When American author and TV producer Yvette Manessis Corporon decided to investigate what happened to Savvas Israel, a Jewish tailor from Corfu, and his three daughters: Spera, Julia, and Nina, as well as a young cousin, Rosa, who had all been hidden on a tiny island near Corfu called Erikousa, she didn’t really expect to find anything.
Then, after almost giving up, with the help of MyHeritage, which manages the largest genealogy database, she succeeded in uncovering what happened to each of the girls and to locate their children. Later on, she even met up with them in Greece.
Corporon’s book, Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil, tells the unbelievable story of how the Savvas family was saved during the Shoah by all the residents of Erikousa, despite the great danger this entailed. In the book, the author also describes her own experiences while searching for descendants of the Savvas family.
Corporon, 51, the mother of two teenagers, and living in New York, says she was extremely close with her Greek grandmother when she was young.
“My grandmother was always talking about her life back in Greece,” she recalls. “Among the many stories she told me, the most intriguing one was about how she and her neighbors had saved a Jewish family from the Nazis during the Holocaust. She told me that all of the residents on the tiny island where they lived helped save this family. The Jewish family was hidden in the priest’s house, and everyone worked together to keep the secret safe from the Nazis. Every night, the Savvas girls would come to her house and she would feed them. Everyone knew that if they were caught, the Nazis would kill all of them for helping to hide the Jews, but this didn’t stop anyone. My grandmother loved these girls. Rosa, the youngest one, who was nine, used to sleep every night in my aunt’s room.”
When Corporon became a journalist, she took it upon herself to expose this amazing story in her second book, Something Beautiful Happened. In 2014, she published her debut novel, When the Cypress Whispers, a fictional account about a woman who learns that her grandmother saved Jews in Greece during the Holocaust. After a number of Corporon’s friends inquired as to what happened to the Jewish family after the war, she began investigating this question.
“So, I decided to go to Corfu,” she recounts. “When I arrived at the synagogue, I asked around if anyone knew what had happened to the Savvas family, but no one knew anything. I began knocking on people’s doors, but I didn’t get anywhere. I contacted Yad Vashem, but they didn’t have much information to offer me, either. During my work as a journalist, I’d come across an American publicist who’d told me about MyHeritage, a platform that helps you find people. And that’s how I was finally able to track them down.”
Why was it so important to you to find their descendants?
“I was really young when my grandmother told me the story and I just wasn’t able to understand the complexity of the situation. When I myself became a mother, I began to wonder whether I would be willing to risk my own children’s safety in order to save someone else’s. I couldn’t stop thinking about what my grandmother and all the other residents of Erikousa did to save the Savvas family. I’d learned about the Holocaust in school, I’d visited Yad Vashem, I knew that most of the Jews in Greece were sent to Auschwitz, and so it was clear to me that this story about how one Jewish family was saved was an important historical event that needed to be told.”
Corporon admits that she had little hope of actually finding members of the Savvas family.
“Over the years, so many people suggested that I give up my search,” she says, “but I kept looking for seven years. And then in 2014, Gilad Japhet, founder and CEO of MyHeritage, located Nina, one of the daughters, within 24 hours.”
Japhet had estimated that the chance he would find a match was 0.1%, but he decided to try anyway. He checked among people who’d made aliyah from Corfu and found a woman named Nina Levy who’d lived on Maor Hagola Street in Tel Aviv. She’d passed away in 2005 and was buried in Kiryat Shaul.
The next day, Japhet actually went to the cemetery to look for her grave even though it was a cold and rainy winter day. Luckily, her father’s name – Shabtai – was engraved on the gravestone, which Japhet knew was Savvas in Greek. In addition, he also found a woman named Tikvah Levy who still lived on the same street. He assumed that if two sisters had survived the Shoah together, they might very likely have wanted to live near each other. In addition, Japhet knew that Tikvah was Hebrew for Spera in Greek. And bingo – he had hit the jackpot. This was such exciting news.
