Jewish Family Helps Greek Friends Who Hid Them During the Holocaust Open Beloved Restaurant

When Vasilios Kanaras ran into financial trouble before opening The New Southern Kitchen in Maryland earlier this year, longtime friends helped him as a way to repay a kindness from long ago

At the beginning of the year, longtime restaurateur Vasilios Kanaras worked round-the-clock to open a new eatery in Maryland.

"The place is gorgeous," 48-year-old Vasilios tells PEOPLE in this week's issue about his restaurant, The New Southern Kitchen in Hunt Valley, just north of Baltimore.

As he and his wife prepared to open the restaurant, pricey electrical repairs popped up out of nowhere and halted their ambitious plans.

"The money I was expecting to use to open the place was now gone," he says.

Vasilios had already "lost everything" when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to close his bustling lunch spot, The Crabby Greek, in Towson, months earlier.

"So now I was committed with a lease but didn't have the money to open up," he explains.

Angela Karanas left, her son Vasilios Karanas with Josephine Velelli Becker Vasilios is the owner of the new restaurant, the grandson of the man who helped to save the Velelli family.
courtesy of Vasilios Karanas

While Vasilios was scrambling to find the cash he needed, his mother, Angela Kanaras, 85, mentioned his plight to her childhood friend, Josephine Velelli Becker, 86.

Not long afterward, Vasilios got a call from Yvonne Fishbein, 63, one of Josephine's daughters, who gave him some unexpected but welcome news.

"She asked me if I had a GoFundMe account for the restaurant," he recalls. "I said yes, and she said, 'Well, we're going to help you.'"

It's a debt her family has wanted to repay for nearly 80 years.

Southern Kitchen in Cockeysville, MD serving Mediterranean food- owned by Vasilios Karanos , grandson of Elias Michaelos.
courtesy of Vasilios Karanas

In Sept. 1943, during the height of World War II, Vasilios' late grandfather, winemaker Elias Michalos, hid nine members of Josephine's Jewish family from the Nazis on his property in the mountainside village of Michaleika in Greece.

"We would not have survived without their help," Josephine tells PEOPLE.

When the war ended and both families coincidentally moved to the Baltimore area in the early 1950s, the Velelli family offered to repay Elias for all he had done.

"He wouldn't take any money," says Yvonne.

Decades later, when Yvonne – whose family has remained friendly with Vasilios' family - heard that Elias's grandson needed help, she immediately notified her siblings and cousins, who, along with her aunts and uncles, began donating to the GoFundMe page.

For more about how the two families helped each other in times of need, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

"The money poured in," says Vasilios. "I was shocked."

Looking at the names of the donors on the page, "I said, 'These are all Josephine's family.'"

Her family donated nearly $10,000 for Vasilios to proudly open his restaurant on Feb. 4 and serve his "famous jumbo lump crab cakes" and Shrimp a la Vasilli — shrimp over pasta with his "special red sauce" and feta cheese — once more.

"It wasn't even a question that we would help," says Yvonne's sister, Eileen Hollander, 60, who becomes emotional thinking about the sacrifices the Michalos family made for hers.

"There is no way we could ever repay what their family did," says Eileen.

Adds Yvonne: "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be here today."

Back row Louis Yohanas ( child being held) son of a friend of the families, Elaine Michalos (holding child) daughter of Elias and Kathryn ; Kathryn Michalos; Emily Velelli; Shula Yohanas(with purse) a friend of the families, Elias Michalos leaning on railing on far right. Front row, John Efstratiou(crouching) a friend of the families; Victor Velelli son of Emily and Emanuel; and Jack Yohanas, son,a friend of the families.
courtesy of Vasilios Karanas

A Wartime Lifeline

For one long year during World War II, Josephine, then 5, and eight of her family members — her parents, grandparents, baby sister, and three uncles — lived in a half-finished wooden structure on Elias' property that housed his horses. They were terrified that the Nazis occupying Greece would take them away or kill them, like others they knew.

"It was terrible," says Josephine, whose family lived in the small city of Patras when the Germans invaded Greece.

Her family slept on the floor, huddling together during the cold winter months and surviving on meager meals of boiled potatoes or bread.

"All the people in the village knew the Velellis were Jewish, but they all kept it a secret, even the little children," says Angela. "If the Germans found out, we would all have died. Not only my family, but the people in the village."

The Nazis never found out about the Velellis. But in 1944, when they discovered Elias was hiding British intelligence officers on his property, they set fire to the family's stone house.

"I remember my father standing on top of the steps crying," says Angela. "I had never seen my father cry and it has never left my mind."

After rebuilding the house's interior and moving back in, the Nazis returned, bombing the house and forcing the Michalos family to move into the barn with the Velellis. "It was a difficult time," says Josephine.

Last Sunday, the two families got together at The New Southern Kitchen.

Elias, who died in 1975, would be happy to know that newer generations of the two families have become a part of each other's lives, celebrating weddings and other milestone events together, says Vasilios.

"Our families have been friends for 80 years," adds Yvonne. "We're family."

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