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Emily Velelli, seamstress

Nazi PartyIsraelBreast CancerLexington MarketWorld War II (1939-1945)

Emily Velelli, who survived the Holocaust after being hidden by gentiles in war-torn Greece, then immigrated to Baltimore, where she worked as a seamstress, died Tuesday of breast cancer at her Pikesville home. She was 100.

The daughter of Jacob Osmou, a Hebrew educator, and Regina Osmou, a homemaker, Emily Osmou was born on the island of Corfu, which at the time had a large Jewish population.

The family later moved to the Peloponnesian port city of Patras, where she was sent to a private Roman Catholic girls school.

"She spoke fondly of her teachers, the nuns, whose goal it was to produce cultured and well-mannered young ladies," wrote a daughter, Rachel Glaser of Owings Mills, in a birthday tribute to her mother in June.

"She learned music, art and embroidery, Italian and French, in addition to the regular academic subjects," wrote Ms. Glaser. "The fact that she was Jewish was never an impediment."

During the 1930s, she moved to Athens, where she worked in her brother's textile store. It was at the store that she met and fell in love with her future husband, Emmanuel Velelli, whom she wed in 1934.

With the outbreak of World War II, when Italy and Germany attacked Greece in 1941, her husband was called to serve in the Greek Navy.

"When bombs fell over the city of Patras, one hit the street in front of the house, forcing the family to move away to safety. I think that our mother surprised herself in her ability to adapt and in her resilience," wrote Ms. Glaser. "She always saw herself as weak and fearful, but in reality the strength that was to help her through so much was more evident than she imagined."

With the Nazi invasion of Greece, Jews were rounded up and sent to labor and concentration camps.

"Emily's two sisters, Rachel and Esther, and their families in Corfu" were taken away to the camps, wrote her daughter, who added, "Ninety percent of the Jews living in Greece perished" in the war.

Mrs. Velelli, her husband, their young daughters Josephine and Regina, and Mr. Velelli's parents and three brothers were taken in by Elias Michalos, a fervent anti-Nazi and Greek patriot, and his wife, Kathryn Michalos. They were gentiles and had no Jewish friends.

The Michalos family, who were leaders in the small mountain village of Michaleika, agreed to hide them in a small house they maintained for workers at their winery.

"Of course we knew what would happen, because we knew about Salonika; the Germans had already taken the Jews of Salonika," Mrs. Velelli related to The Sunday Sun in a 1984 interview.

"We had very good Christian friends in Patras," Mrs. Velelli explained in the interview. "The day before we left, I said to one friend, 'Take all of my jewelry. If we come back, give it back. If not, try and find my relatives. If not, you can keep it.' When we came back, the next day she came to my house and gave it back."

The Velelli family lived in a two-room house, and when the Nazis burned the Michaloses' property in retaliation for hiding a British Intelligence squad, both families fled and hid in a mill in the mountains. They lived in a cowshed that the Nazis had not burned.

"The building had no running water and both families were fed by a small garden and bread baked by the two women," according to a 1985 article in The Evening Sun.

In 1944, the Nazis returned and this time burned down the entire village of Michaleika. The Velellis then moved to the town of Demesticha, where they found refuge with another Greek family and remained until the war ended in 1945.

The Michalos family left Greece and moved to Baltimore in 1951. Five years later, the Velelli family moved to Baltimore because Mrs. Velelli had a niece living here, and settled in a home near Druid Hill Park.

Not having an address for the Michaloses, Mr. Velelli left a letter for them in a Greek grocery store near Lexington Market.

"Right away they came to see us, and they gave us any help they could," said Mrs. Velelli in The Sunday Sun interview.

The two families who had met during wartime remained close.

"We were fortunate to join the small, but extremely loud, Greek Jewish community already in Baltimore with whom we socialized and shared family simchas [celebrations], often gathering to sing nostalgic Greek songs in our backyards, to the utter bewilderment of neighbors," wrote Ms. Glaser.

The family eventually settled in the Millbrook neighborhood of Pikesville, where Mrs. Velelli lived for the past 51 years.

Mrs. Velelli worked as a seamstress in many of Baltimore's men's clothing factories and also for many years for Jos. A. Bank. Her husband, a bookkeeper, died in 1993.

Mrs. Velelli, who never learned to drive and traveled by streetcar and later bus, remained active well into her 90s, living independently and baking baklava, and spinach and cheese pies, her signature dishes, for family and friends.

She had been an active member of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation.

Kathryn Michalos was awarded Israel's Yad Vashem Medal for Righteous Gentiles, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives saving Jews during the Holocaust, in a ceremony in 1985 at the Krieger Building of the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund. Mrs. Michalos died in 2005.

Her husband, who later owned the Corinthian Lounge on Windsor Mill Road, died in 1975.

"And we children would grow up understanding that were it not for the Michalos family, we would not be here today," wrote Ms. Glaser.

Services for Mrs. Velelli were Thursday at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Velelli is survived by a son, Victor Velelli of Slanesville, W.Va.; two other daughters, Josephine Becker of Pikesville and Regina Francis of Miami; 10 grandchildren; 20 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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