Yolanda Avram Willis — a prominent Pittsburgher and Holocaust survivor who succeeded in several careers before blossoming later in life as a memoirist, historian and speaker — died Oct. 1, one day before her 89th birthday. In recent years, the Oakland resident suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Born Oct. 2, 1934, in Salonika, Greece, Willis was the first child of parents Salvator Avram and Karolla Bensousan Avram. Her brother Yannis arrived four years later.
As a young child, Willis lived in the central Greek city of Larisa. World War II, however, broke out in 1940 and, by the spring of 1941, German forces joined by Bulgarian and Italian troops had invaded Greece. Willis and her family fled, first to Crete and later to several locations in Athens; she became what Holocaust educators later termed “a hidden child.”
“The overall way that German occupying soldiers were behaving toward Greek Jews — it was frightening, appalling, sinister,” said A. Marty Willis, Willis’ oldest child. A former New Pittsburgh Courier reporter, he’s now a publishing company staffer living in Falls Church, Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb.
“She thought of herself as a ‘hidden child,’” said N. Robert Willis, her youngest child. “She was more than aware she was in danger.”
In 2006, A. Marty Willis traveled with his mother, wife and 13-year-old daughter to Mt. Tilifos in Greece.
“That was one of the places where they hid,” he said. “And we found this little chapel up in the mountains … where they had lit candles and prayed for salvation and life and liberation.”
After the war, Willis attended the American College in Athens, then came to the U.S. to study on a Fulbright Scholarship at Sweet Briar College. She later earned a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.
As she and her husband, Richard, raised three children in Squirrel Hill, Willis racked up an eclectic resume — working as a chemist, a sociologist, a Westinghouse manager and, later, a management consultant.
The Willises — whom friends called Yola and Dick — divorced in the 1970s. In 1992, Willis married Elliott Goldstein, a medical doctor, in Pittsburgh. Her middle child, Carla, died a few years ago.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, the Willis children never saw their mother run or skip or hop a fence — all those little things that develop a kind of muscle memory in youth.
“The war more or less robbed (Willis) of her whole childhood,” A. Marty Willis said. “The trauma can persist for generations afterward. Even people not directly killed or injured have suffered trauma because of the war.”
Then, there was the book.
As Willis embarked upon what some family members called “a decades-long journey of discovery,” she started her own oral history project. It later led to the publication of a book on her wartime experiences.
In 1996, Willis assisted in making a documentary on Holocaust rescues in Greece, “It Was Nothing, It Was Everything.” In 1998, she and 41 other survivors authored “Flares of Memory: Childhood Stories Written by Holocaust Survivors,” published by the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
Willis became a public speaker, particularly on the experience of hidden children and adults and the righteous gentiles and Jews who rescued them. She attended and co-taught courses at Carnegie Mellon University’s Academy for Lifelong Learning and also served on the advisory board of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
“I will forever be grateful and in awe of (Willis’) courage and willingness to write down and share her story as one of the few local survivors from Greece,” said Emily Loeb, director of programs and education at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “Yolanda’s openness to sharing was critical to illustrate the full picture of what Jews across Europe experienced during the Holocaust.”
“Yolanda was a beloved member of the local survivor community here in Pittsburgh — for as long as I can remember, she was always visible and engaged in our community,” added Christina Sahovey, operations manager for the center.
Willis’ autobiography, “A Hidden Child in Greece: Rescue in the Holocaust,” was published in 2017.
Thanks to formal testimony and Willis’ persistence, at least eight Greek citizens from Crete, who aided the Willis family during World War II, were permanently memorialized at Yad Vashem in Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.
Willis’ efforts, both in person and through her writings and speaking engagements, consistently helped to foster harmonious relations between the Jewish community and the Greek community in Pittsburgh and far beyond, A. Marty Willis said.
“Her legacy will be that she educated a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of people wouldn’t even believe (Greece’s Holocaust narrative) without her.”
As Willis raised her children, she became involved at Congregation Dor Hadash, her family said.
“I remember Yolanda from those days as always cheerful, positive, and offering a smile and a story,” Dor Hadash member Dan Leger said. “Her witness as a Holocaust survivor assisted many in understanding the need to understand and prevent such horrors in the future.”
Later, after meeting Rabbi Yisroel Altein, Willis started attending Chabad of Squirrel Hill services.
“Certainly her involvement with Chabad was her increasing her involvement in the Jewish community,” Altein said. “She was, on one hand, a very strong personality. On the other hand, she was sweet, engaging.”
Willis even served as a “surrogate grandparent” for Altein’s youngest children, Shaina and Leah, when they had special grandparent-related events at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, the rabbi said.
N. Robert Willis, Yolanda’s youngest child, said he reexamined his religious beliefs after meeting Altein.
“Meeting Rabbi Altein got me to take a fresh look at our religion,” he told the Chronicle. “I re-learned what I had forgotten … and I started to re-think the religion from the point of view of an adult.”
Michael Moritz, a pediatric nephrologist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and father of 10, frequently invited Willis and her younger son to dinners and family events.
“Even in her final moments, she was dignified and elegant — but she also was incredibly down-to-earth and present,” said Moritz, a Squirrel Hill Jew who sometimes attended services at Chabad of Squirrel Hill in its early days.
“It was always an honor to have Yolanda over,” Moritz said. “She really added a lot to the household and I think she was a great role model for our kids to see.”
Willis always valued education — and encouraged her children to learn the intricate and dark histories of World War II and the Holocaust. N. Robert Willis remembered his mother encouraging him to watch a fictionalized re-telling of the Holocaust on TV in the late 1970s.
“Usually, it was, ‘Stop watching TV and do your homework!’” he said. “This time, it was, ‘Stop doing your homework and watch TV!’ She wanted us to learn this history.”
Willis was buried Oct. 4 in Homewood Cemetery. Altein led the graveside service. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.