Time passed, I grew up and got married, but my heart never left Erikousa. From the first moment he stepped foot on our tiny island, my husband”,Dave, instantly grew to love our tiny island as much as I did. Hand in hand, each summer Dave and I walked into the Church of Saint Spyridon. It was our tradition each time we visited Corfu. Together we would light candles at the church’s entrance and then walk inside to kiss Saint Spyridon’s silver casket. We would thank him for our blessings and ask him to watch over our family. We had so much to be thankful for.
Dave and I had been married for 15 years. We had two healthy children and two thriving careers. Life was busy, sometimes too busy to catch our breaths, but it was good. Before the children were born, Dave and I continued my tradition of visiting Corfu and Erikousa each year. While Dave had not been born into a Greek family, he certainly took to marrying into one with gusto. We often joked that at times he seemed more Greek than I was. No matter how many times he tried to get me to taste them, I still couldn’t stomach lamb or Easter magiritsa soup. My mother looked on, beaming, every Easter as he ate enough for both of us.
As much as Dave and I both loved our yearly trips to Greece, once the children were born, finances and careers made it impossible to return every summer. But finally, in 2011, we made it happen. It was the first time we brought our children to Greece. We were home.Christiana was 10 and Nico was 7, and they loved Corfu and Erikousa as much as we did. Watching them splash in the sea and pick blackberries from the roadside bushes made my heart burst with joy. I finally understood how the elder generation of Erikousa felt as they watched my cousins and me return to enjoy the island each summer.
We were spending two weeks in Greece. And while it wasn’t quite the monthlong vacation I remembered from my youth, I knew our family would make the most of every moment. I knew how fortunate I was to have even two weeks off, as taking more than a week off at a time is a rarity in television work. After Christiana was born I had transitioned from being a hard news producer to lighter fare, producing for the Syndicated Entertainment News show Extra. The excitement and adrenaline of television was still there, only now instead of covering a crime scene or fire, my beat was celebrity news, red carpet events and movie premieres. Just two months before, in April, I’d spent a week in London covering the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Working in entertainment television and covering celebrity events certainly had its perks. But of all the wonderful places I had visited around the world, Corfu and Erikousa were by far my favorites. And of all the incredible stories I had heard and uncoveredthroughout my career, there was one story I still could not get out of my mind. It was the secret of Erikousa, my own yia-yia’s story of Savvas the tailor and his girls.
“Here. I think it’s down this way.” I took Dave by the hand and led him through the narrow alleys of Kerkyra. By now, he knew those twisty back alleys and roads as well as I did. “Here.”
I had passed this area dozens of times over the years and never stopped to think what had caused the damage to the decrepit building. The walls were partially collapsed, the roof completely opened to the sky. Within the hollowed-out frame, weeds and brush had grown thicker with each passing decade.
“This is where the Allied bombs fell, while the Nazis were holding the Jews at gunpoint in the platia”,” I said. “They never rebuilt it.” More than seventy years later, the school building was still a mere shell.
“I think the synagogue is down here.” We walked farther down the street of the Jewish quarter, stopping when I saw the Star of David on the door and on a plaque affixed to the front of the building. The last time Dave and I had been on Corfu together, 10 years before, we had stumbled upon the synagogue by accident. “Let’s go see if anyone knows anything about the Jewish family on Erikousa”,” I had said. But the synagogue was locked that day and we simply went on our way.
Back then, I was curious whether anyone remembered the story of Savvas, but it was a mere coincidence that we had happened upon the synagogue. Now, a decade later, learning more about Savvas and his girls had become my obsession. We’d come here to find out whatever we could about the family.
Fortunately, this time the synagogue door was open. We stepped inside. There was a small cluster of people gathered around and two women seated behind a small folding table in the entranceway.
“Excuse me”,” I said in Greek. “I’m hoping you can help me. My yia-yia lived on Erikousa and she was friends with Jewish girls during the war. Their names were Nina, Spera, Julia and Rosa. The father’s name was Savvas. He was a tailor. The family hid from the Nazis on Erikousa. I was hoping someone here might know more. I’m trying to find the family.”
The women looked at me and then at one another. “No. I’m sorry. I don’t know the family. I don’t think I ever heard this story.”
“Do you know anyone else I can ask?”
“You can try some of the shops down the street. Someone in the community might remember something. But I don’t remember ever hearing this.”
We left the synagogue and continued farther down the way, stopping into a few of the crowded tourist shops that lined the street.