“Granted, two of the daughters had already passed away, but Japhet found Tikvah’s granddaughter, Michelle Mandelovich, who was living in Los Angeles, and was a senior Apple TV producer,” continues Manessis Corporon. “Japhet immediately wrote me in an email, ‘I hope you’re sitting down – you’ve got to read this.’ I think I read it ten times before I could really believe it. I was so overwhelmed.”
Tikvah had never had any of her own children, but she had been married to Mandelovich’s grandfather, and had raised his children and grandchildren as if they were her own.
“I called Michelle and told her that I think she’s part of the family I’ve been looking for,” explained Corporon. “Michelle had never heard this story, since her grandmother had never wanted to talk about the Shoah. It turns out that the grandkids in the US were in touch with other grandchildren who live in Rehovot. Rosa had gone by the name Shoshana Hasid in Israel. So that’s how we quickly found Rosa’s sons, Peretz and Avraham Hasid. They, too, had never heard the story, since Rosa had also been secretive about her experiences during the war. Japeth drove to Rehovot to meet the Hasid family and told them the entire narrative.”
What happened to the family after the Shoah?
“Savvas’s wife had died before the war broke out, and Savvas passed away in Greece just after the war. Julia and Nina moved to Athens, whereas Spera and Rosa moved to Israel. Many years later, after Julia passed away, Nina also moved to Israel.”
Roey Mendel, an investigator at MyHeritage, explains that through his research, he discovered that Rosa hadn’t been a first-degree relative of Savvas.
“In June 1944, the Nazis rounded up all the Jews of Corfu and shipped them off to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered,” explains Mendel. “Rosa’s parents and brothers were among those taken, and so she joined her relatives as they fled Corfu for Erikousa. The Jewish community in Corfu had been extremely tight-knit, and functioned for all intents and purposes as one large extended family. I did find Rosa’s brother, Gavriel, whose name appeared on a list of Berger Belsen survivors, but I couldn’t find any more information about him or what happened to him after the war. Everyone else had been murdered.”
These findings called for a meet-up, which finally took place in Corfu in 2015, which was attended by Corporon and her family, Mandelovich and her family, as well as Rosa’s sons and their families. Japhet, of course, showed up with his team.
“I think it was the most exciting day of my life,” Corporon recalls. “It was so amazing and emotional. I told everyone there how unbelievable it was that we had found each other – it was practically a miracle. We immediately felt as if we’d all grown up together. And it was really wonderful seeing pictures of Savvas.”
From Corfu, they all took a boat to Erikousa, where all of the island’s residents were granted the Raoul Wallenberg Award for saving a family at the risk of their own lives. All of the island’s residents joined together to protect this Jewish family each time the Nazis would carry out searches.
MyHeritage staff carried out dozens of testimonials while they were searching for Savvas’s family members.
“We spoke with many Shoah survivors in Israel who hailed from Corfu, and were even able to locate the municipal archive in Corfu, which consisted of lists of all the Jews who had been born on the island,” Mendel continued.
“After investigating the Jewish community in Corfu, we were able to construct a family tree of the Corfu Jewish community, which numbered over 4,000 before the Shoah. Quite a few members of the community emigrated to Trieste, Italy and Alexandria, Egypt at the start of the 20th century. The Savvas story, including all of the complex searches carried out by MyHeritage staff, are now part of the Shoah curriculum taught in high schools.”
Corporon says that since their meet-up, they have all become one big family.
“I really love them. They’re amazing people. We’re in constant contact, and I’ve visited them in Israel for their kids’ bar mitzvahs. After our meet-up, I realized I needed to write another book about this story, this time about my search and how we finally found them. Something Beautiful Happened was published in 2017, and quickly became a best-seller. It’s now available in Hebrew, too, which is so exciting to me. I still can’t believe that all this has happened.”
While she was searching for descendants of Savvas’s family, she was shocked by the intensity of the antisemitism she encountered. For example, “a Neo-Nazi murdered a man and his 14-year-old grandson at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas, just days after my first conversation with Michelle,” Corporon recalls.
“These random acts of antisemitism just break my heart. I just don’t understand how these types of attacks are still taking place. Haven’t we learned anything from the past? Why do people still hate others so strongly?”