The stories Yvette Manessi Corporon heard from her Greek immigrant grandmother while growing up were dramatic and mysterious. During World War II, her illiterate grandmother and a group of villagers on their tiny island of Erikousa (population 200) had risked their lives to save a Jewish family from the Nazis.
“I never knew the entire story, I knew that my grandmother risked everything to save them, and when my father was a little boy, he remembers the Nazis ransacked our house, saying, ‘Where are the Jews? Where are the Jews?’ ” Manessis Corporon, 48, tells PEOPLE.
The residents of Erikousa never spoke a word, and the Jewish family — a tailor named Savvas Israel, his three daughters and a young orphaned relative named Rosa — all survived. After the war, no one knew what had become of them.
But seven years ago, Manessis Corporon, a senior producer at EXTRA and mom of two kids, decided she had to find out. “It became an obsession,” she says.
Using her journalism skills, she tracked down some of Savass’s descendants, who had no idea about the woman and the villagers who had saved their relatives lives.
In her moving memoir, Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil, out Sept. 12, Manessis Corporon details the heroics of the villagers of Erikousa, the bond she’s formed with the survivors’ family members and a personal tragic twist of fate.
In 1944, about 2,000 Jews were living on the Greek island of Corfu. The Nazis rounded them up and killed them in death camps. Only a handful escaped — and Savvas, who did tailor work on Erikousa, made his way there.
By day, these Christian villagers hid him and his family at a priest’s residence; at night, they’d oftentimes sneak to Manessis Corporon’s grandmother’s house for a meal and some good company.
“Not one person on the island told the Germans a Jewish family was hiding among them,” Manessis Corporon says. “It makes me feel so incredibly proud, crazy proud, this is where I come from.”
When Manessis Corporon undertook her search for Savvas’s descendents, she hit month after month of dead ends — until she started using the genealogy website, MyHeritage.com.
Within weeks, Manessis Corporon discovered the step-granddaughter of one of Savvas’s daughters, a TV executive living in California.
She then discovered Rosa’s two sons, living in Israel. They had no idea about their mother’s miraculous escape; Rosa never spoke of it and her sons were not allowed to ask about her early life or the war.
For years, there was a portrait of a mustached man hanging on the wall of the home they grew up in. They knew their mother, Rosa, loved this man dearly but they never knew why.
“The first time I met them over Skype, they held up that photo to the camera and I said, ‘That’s him, that’s Savvas,’ and they finally understood who this man in the portrait was and why he was so important,” says Manessis Corporon.
“They were in shock — absolutely shocked,” Manessis Corporon says. “I show up on Skype with this incredible story about an entire island who risked their lives to save their mother.”
In a tear-filled June 2015 meeting, Manessis Corporon and Savvas’ descendants met on Corfu, and then traveled to Erikousa.
“It was surreal, an emotional release that I didn’t know I had inside of me,” says Manessis Corporon, who has shared the Jewish holidays with them. “It felt very much like we are family, we are connected.”
On April 13, 2014, three days after Manessis Corporon found the family of one of Savass’s daughters, the author’s 14-year-old nephew, Reat Underwood, and his grandfather, Bill Corporon, were murdered by a neo-Nazi shouting “Heil Hitler” at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas. Reat was there for a singing audition and his grandfather was driving him to cheer him on. Neither victim was Jewish.
That night, Manessis Corporon’s young son, Nico, 9, asked, “How could this happen? You told me the family was saved and the Nazis were gone.” Manessis Corporon still can’t explain, but she knows that, like her grandmother, one can’t sit idly by.
“You have to speak up,” she says. “That’s what I really hope people take home from the book.”
Meanwhile, her cousin Mindy Corporon (the mother of Reat and daughter of Bill) has also met Rosa’s sons, and devotes her time to tamping out hate crimes by promoting interfaith awareness through speaking engagements and holding events through her nonprofit Faith Always Wins.
It’s sharing light amidst such evil that Manessis Corporon finds most rewarding. Like most people, Rosa’s three granddaughters knew only of evil associated with the Holocaust — until recently.
“And now those girls hear that something beautiful happened,” she says, “that people stood up to save their grandmother. I can’t tell you how important that is to me.”