“I’m trying to find a Jewish family. They were friends of my yia-yia’s”,” I said again and again.
And again and again I was met with blank stares, a simple shaking of the head, or on occasion, even a full sentence. “Sorry, I don’t know them.”
At the time, it was estimated that there were 60 members of the Jewish community still living on Corfu. Someone, somewhere, had to know something. I knew those girls could not have simply vanished after the war. I was more determined than ever to find them.
After that day when Dave and I visited the synagogue and Jewish quarter of Corfu, I asked everyone we knew on Erikousa what they remembered about Savvas and the girls. Again and again I heard the same details. Everyone recited their names—Savvas, Nini, Julia, Spera and Rosa. Everyone said that no one on the island gave up the secret to the Nazis. Everyone knew that Savvas had died and been buried on Erikousa. But no one could agree on what happened to the girls after the war.
“They went to Israel”,” said one aunt.
“No, they took Savvas’s bones to Israel”,” corrected another.
“They lived in Corfu. I saw Nina just a few years ago”,” insisted yet another family member.
Everyone on Erikousa that I spoke with offered to help. Everyone was excited about the idea of reconnecting with their old friends. Everyone promised to call me immediately, as soon as they had any news, which they were certain they would have for me very shortly.
But no one ever called.
Then one day, my father announced that my uncle had called him. “He said he can get Spera’s number, that she had a house on Kerkyra and she may still be there”,” my father said.
“Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Your uncle said he knows how to reach her”,” my father said.
“Do you really think so?” I was afraid to get my hopes up. None of it made sense to me. They had been through so much with their friends on Erikousa. How could they not have stayed in touch? How could they just have gone on with their lives as if it never happened? As if my yia-yia and the others didn’t risk everything for them? I simply didn’t understand.
“Yes. He said he was confident”,” my dad insisted. “He said he’ll call me in a day or two with her number.”
That phone call never came. I was getting nowhere.
One morning a year and a half later, I was having a breakfast meeting with a publicist. I had had hundreds of meetings like this before. I’m a television producer, so publicists are always asking for meetings, to pitch a client or to find out if there is any way for us to work together. Sometimes those meetings are productive; sometimes they are interesting; sometimes they are a total waste of time. Sometimes the publicists are just hoping that I’ll share a bit of insider celebrity gossip. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting. I had never met this publicist, Chris Powell, before.
“He’s a great guy and a good friend. Just go meet with him”,” my friend Tammi Fuller said. Tammi was also a producer at Extra and had collaborated with Chris on several stories throughout the years. “He has a new client”,” she told me. “It’s a family genealogy website, and with all the familyhistory in your book, maybe there’s something there for you. Just meet him. You never know.”
And so, with Tammi’s encouragement, I set off for a breakfast meeting with Chris Powell, a publicist for MyHeritage.com.
Chris explained that MyHeritage was a popular website where people around the world could research and build their family trees. Based in Israel, the company was working with Chris to expand their reach and business in the United States.
Over coffee and eggs, Chris and I chatted about possible story ideas and how we might be able to work together.
“Wouldn’t it be great to find a celebrity willing to have MyHeritage.com research their family tree, and then feature the story on Extra?”
We ran over the possibilities, tossing out names of celebrities who might be interesting or willing to work with us on such a project.
“But it’s about more than family trees”,” Chris explained. “They are really interested in preserving history and culture, traditions like family stories and recipes.”
“That’s amazing”,” I said. “Believe me, I know how important that is.”
“Yeah, Tammi told me you wrote a book about your own family in Greece”,” Chris said.I explained that When the Cypress Whispers was fiction, based on my grandmother’s life. I told him how the book was steeped in all the tradition, legacy, recipes and oral history that seemed to be so much of what MyHeritage’s mission was all about.
“Maybe we can work together somehow, to help you with your book”,” Chris said.
“You know, I’ve been trying to find the family my grandmother helped save”,” I said. “So far I’ve got nothing. No one in Greece knows anything and there are no records on the island. I know how we can work together. Maybe you can help me find the family.”
“Of course.” He said he would contact the MyHeritage offices in Israel and report back on our meeting, and my search to find Savvas.
Chris explained how the website worked: you simply typed a name into a database and waited for a match of the more than one billion profiles registered on the site. There were also researchers within the company that could work with you to do a more detailed search.
As soon as I got back to my office, I immediately logged on to MyHeritage.com. I typed the names and what little information I had into the database . . . and I waited.I tried every name, every variation, every detail I could think of and every possible spelling.
Nothing. No matches. No information. Again.