Greek Woman Reunited With Siblings She Saved During Holocaust and Their 40 Descendants
JNS.org – “There is no way to describe the acts of heroism and the danger they took upon themselves and all those around them to shelter an entire family,” said Sarah Yanai upon reuniting with the Greek woman who, along with her two sisters, hid her and five other members of her family during the Holocaust.
“The feeling is very emotional and very exciting. I cannot describe it,” said the 86-year-old. “What can I say? They saved our lives.”
At the Hall of Names at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, Greek rescuer Melpomeni Dina, 92, now living in Thessaloniki, Greece, was reunited with two survivors she saved during the Holocaust: Yanai, who now lives in Ramat Hasharon, and her brother Yossi Mor, 77, now living in Beersheva.
Melpomeni Dina (then Gianopoulou) was just 14 when she and her two orphaned sisters, Efthimia and Bithleem, decided to hide the Jewish family in their home
For more than two years, they hid and provided for the Mordechai family, including Sarah and Yossi; their parents (Mentes and Mari); and siblings Asher, Shmuel, and Rachel. Due to the heroism and sacrifice of the Gianopoulou sisters, most of the family survived the war.
According to Yad Vashem, Gianopoulou’s connection to the Mordechai family was through Melpomeni’s sister, Efthimia (married name Xanthopoulou), who before the invasion of Greece had studied to become a seamstress at Mari Mordechai’s studio in Veria. Since Efthimia was an orphan and very poor, Mari did not charge her for the lessons.
Efthimia became attached to the Mordechais and visited them regularly after they went into hiding. When a new place was needed, she arranged for them to move to her home in Veria, where she lived with two younger sisters, 15-year-old Bithleem (later Sumbasi) and 14-year-old Melpomeni. There, in one room, they accommodated seven members of the Mordechai family.
“They loved my mother very much because of her good heart,” recalled Mor, “so they took upon themselves the dangerous mission to hide us in their home.”
The three sisters shared their food rations with the Mordechai family and sheltered them, despite the risk. As supplies were scarce and expensive, Bithleem and Melpomeni cultivated a piece of land they owned in a swamp near Yiannitsa, about 25 miles from Veria, and when they would return from working the land, they would carry on their backs provisions for all 10 people.
After illness took the life of Yossi’s older brother, Shmuel, the family’s hiding was discovered and reported to the authorities. Melpomeni’s family helped the Mordechai family flee to the Vermio Mountains, continuing to provide for the family until the end of the war.
On April 12, 1994, Yad Vashem recognized Melpomeni Dina as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
At the meeting, which was made possible by a partnership between the US-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) and Yad Vashem, Dina was introduced to nearly 40 descendants of Yanai and Mor.
After meeting all these relatives, Dina declared that she sees every member of their families as her own. “I am very happy to be here and to see you,” she told Yanai and Mor, with tears in her eyes, again inviting them and their family to live with her in her home in Greece.
“We will stay together day and night for two days,” Yanai told Dina. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Yanai continued, saying “it’s very hard to describe my feelings in words; it’s something deep in my heart. It brings me back many years, [thinking] how they kept us and how they worried about us. We hid in her house; she saved all my family. Now she can see our large family — all this thanks to her because she saved us. She did such a great thing! You cannot imagine how dangerous it was for her and for her whole family to keep our whole family.”
This was the first time that the JFR, which provides monthly financial assistance to more than 265 aged and needy Righteous Among the Nations living in 18 countries, has reunited Holocaust survivors and their rescuers in Israel.
“The beauty of [making this reunion] in Israel is we got to have the whole family, l’dor v’dor,” Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of JFR, told JNS. “You get to see the generations, including two grandchildren in uniform,” she said.
Mor’s grandson — Imri Dor, 22 — arrived in uniform to meet his grandfather’s rescuer, currently serving in the paratrooper’s unit in the IDF. “It’s a huge event,” he said. “We heard a lot about [Dina] and everything she did for our family; she has inspired me as a person and it means so much [to meet her]. It fulfills you and gives you perception.”
Dor noted that his army service, in the context of the story of his grandfather, is “always on my mind; it’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
“We don’t have another place to be other than Israel,” he said. “This is our only country, and we must be strong because [the Holocaust] could happen again if we are not.”
According to Stahl, this is likely JFR’s last reunion “because of the age and frailty” of the survivors, and even more of those who helped save them, like Dina.
Joel Zisenwine, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, spoke of the rareness of such a meeting.
“As time passes, we have fewer survivors and even fewer rescuers,” he stated. “This coming together of the offspring and descendants in Yad Vashem, which is authorized to commemorate the Holocaust in the presence of monuments” like the Hall of Names, “makes it even more meaningful.”
Since the work of Zisenwine’s department often occurs past the death of the Righteous Among the Nations, he said, “to see a living testimony of someone who took part in a rescue mission is even more moving.”