The tiny Greek island of Erikousa, in the Ionian Sea north of Corfu, has kept a secret for a very, very long time. A story which includes not only tragedy, but kindness and bravery as well, as the islanders joined forces to save a family of Jews from certain death in the Holocaust.
The story, an engrossing peek into a little-known chapter of World War II, was revealed in the book “Something Beautiful Happened” by Greek-American journalist and author Yvette Manessis Corporon in 2017.
Her work describes how the people of Erikousa hid a Jewish family — a tailor named Savvas Israel and his daughters — from the Nazis during the German occupation of Greece. Even though every single person on the island knew Israel and his family were hiding on the island, not one islander ever gave them up, and the family survived the war.
Jewish people had lived on the nearby island of Corfu for 800 years before the Germans occupied the island in 1943. By the summer of 1944, nearly 2,000 Jews from the area had already been transported to concentration camps and had died there.
As the Nazis were rounding up all the Jewish citizens of the island, Israel, who was a well-known tailor in the Jewish quarter of Corfu, and his entire family somehow managed to escape the carnage. The family then took refuge on the island of Erikousa.
Once they set foot on Erikousa they were immediately taken in by the locals. They were given food, as well as new clothes to hide their Jewish identity. The island’s priest even gave up his home so that Israel and his family could live there.
The islanders took other extraordinary measures. They went to the church and burned all the records there so the Nazis wouldn’t be able to determine who was Greek and who was Jewish. The Israel family were the only Jews on the island.
While German soldiers never actually occupied the small island of Erikousa, they would come periodically from nearby Corfu, searching homes for valuables — and for Jewish people. The islanders would even take turns to look out for German boats approaching the island.
Among the people who helped save the family was author Manessis Corporon’s grandmother. “She went from living a quiet life… to one of defiance, danger and resistance, risking her own life and those of her children to defy the Nazi soldiers and help save the lives of a Jewish man and his girls,” Manessis Corporon writes.
Israel remained living on the island of Erikousa after the war, but died several years later. With no Jewish cemetery or rabbi anywhere nearby, the villagers buried him just outside the Christian cemetery.
Seventy years later, the Greek-American author has finally told this remarkable story of courage, and, after painstaking research, tracked down Savvas Israel’s descendants — eventually finding them in Israel.
Their heart-rending, tearful reunion on the island of Erikousa in June of 2017 was living proof to her that evil truly doesn’t always win.