so rickety, Corporon said, they feared they would drown.
“After what they found at Auschwitz,” she said, “many wished they had drowned.” Of the 1,800 Jews deported, she said, “only 121 survived.”
Savvas, a tailor, was known to the residents of Erikousa, an island so small they had to go to Corfu to have their clothes made.
“Everyone knew Savvas,” Corporon said. “That’s how they became family. My grandmother came to love Savvas.”
An Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, and book author, Corporon is a senior producer with the syndicated entertainment news show “Extra.” Using her journalism skills, Corporon set out to track down descendants of the Israel family. That search and the lasting bond Corporon developed with the family members she discovered — none of whom knew about the heroism of her grandmother and the other villagers — are detailed in her book “Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil” (Howard Books, 2017).
After the Israel family escaped to Erikousa, the island’s priest gave up his home so that Savvas and his family could live there. Each night the four girls would come to the home of Corporon’s grandmother and grandfather Emanuel to sew with Avgerini.
“My father still remembers that nightly knock,” said Corporon. He has told his daughter that those visits with the girls were the only time in that dark period he could remember his mother smiling.
The islanders took other extraordinary measures.
“They went to the church and burned the records so the Nazis wouldn’t know who was Greek and who was Jewish,” said Corporon. The Israel family were the only Jews on the island.
Island women would scrimp on their own families’ meager food so they would have enough to take to their hidden Jewish friends. They also gave the Jews some of their peasant clothing so they would not raise the suspicion of the Nazis.
When Corporon was a young adult she realized, “I didn’t give my grandmother the respect she deserved,” and eventually decided to write a book.
That work, “When the Cypress Whispers,” a fictional novel published by Harper in 2014, centers on the secret a woman learns about her grandmother — that she sheltered Jews during the Holocaust — during a visit to Erikousa. The book became an international bestseller that has been translated into 15 languages.
After completing the novel, Corporon said, she knew she had to finish her grandmother’s story by finding the family she helped save, a process that involved a painstaking pursuit.
Savvas stayed on Erikousa after the war and died a few years later. With no Jewish cemetery or rabbi, the villagers “did the best they could for him” and buried him just outside the Christian cemetery.
Yad Vashem was able to give her the name of the man that Savvas’ daughter Spera had married, but it turned out they had divorced and had no children.
Corporon hit a dead end. She knew the daughters and their cousin had all left Erikousa, but she couldn’t find any trace of them. Then, she said, Gilad Japhet, the Israeli founder and CEO of the genealogic discovery and preservation company MyHeritage.com, “heard about this Greek girl in New York and wanted to do a mitzvah.”
Japhet found Rosa’s two sons living in Israel; neither knew of their mother’s harrowing past nor how she survived the Holocaust. They also had no idea that the picture hanging on the wall of their house when they were young was of Savvas. Like many Holocaust survivors in Israel, Corporon said the two men told her, their mother was told to look forward and not dwell in the past.
In 2015, Corporon’s family and the discovered descendants of the Israel family traveled to Corfu. There they gathered with many of Corporon’s relatives living on the two islands and with other residents. They visited the grave of Savvas — one of the daughters had arranged to have his body moved to the Jewish cemetery in Corfu in the 1980s — and traveled to Erikousa and visited the home of Corporon’s grandmother.
In a tragic ironic twist, on April 13, 2014, three days after Corporon found the family of one of the daughters, two members of the author’s husband’s family — 14-year-old Reat Underwood and his grandfather, Bill Corporon — were murdered by a neo-Nazi yelling “Heil Hitler” outside the JCC of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kan. Neither victim was Jewish.
That night Corporon’s nine-year-old son, Nico, asked her how such a tragedy could happen when his mother had told him all the Nazis were gone and the Israel family was saved.
“How do you explain hate?” she said. “How do you make sense out of the senseless?”
Corporon and Savvas’ descendants now consider each other family, and “we really mean it,” she said. In June, she and her family attended the bar mitzvah of Spera’s great-grandson at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“Now the story of our island is taught as part of the Holocaust curriculum in all Israeli schools,” she said, adding that she is in the process of producing a full-length documentary based on her book.