Carmen Rousso (née Karmen Kakis) was born on April 17, 1923, in the northern Greek town of Drama. She also spent a significant amount of her childhood in Thessaloniki, where her paternal grandparents lived in their family home. Her home in Thessaloniki was located next to a synagogue. Thessaloniki was renowned for its vibrant and large Jewish population, the largest in Greece, with many synagogues throughout the city.
Carmen had two older siblings, Jack and Alice, and two younger siblings, Frederic and Albert. Alice passed away in childhood. Her parents were Emil (Emilios) Kakis and Elvira Kakis. Elvira was a homemaker and a renowned hostess in Thessaloniki. Emil was a man of many talents, working as an electrician with his brother and was a munition and mining expert, which he learned fighting in World War I. They also owned the first cinema to open in Drama. Elvira would host grand parties with a wonderful spread of food and entertainment. Emil had a habit of coming home with people in tow to entertain, such as local actors and actresses. Elvira was also a seamstress and would create elaborate costumes for her children.
Carmen was a good student in school and had to fight to continue her education as a girl. In 1941, the war officially began in Greece, as Axis powers began to invade the country. Carmen was 18 years old at the time and her dreams of attending college were crushed. The Kakis family was forced to leave their home in Drama due to the invasion by the Italians and Bulgarians. They went to their family home in Thessaloniki before it became too dangerous and were then forced to escape to the island of Skiathos. By this time, Carmen’s brother Jack was taken to a labor camp, while the rest of the family posed as Christians in Skiathos with the help of sympathetic Italians. Jack was later released and reunited with the family.
Around that time, Carmen joined the youth group, the United Panhellenic Organization of Youth (EPON), and traveled around Greece, supporting the partisan cause. During the war, she also worked as a recruiter for ELAS, the army of the National Liberation Front (EAM), in the region of Volos. As a partisan, Carmen walked all over Greece and an enduring memory and sensation she recalled, later on, was the pain she felt from walking and the blisters she formed. On numerous occasions, she and the partisans she worked with would change street signs in towns and put up subversive posters, such as “Germans go home”. She and her family endured consistent food deprivation. At one point, the only thing they had to eat for a whole month was halva, and for the rest of her life, Carmen would hate halva.
Once the war ended, she and her family returned to Thessaloniki in 1945. In 1951, she married her husband Isaac Rousso, whom she had known before the war and who was also a partisan. Before the war, Thessanoliki had 22 synagogues, most of which were destroyed during the war. The synagogue that once stood next to the Kakis family home was destroyed, so Carmen and Isaac’s marriage was held in the Monastir Synagogue, which still stands today. Carmen and Isaac’s honeymoon began in Italy and ended with them sailing to America, brought by the organization the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). After arriving in New York, they went to Baltimore, where their son was born in 1952. After relocating to several different cities within the U.S., the family moved to San Francisco, where their daughter was born, and then to Millbrae.
Carmen had many occupations after the war, first working as a secretary and hotel clerk. Isaac worked various jobs as well, first working at a factory and a flower stand before having the opportunity to buy a retail store in South San Francisco, where both Carmen and Isaac worked. However, Carmen still wanted to pursue an education. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Botany and later earned a Master’s in Cell Biology in the early 1980s. She had a long career working for a medical devices company. She also had early involvement in initial AIDS research and attended the first AIDS conference. She was a polyglot and spoke Greek, English, Ladino, French, and Italian.
In addition to their two children, Carmen and Isaac also had three grandchildren. Carmen was a devoted mother and grandmother and felt blessed to have lived long enough to form strong bonds with all of her grandchildren. She passed away in May 2014.