In nearly a century, Stella Levi has lived four different lives.
First, a child in the Juderia, the Jewish neighborhood of Rhodes; then a young woman deported with her family to Auschwitz -- barely surviving a death march; then a survivor lovingly guided among Italy’s cultural sites; and then an American in New York’s Greenwich Village.
“I do believe that as we travel through life, we become a different person in every situation or context or phase,” Levi tells author Michael Frank. “What remains? What is consistent in an individual person? In my own case, what I see as a theme is a constant opening up.”
“What remains? What is consistent in an individual person? In my own case, what I see as a theme is a constant opening up.”Stella Levi
The book One Hundred Saturdays is the beautifully written, captivating result of Frank’s Saturday interviews with Stella over six years. It opens in 2015 as she, 92, and Frank stand looking out from Rhodes’s coast.
A book covering Stella Levi's history
“Stella has come not for the first time but possibly the last...to the neighborhood in which she was born and grew up, like her parents and grandparents” and generations since the expulsion from Spain, Frank says.
Her history unreels in unusual fashion: The author is part of the story, narrating and providing interviews as conversations.
A valuable second focus is pleasant Jewish life on an island south of Turkey – awarded to Italy after World War 1 – subject of a few books but nearly a footnote in histories of the war.
The Juderia was 10 to 12 square blocks – houses so close that when someone sang, neighbors would join in. People spoke Judeo-Spanish, knew each other’s business, often were related. Levi counts 150 to 160 relatives – almost 10 percent of the Jews in Rhodes.
Of the Levis’ seven children, only Renee, born in 1921, and Stella, two years younger, remained on Rhodes at the time of deportation. They and their parents were denied US visas.
Their father, Yehuda, who prayed daily at Kahal Shalom across the street, dealt in wood and coal and, with a Turkish partner, ran the port’s customs scale.
The Levis weren’t wealthy but comfortable in a life where “you took your dishes to be baked in the communal oven...you didn’t bathe at home because there were no baths at home, or showers, either, but at the Turkish baths, once a week, before Shabbat.”
The girls got some intermediate bathing with happy trips to the ocean.
“You learned to prepare your grandmothers’ sweet and savory dishes; you walked with care across the uneven cobblestones, and you fell asleep inhaling the perfume of the courtyards with their intense, unforgettable brew of jasmine and rosemary, lavender and roses and rue.”
Jews, Greeks, Turks and eventually Italians “managed to share the island as they had for centuries in relative harmony,” Frank says. In 1923, the Italians began modernizing: running water and electricity for Juderia, paved roads, modern medicine and a hospital.
In 1938, Jews were barred from school. Stella, 15, met high school teacher Luigi Noferini in a bookstore. He organized an underground school.
In September 1943, Germany took over. The Levis fled Juderia after it was hit by British bombs.
Jews’ 2,300-year history on Rhodes ended July 23, 1944.
Marched “like a funeral cortege...of people in mourning for their own deaths” to the port, 1,650 Jews were packed into three rundown cargo ships for eight sweltering days to Athens, followed by rail to Auschwitz in unspeakable conditions – a total journey of three and a half weeks.
“It just makes no sense,” Levi tells Frank, saying she still cannot grasp why the Germans, losing everywhere, including Italy and nearby Greece, expended such resources. “It would have been simpler to murder us all here.”
Eventually, Levi reversed her refusal to talk about the Holocaust.
“It happened to me, but to a different me,” she says. “Someone who lived and saw with different eyes and a different brain.”
Frank says: “The camp Stella quickly became unrecognizable to the Stella of Rhodes,” stealing, conniving and cheating, “whatever it took to keep herself going.”
Sephardi prisoners – such as Greeks from Thessaloniki – lacked Ashkenazi Jews’ common language, but Levi’s French helped her learn and cope.
Post-war, Renee and Stella reunited with Noferini in art-filled Florence. He wanted marriage, but Levi thought housewife life too limiting. Breaking Noferini’s heart, she and Renee went to New York in December 1946 and soon met in California with siblings Morris, Selma, Sara and Felicie. (Their brother Victor, who’d left Rhodes for the Congo, was in Italy.)
“They wept and we wept,” Levi says, crying “for the loss of our home, the death of our parents, the end, well, of everything” in their past.
Levi realized she was better suited to New York, where she became a successful businesswoman, had a son during a three-year marriage, and traveled widely.
One Hundred Saturdays, colorfully illustrated by Maira Kalman, vividly and lovingly describes a vanished world and the effect of its disappearance on a nongenarian who is sharp and articulate.
It lacks maps and an index. Pages 160 and 161 are reversed.
My real complaint is of too many untranslated phrases and sentences in Judeo-Spanish, French and Italian, foreign to most of us Eastern European descendants. While seldom interfering with the story, this reduced the flavor and became annoying.
“If the Juderia had continued to exist, I wouldn’t have belonged there,” Levi says. In New York, financially independent and “free to move through different circles, I was not limited. I never wanted to be limited.” ■
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the search for a lost worldMichael FrankAvid Reader Press, 2022227 pages, $28