Having read an interesting description of the only synagogue in Corfu to have survived the Allied bombing of World War II — “Scuola Greca, a still functioning 17th century synagogue, is regarded as one of the finest in Greece. It was built in Venetian architectural style. Worthy of special mention is the collection of Torah crowns” — we set out to find it after our introductory tour of Old Town Corfu. Little did we know that the next hour would be one of the most memorable and heart-rending of our travels so far this summer around the Mediterranean.
Navigating to the west side of Old Town, not far from the New Fortress, at mid-morning we found the Temple at 4 Velissarianou Street, and entered on the side street. Seeing stairs at the left on the entrance, the four of us headed up to the Synagogue. I was in the lead and was surprised to find nearly every seat in the Synagogue occupied, with a speaker at the front of the room trying to quiet down the group. Given the number of cruise ships we have been in various ports with, we assumed that this was a tourist group with a knowledgeable tour guide. We did wonder, though, why there were two professional video cameras and a sound mike being set up to record the presentation. It took a few minutes to sort things out…
We later learned that the speaker was Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos from the Kehila Kedosha Janina (Holy Community of Janina) synagogue at 280 Broome Street (between Allen and Eldridge Streets) in New York City’s L.E.S. (Lower East Side). Kehila Kedosha Janina was founded by Greek Jewish immigrants from the Ionian Islands. Marcia is the Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina and is also President of The Association of Friends of Greek Jewry. After some discussion of the Corfu Jewish community and its history, Marcia introduced a young woman, Yvette Manessis Corporon, who then proceeded to tell her wonderful story.
Yvette, a senior producer of an American syndicated entertainment news show [Extra] living in New York City, is descended from Greek grandparents from the Corfu area of the Ionian Islands. In early 2014 she published a book, When the Cypress Whispers, that is a fictionalized story of an American young woman with a grandmother in Greece, based on stories she had heard from her grandmother, who grew up and lived her life on a neighboring island to Corfu. Yvette then proceeded to tell us the true life story of her grandmother’s remembrances of life on her island during World War II and, following publication of her fictionalized book, Yvette’s search for survivors/descendants of that era in Corfu.
A little background on the history of the Jewish Community of Corfu is probably in order before continuing Yvette’s story. “The Jewish presence in Corfu dates back to the middle of the 12th century… Regardless of their religious beliefs, the native Jews have always lived in peace with all Corfiots. They have contributed to the island’s growth by engaging with trade activities, sciences, the arts, etc. The Corfiot Jews come from the west, from the Apulia region of Italy, the east and other parts of Continental Greece. Thus, the community was a mixture of Pugliese (Jews from the south of Italy) and Romaniote (Greek speaking Jews).” — from the Jewish Community of Corfu history pamphlet.
The leader of the visitor group at the Synagogue, Marcia, had previously published an article, Remembering the Jews of Corfu. “On the small, verdant Ionian Island of Corfu, at the foot of the Venetian Fortress, are the remnants of a former Jewish ‘Ghetto’, stark reminders of the once vibrant Jewish community that lived here for over a millennium. Little is left now: the shells of bombed out buildings, their former stores, now owned by Greek Christians and only one of the three synagogues that existed at the time of the Holocaust. In the late nineteenth century the Jewish community numbered close to 5,000, most of them poor. The wage earners were porters, street venders and owners of small shops. Education was at minimum, most young men leaving school to help their parents raise their large families, most young girls never attending school at all. The community was a mixture of Romaniote (Greek speaking Jews) and Jews from the south of Italy who had emigrated there after the persecutions in the 15th century. The dialect spoken was a mixture of Greek, Hebrew and Pugliese Italian. This was the community that produced Lazarus Mordos, a prominent doctor, the Olivetti family of typewriter fame, Albert Cohen, the famous poet and the grandparents of George Moustaki, the internationally acclaimed French singer. In 1891 a “Blood Libel” ravaged the community. Ironically, the young murdered girl was Jewish, Rebecca Sardas, but the devastation that followed the accusation that Jews had murdered her caused over half of the community to emigrate, most to Egypt. Those that were left were the poorest, the least able to leave. At the dawning of World War II the Jewish community of Corfu numbered 2,000, most of them young children and the elderly. On June 10, 1944, four days after the bombing of Normandy, with the end of the war in sight, the Jews of Corfu were rounded up to be deported off the island. First they were imprisoned in the Old Venetian Fort in dank, cramped quarters. Then they were sent off the island in small boats, final destination Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 1,795 Jews of Corfu who were deported, only 121 would survive. The mayor of the island issued a proclamation, thanking the Germans for ridding the island of the Jews so that the economy of the island would revert to its ‘rightful owners’. All that remains of the vital Jewish presence in Corfu is a small and highly assimilated community, numbering about 80 Jews, most survivors of the Holocaust, and La Scuola Greca Synagogue, built in the 18th century and still standing in what was once the ‘Jewish Ghetto’. A Holocaust memorial was dedicated [in La Scuola Greca Synagogue] on November 25, 2001.”
Yvette told the group the story of how she came to write a fictionalized account of an American girl who returned to Greece to spend time with her grandmother. In her later years the grandmother in the book told the younger American woman stories about her life on the island (near Corfu) during World War II. Their Christian community was aware that the local Jews were being rounded up and sent away. As a young woman, during this period the grandmother helped her family and their neighbors hide three young Jewish girls from the authorities for several years.
After the book was published, Yvette was encouraged to return to Corfu in order to try to locate any survivors and descendants of the three girls her grandmother had, in fact, befriended and helped hide. She recalled that her grandmother had told her that frequently at night one of more of the Jewish girls would crawl into her bed for stories and comforting. They had all grown close during this period of hiding.
Knowing only the first names of the girls and the name of the island on which her grandmother had lived, Yvette worked for more than a year with a private investigator and a number of people in Corfu in order to try to track down people from the true-life story.
After telling the story of her book and grandmother, Yvette then introduced another American woman in the audience — by coincidence a TV producer from Los Angeles — whom she had tracked down; she and Yvette discovered that they have some friends in common. This young woman was a granddaughter of one of the Jewish girls that Yvette’s grandmother’s family had helped hide.
The next introductions were two Israeli men who had flown to Corfu for the gathering, both grandsons of two of the other Jewish girls in hiding. At this point, tears were flowing amidst the hugs of those who were meeting for the first time (related to the principals of the story) and everyone in the audience.
Marcia then asked everyone to have a moment of remembrance and blessing for all those Jewish families from Corfu who perished in the Holocaust and were remembered on the memorial plaque on the Synagogue wall. As the group then headed to buses for a ride to the Jewish cemetery, we had the opportunity to speak with many members of the group and hear personal stories of their journey to Corfu, home of forebears for many in the group from the New York City Temple.
As we followed the group out of the Synagogue into a beautiful day in Corfu, we realized how fortunate we had been to choose to visit the Scuola Greca Synagogue on that day, at that hour, and experience such a remarkable reunion and celebration of life and remembrance between Corfu, America, and Israel.
P.S. Yvette’s book is titled When the Cypress Whispers (published by Harper Collins; we met and spoke with her editor and her husband at the reunion). It is available at http://www.Amazon.com.