A nightmare saved Elias Aelion’s life, enabling him eventually to build a new life in America after the Holocaust wiped out his entire family.
Aelion, 86, died at his Oakland home on Friday, July 1 after a lengthy illness.
The East Bay resident was well known for his Fabric Center stores, a chain he founded in the 1950s. He was also active in the Jewish community, a longtime member of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham and a devoted family man.
The story of his life growing up in Salonika, Greece, and the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust proved so fascinating, Aelion became the subject of a 1998 book, Rebecca Fromer’s “A House by the Sea.”
“Salonika had the largest Jewish population in Greece,” notes Aelion’s daughter, Sally Aelion. “The Jews came during the Spanish Inquisition. My dad grew up speaking Ladino, Spanish, Greek, French and Italian.”
Aelion worked in the textile business, but as war spread across Europe, not even Greece was safe. At first, Italy occupied the country, but Jews weren’t rounded up until the Germans came in 1943.
Like many members of his extended family, Aelion went into hiding. Living with his uncle, one night he had a bad dream, a premonition of sorts that something evil was afoot. Because of the dream, his uncle sent him to a friend’s house for the day (that friend’s sister, Rachel, eventually became Aelion’s wife).
When he returned, Aelion saw the Nazis dragging his uncle away. Not a single member of Aelion’s family survived the war, and proportionally, Greece’s Jewish population was the most decimated of the Holocaust.
Aelion and Rachel eventually made their way to America. Sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the couple settled in San Francisco in 1951, and after working as a clerk for a local dress company, Aelion opened the first Fabric Center in San Francisco. He later opened a second store in Hayward.
“My brother and I grew up in the stores,” recalled Sally Aelion. “We worked there, and even as kids, we learned to make change.”
Sally Aelion remembered her father as a loving and protective parent. “He was always very well-liked, especially by children. He always gave them candy, and kids who came to the house very quickly learned where the candy was.”
She said both her parents were good cooks, bringing the tastes and aromas of Greek Sephardic Jewish cooking into their home.
“They had a great relationship,” she added, “though they went through a lot of hardship. They spoke Spanish or Ladino when they talked to us, and Greek when they talked about us.”
Rachel Aelion died in 1978, but Aelion continued working in the fabrics and textile industry. The family enjoyed a long membership at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, and Aelion served as a volunteer with the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley and the Holocaust Center of Northern California in San Francisco.
Despite the hardships of war and starting over again in America, Aelion prospered, and his surviving family members recall his life with love and respect. “He had a very good sense of humor,” said Sally Aelion, “and that’s what got him through adversity.”
Aelion is survived by his children Sally Aelion and Victor Aelion, both of Oakland, and numerous nieces and nephews. Donations may be made to the American Heart Association, 120 Montgomery St. Ste. 1650, S.F., CA 94104 or the Holocaust Center of Northern California, 121 Steuart St. Ste. 10, S.F., CA 94105.