The Story Behind the Story
WHEN THE CYPRESS WHISPERS is a story inspired by my own family and the magical Greek island we still call home.
Just seven miles from the larger, main island of Corfu, Erikousa is no larger than a speck of a dust on a map, but to me and all those who visit her, she is truly paradise. I, spent idyllic summers there swimming in the Ionian Sea, riding a donkey named Jack (short for Jackass), belly dancing to brooding folk songs with dozens of my closest cousins, and sitting mesmerized by the fire listening to stories of the spirits who roam dirt paths at night protecting Erikousa and those who love her.
My Yia-yia (grandmother) loved sharing stories of life on the island. She would explain how difficult things were when as a young mother she was left alone on Erikousa when my grandfather left to work in the New York restaurants. The plan was for him to save money and return for his family. But when war broke out, he could not return to Greece and she was left with 2 children and no husband during those difficult wartime years.
But of all the stories my grandmother loved to share, there was one story which always stayed with me with most. It’s the story of Savas and his girls.
In June of 1944, just 2 days after the allied forces landed at Normandy, The Nazis, who were occupying Corfu, rounded up all the Jews on the island and sent them to Auschwitz. In a community of 2000 Jews, only about 200 survived. One of them was Savas.
Savas was a tailor and a friend to many of the families on Erikousa. He lived just outside the Jewish quarter of Corfu which likely helped save his life. When the Nazis rounded up the Jews of the island, he, along with his 3 daughters and a granddaughter, escaped to Erikousa.
Despite the fact that the Nazis decreed that anyone found helping Jews would be killed, not one person on Erikousa told the Germans that a Jewish family was hiding on the island. At risk to their own lives, and to their families, not one person gave up the secret of Savas. Not one.
My Yia-yia became especially friendly with Savas’ granddaughter, Rosa. My father, who was 9 at the time, remembers how happy Yia-yia would be when Rosa would come visit her at night, always under cover of darkness when it was safer for her to leave her hiding place. Together, Rosa and Yia-yia would stay up talking and sewing deep into the night.
The Germans never occupied Erikousa but they would come every few weeks and search house to house, looking for escaped Jews. The people of Erikousa would warn Savas each time they saw the Germans approaching and Savas and the girls would flee to the other side of the island and hide in an abandoned home. Time after time, the islanders would go visit Savas at night, with no candles or lights, as not to alert the Nazis – and bring food and supplies to the Jewish family.
The people of Erikousa shared what little they had and risked their own lives without hesitation because they were good people, and it was the right thing to do. There were no awards, accolades or honors for the islanders after the war. Savas’ family survived and life on the island simply went on.
I hope that in some small way, WHEN THE CYPRESS WHISPERS can finally help others recognize the beauty and bravery of the people of Erikousa. It’s a story I’m honored to tell, and an island family I’m proud to be a part of.
Like Arachne at her loom (minus the hubris, of course), WHEN THE CYPRESS WHISPERS is a tapestry of my own life crafted from the memories, legends, stories and relationships I hold most sacred.