The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Greek family saved them from Nazis. Now, they found how to thank them.

‘Without them, my family wouldn’t have survived the war,’ said Josephine Velelli Becker, who lives in Maryland

Angela Kanaras, left, and her son, Vasilios Kanaras, with Josephine Velelli Becker. (Family photo)
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She was just 6 years old then, but even now, at 85, memories of when the Michalos family hid her from the Nazis are etched in Josephine Velelli Becker’s mind.

Nearly 60,000 Greek Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The Velelli family was spared — a miracle owed, in large part, to Elias Michalos, a gracious non-Jewish man who invited them to hide in his family’s small cottage in the tiny mountain village of Michaleika.

“Without them, my family wouldn’t have survived the war,” said Velelli Becker, who is from Patras, a city about 130 miles from Athens.

Her father, Emmanuel Velelli, had done business with Elias Michalos, and they became friendly. In 1943, when Germany occupied Greece, Michalos bravely offered to shelter the Velelli family — a kindness that came with tremendous risks.

Velelli Becker and eight family members — including her parents, sister, three uncles and grandparents — hid from the Nazis in Michalos’s two-room cottage, which was originally intended to house employees and had no running water or bathroom.

Although the Velelli family spent each night sleeping fearfully on the floor for more than a year, they felt lucky. They were filled with gratitude for Michalos, who put himself and his family in grave danger to protect them.

Shortly after the war, both families immigrated to Baltimore, and they still live in the area today. On numerous occasions, Emmanuel Velelli tried to pay Elias Michalos for all he did, but Michalos refused to take his money.

Finally, though, nearly eight decades later, the Velellis were presented with a meaningful opportunity to thank them.

They pooled their funds to help Vasilios Kanaras, Michalos’s grandson, open a new restaurant. His previous eatery, the Crabby Greek in Towson, Md., was forced to shutter amid the pandemic.

“I lost my restaurant because of covid,” Kanaras explained, adding that the Crabby Greek was in an office building, and with widespread remote work, customers dwindled drastically. “The money was gone.”

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On one of their usual catch-up calls, 84-year-old Angela Kanaras — who is Vasilios Kanaras’s mother, and the late Elias Michalos’s daughter — told Velelli Becker about her son’s struggles.

When Velelli Becker’s children heard about the Michalos family’s financial plight, they knew what they wanted to do.

“We wanted to give back,” said Velelli Becker’s daughter, Yvonne Fishbein, who sent an email in January to her extended family, soliciting support. “We all got together and helped. Everyone pitched in what they could.”

“Their whole family just started pouring money in,” Vasilios Kanaras said. With their help, “I didn’t have to worry.”

Their generosity was much appreciated, though it was not at all expected.

“I was overwhelmed,” Angela Kanaras said. “I couldn’t believe that they would do that.”

A displaced Ukrainian dad asked for Legos for his son. Gifts poured in.

In total, the Velellis contributed more than $10,000 to help Kanaras get his latest venture, the New Southern Kitchen in Cockeysville, Md., up and running. The money went toward electrical repairs, food and other supplies. By early February, the restaurant was open for business.

Not only did the Velellis feel indebted to the Michaloses for what they did 80 years ago, but to this day the families remain close.

Over the years, they have been present at each other’s milestone events, never missing a christening, bar mitzvah or wedding. They have also celebrated Thanksgivings together.

“They are the most wonderful people,” said Velelli Becker, who moved to the United States with her family in 1956.

When they first arrived in Baltimore, they heard the Michaloses were living there too, but they didn’t have an address or phone number to contact them. So they left a letter for them at a Greek grocery store near Lexington Market, thinking the Michaloses would probably shop there.

“We saw each other again and have been friends for 80 years,” said Angela Kanaras, who spoke of her late parents’ unwavering kindness and acceptance of others.

“My mother and father were very good people,” she said, adding that her family also sheltered several British intelligence agents during the war.

The family’s heroic defiance did not come without consequences, though. In early 1944, when the Nazis invaded Michaleika, they caught wind of Michalos’s efforts to hide the agents and they burned down his house. At that point, the Michalos family moved into the tiny cottage with the Velellis, and the two families lived there together for several months.

They were prisoners in the Holocaust together. They just reunited.

The Velelli children played with the Michalos children, while the men chopped wood and cautiously bartered for food, and the women took care of the cooking and cleaning. Angela Kanaras said she and her family never bought into the Nazi falsehood of superiority by race, ethnicity or religion.

Once the Nazis left Greece in October 1944 and the Velellis were finally free, they went back to Patras. The Michaloses moved there, too, and started a trucking business, before relocating to Baltimore in 1951.

In the early 1980s, the Velelli family submitted the story of their friendship to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims. The Michalos family was designated as “Righteous Among the Nations” — an honorific for non-Jews who risked their own lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis. In 1984, the family was honored at a Holocaust memorial ceremony in Baltimore.

Yvonne Fishbein’s son, Joshua Fishbein, a composer, also sought to memorialize his family’s profound connection with the Michaloses — in the form of a song. He recently composed “Out of the Ashes of Holocaust,” which is performed by the Washington Master Chorale, and captures the bravery and hospitality of the Michalos family.

If her parents were still alive, they “would have been very proud” of how the families’ support of one another has persisted, Angela Kanaras said. “It’s up to the younger generations to continue this friendship.”

Their bond, she added, is stronger than ever.

“All of these years, they’ve always said that if it wasn’t for my family, they wouldn’t be here,” Angela Kanaras said of the Velellis. “Now, if it wasn’t for them, my son wouldn’t have a business. So, it all came around.”

correction

A photo caption in a previous version of this article incorrectly described Vasilios Kanaras as Angela Kanaras’s grandson. He is her son. The article has been corrected.

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