Before German and Italian forces invaded Greece in the early 1940s, Miriam Glaser’s grandparents Emily and Emmanuel Velelli lived in the port town of Patras on the western coast of Greece. Part of a small Jewish community in the city with just 265 members, according to the Jewish Museum of Greece, their families descended from Romaniote Jews, who have called Greece home for more than 2,000 years.
During the war, "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,” Emily’s daughter Rachel wrote in a tribute to her mother on her 100th birthday. “I think that our mother surprised herself in her ability to adapt and in her resilience.” The family fled to the nearby mountain village of Michaleika where Elias and Kathryn Michalos, ardent anti-Nazis and Greek patriots, took them in, sheltering them in a small house built for workers at their winery. Holding the Michelos family responsible for aiding British agents, German forces burned down their house, but left the small structure where the Velellis were hiding alone. For the remainder of the war, the two families lived together under one roof, Miriam explains.
After the war, her grandparents returned to Patras where Jewish community’s numbers had dwindled dramatically. Emmanuel returned to his business selling fabric, but worried about money. The father of three daughters, “He would have to give a dowry for each daughter and he didn't have the means,” Miriam explains. Imagining a better life in America, the family moved in 1956 to Baltimore with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
By chance, the Michalos family had moved there a few years earlier. Not knowing how to reach them, Emmanuel left word for them at a local Greek grocer and ultimately the two families reunited. “They stayed friends their entire life,” Miriam adds.
In Baltimore, Emily celebrated the family’s Greek heritage around the table. “She loved to tell us how to make certain dishes and she always made Greek food at her house,” Miriam explains. There were cheese pies called tiropita, leek patties, a dense and sweet raisin bread for Rosh Hashanah, and meatballs wrapped in spinach for Passover. Spanakopita, a spinach and cheese pie, was always part of family gatherings no matter if it was Thanksgiving or a birthday party.
“She loved to tell us how to make certain dishes and she always made Greek food at her house”
Another of her signatures were koulouria, or Greek butter cookies, that she had with her coffee every morning. Today, Miriam’s mother Rachel makes the recipe and Miriam’s young daughters love to help shape the cookies. At Emily’s 100th birthday party, the family sent guests home with small bags of them with the recipe attached, making sure it won’t disappear.