'Without them, my family wouldn't have survived the war,' said 85-year-old Josephine Velelli Becker.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 5, 2022. It has since been updated.
Josephine Velelli Becker was 6 years old when she and eight family members hid from the Nazis in the Michalos family's cottage. However, nearly eight decades later, at the age of 85—Becker hasn't forgotten anything; neither the memories from that terrifying time nor her family's debt of gratitude to the Michalos clan. It was no less than a miracle that the Velelli family escaped the Holocaust when nearly 60,000 of their fellow Greek Jews were murdered by the Nazis. This feat was largely due to the courage and graciousness of Elias Michalos, a non-Jewish man who invited them to hide in his family's small cottage, at great risk to his own family.
"Without them, my family wouldn't have survived the war," Becker told The Washington Post. When Germany occupied Greece in 1943, Michalos—who had become friends with Becker's father, Emmanuel Velelli, while doing business together—bravely offered to shelter the Velelli family in his two-room cottage in the mountain village of Michaleika. This was how Velelli Becker, her parents, sister, three uncles and grandparents spent more than a year in the small cottage, spending their nights in fear but grateful nonetheless to Michalos, who put himself and his family in grave danger to protect them.
Not long after the war, both families emigrated to Baltimore and although Emmanuel Velelli tried numerous times to pay Elias Michalos for all he did, Michalos refused to take his money. Finally, almost 80 years later, the Velellis have found a way to pay back the Michalos family's kindness by helping Vasilios Kanaras—Michalos's grandson—open a new restaurant. "I lost my restaurant because of COVID-19," Kanaras said of his previous eatery, the Crabby Greek in Towson, Maryland. "The money was gone." His financial troubles eventually reached the ears of Velelli Becker during one of her usual catch-up calls with 84-year-old Angela Kanaras, Vasilios Kanaras' mother and the late Elias Michalos' daughter.
When Velelli Becker's children heard about the Michalos family's financial plight, they knew exactly what they had to do. "We wanted to give back," said Velelli Becker's daughter, Yvonne Fishbein, who sent an email to her extended family in January, urging them to help Kanaras in his time of need. "We all got together and helped. Everyone pitched in what they could." The Velellis ended up contributing more than $10,000 to help Kanaras get his latest venture, the New Southern Kitchen in Cockeysville, up and running by early February. "Their whole family just started pouring money in," Vasilios Kanaras said, adding that with their help, "I didn't have to worry."
"I was overwhelmed," Angela Kanaras said. "I couldn't believe that they would do that." For the Velellis, helping the Michaloses was a no-brainer. Aside from their indebtedness to the family for what they did 80 years ago, both clans have forged a close bond with each other over the years. From being present at each other's milestone events, never missing a christening, bar mitzvah, or wedding to even celebrating Thanksgiving together, the Michaloses and Velellis are as close as can be.
"My mother and father were very good people," Angela Kanaras said of her late parents' unwavering kindness and acceptance of others, adding that they also sheltered several British intelligence agents during the war. Their heroic defiance did not go unpunished, though. When the Nazis invaded Michaleika in early 1944, they caught wind of Michalos' efforts to hide the agents and burned down his house. Following the loss of their home, the Michalos family moved into the tiny cottage with the Velellis, and the two families lived there together for several months.
Yvonne Fishbein's son, Joshua Fishbein—a composer—also memorialized his family's deep connection with the Michaloses in the form of a song titled "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 have continued to support one another through thick and thin, 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."