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A grandmother's stories spur a powerful memoir, 'Something Wonderful Happened'

A grandmother's stories spur a powerful memoir, 'Something Wonderful Happened'

From the Stacks

December 30th, 2018 by Madeline Matson, For the News Tribune in Life & Entertainment

Yvette Manessis Corporon grew up in a close-knit Greek-American community in New York City with a loving, extended family. She remembered her grandmother's stories about her simple but idyllic life on the tiny Greek island of Erikousa, which she first visited when she was 12 and later during summers while a college student.

After college, Corporon married and became a television writer and producer, eventually winning three Emmy awards for her work. She also published a novel, "When the Cypress Whispers," loosely based on some of her grandmother's World War II stories.

Despite her career successes, she never lost her fascination with that small island and what happened there in 1944. Her personal memoir, "Something Wonderful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil," focuses on both the history and tragedy of the island during the war.

The story of Greek Jews in World War II isn't as familiar as that of Jews from other European countries. The Ionian island of Corfu — near Erikousa — had a significant Jewish population and in 1943 was occupied by the Nazis after occupying Italian forces surrendered. In the summer of 1944, the Gestapo rounded up the island's Jews and sent them to Auschwitz where few survived.

Unlike some high-level clerics in other countries, the Bishop of Athens publicly denounced the Nazis' deportation of Jews. He urged clergy all across Greece to help their Jewish brothers and hide Jews in their own homes. The author notes "the bishop also issued thousands of false baptismal certificates and worked with the Athenian chief of police to issue false identity papers, saving thousands of Jewish lives."

One Corfu resident was a tailor named Savvas Israel. Well known to many Erikousa islanders, Savvas traveled to Corfu when they wanted to have an item of clothing made or repaired. Savvas was revered for his beautiful work and respected for his kindness. He, along with his three daughters and another young girl, managed to escape the round-up and made their way to Erikousa where they found refuge with the island's priest in a tiny house behind an old grain mill. The priest considered it an honor and privilege to help the family.

Corporan's family clothed their Corfu friends in native dress, fed them, and enjoyed frequent visits from the young girls. Corporan's grandfather remembers a visit from a Nazi, who came to their home, tore up the rooms and said, "Where are the Jews? I know you're hiding them." Everyone on the island knew the risk of hiding the Jewish family and not one of them gave up the secret. Savvas died on Erikousa shortly after the war, and his family became refugees after leaving the island.

Her grandmother's stories and some old family photos led Corporan to discover what happened to Savvas and his family at the end of the war. It took years of daunting research, help from the Jewish founder of MyHeritage (a genealogical website), searches for survivors from refugee camps and trips back to Erikousa and Corfu, and later to Israel. She was able to locate Savvas's descendants and planned an elaborate reunion to honor the sacrifices and bravery of the Erikousans. Yet shortly after this joyous reunion, her cousin's 14-year-old son and his grandfather were murdered in Overland Park, Kansas, by a Neo-Nazi who claimed he wanted to kill as many Jews as possible. The murder, which made national news, took place at the Jewish Community Center. The victims were Christian.

Hate did not prevail after the murder, as thousands of people in Overland Park came together to build an angel wall and to help shield the Corporon family from the Westboro Baptist Church hate-mongers. Her cousin formed an organization, Seven Days: Make a Ripple, Change the World, that is dedicated to standing against hate and promoting kindness (check sevendays.org for more information about the organization's many programs).

In an afterword, the author recounts her interviews with the few Corfiots still living who remember the war years, all of which added to her understanding of the Jewish community of Corfu as well as her own family's story.

Erikousa was awarded the House of Life honor from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, recognizing the collective courage of the islanders. The island is also featured on an Israeli postage stamp.

Madeline Matson is a reference and adult programming librarian at Missouri River Regional Library.