99-year-old Holocaust survivor is a final portal into vibrant life of prewar Rhodes
In ‘One Hundred Saturdays,’ Stella Levi shares with author Michael Frank her memories of centuries-old traditions of the Aegean island’s Sephardic community destroyed by the Nazis
In summer 2015, Stella Levi made what would likely be her last trip back to Rhodes, where she grew up in the Juderia, the Jewish quarter that was home to the south Aegean island’s small but vibrant Jewish community.
These days, what remains of the Juderia post-World War II is filled with cafés and tourist shops, but in the decades before the war — and for centuries before that — the crowded Jewish quarter buzzed with the vibrant daily life of the Rhodeslis, descendants of Jews who arrived after the Spanish Expulsion in the late 15th century.
Author Michael Frank accompanied Levi on that 2015 trip. As Levi looked out at the sea, he heard her reflect, “Maybe after a certain point you can no longer come back in person. Maybe you can only go back in your mind.”
Levi did subsequently travel back to the Juderia in her memories, entrusting Frank with her life story as a way of honoring her ancestors and preserving the rich history of the millennia-old Jewish community on Rhodes that survived the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Genoese, Byzantines, Knights Hospitaller, Turks, and Italians, to ultimately be destroyed by the Nazis.
The result is “One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World,” written by Frank and colorfully illustrated by famed artist Maira Kalman. Published in September, it was named one of the 10 best books of 2022 by the Wall Street Journal.
In an email interview with The Times of Israel, Levi said she had never thought about creating a record of her life. It was only through a chance meeting with author Frank and their subsequent friendship that the initially hesitant Levi agreed to a written account of her experiences.
“I never thought my life was so important — even though at certain times I did feel that, if I’d been a writer myself, it would be worth writing about Rhodes, which was a very special place where different groups of people with different backgrounds and religions managed to live together, more or less in peace, for centuries,” Levi said.
That all changed for the Jews in September 1943, when the Germans occupied Rhodes. In July 1944, they deported the entire Jewish population, save for 50 who had Turkish citizenship. The other 1,650 were rounded up and sent to the SS-operated transit camp Haidary on mainland Greece, and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 151 Jews from Rhodes survived the Holocaust. Ninety-nine-year-old Levi is almost surely one of the last.
Frank, who splits his time between New York and Camogli, Italy, met Levi in February 2015 at a lecture organized by Centro Primo Levi New York, an organization promoting engagement with Italian Jewish history, culture, and traditions.
A couple of days later, Levi invited Frank to her Manhattan apartment to ostensibly check over a talk she had written up in English about her childhood. But the minute she opened the door she said, “I haven’t been feeling right — in myself. I guess what I really feel is the need to talk.”
And talk she did — for six years, as Frank visited her weekly on Saturdays and sometimes other times during the week.
“This was a slow, thoughtful, meticulous, sharing of a story between one human being and another. It required patience, trust, and lots of time,” Frank told The Times of Israel.
It wasn’t until a year into their weekly conversations — mainly in Italian, but with some French and Judeo-Spanish thrown in — that Frank considered the possibility of a book.
“One Hundred Saturdays” takes readers into Levi’s detailed mind’s eye as she travels back to her childhood and teenage years in the Juderia.
“In the Juderia everyone knew everyone’s business. More than that: everyone was in everyone’s business. And that was in part because in the Juderia they were all related to each other,” Levi told Frank.
The two did some figuring; Levi counted 160 or 170 cousins of varying degrees and Frank calculated that based on official 1944 Juderia records, Levi was related to an astounding 10% of the people among whom she lived.
Levi’s immediate family comprised her parents, Yehuda Levi and Miriam Notrica, and their seven children: Morris, Selma, Felicie, Sara, Victor, Renée, and Stella. As the youngest, Stella grew up not knowing many of her older siblings, who had already left Rhodes to start their adult lives in the United States and the Belgian Congo.
Still at home while Stella grew up were Felicie and Renée. The former was the family’s intellectual and feminist, and the latter was into fashion and happy to start sewing her wedding trousseau at age 15. Bright, athletic, social, and spunky, Stella was her own person.
Levi painted a vibrant picture of life in the Juderia at a time of transition, when political tides were shifting and age-old traditions began making room for modern attitudes. She and her sisters attended the Alliance Israélite Universelle and received a Western-style education alongside Jewish training. But unlike their older siblings who studied in French, the younger girls studied in Italian when the Alliance morphed into the Scuole Ebraiche Italiane as the Italians enforced their administration following the Treaty of Lausanne. At age 12, Levi continued her studies at a Catholic girls’ school.
As Levi grew into a modern young woman, she still appreciated the age-old traditions of the Rhodeslis. She described the joyous celebrations of Shabbat and holidays at home and in the synagogue, and the wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes that came along with them.
In her interview with The Times of Israel, Levi noted that even the wealthy Jewish families who had moved outside the Juderia came back on holidays and that all members of the community — including non-believers like Levi’s sister Felicie — were committed to traditional rituals as a way of respecting one’s elders and prior generations.
“They all came to the synagogue, and… remained committed to helping the poor and educating the young by supporting the schools because they wanted to prepare the youth for their future. And they held onto their traditions, largely around the Jewish holidays but also when it came to the food, music, proverbs, superstitions, and traditions, as for example, on Fridays, giving food or money to the poor, and not just the Jewish poor either,” she said.
In the book, Levi described the traditions surrounding death and mourning, like the women’s wailing at the doors of their homes, and the children’s terror of the coffin shop owned by a man ironically named Mazal (Hebrew for luck).
“It would have been one thing if he always stayed closed up in his terrifying shop, but this man was on the move and often, because it fell to him to lead funeral processions through the Juderia. ‘Pasa la misva!’ he called out as he approached… If you were in the street, you ran in the opposite direction, or you darted into a house that wasn’t your own. And if you were at home, you closed any windows that looked out onto the street and you backed away from the front door by a minimum of three feet — everyone, not just the children,” Levi told author Frank.
Levi’s grandmothers were a study in contrasts. Her paternal grandmother, Mazaltov Halfon, barely left her home. She went only to the synagogue, the Turkish baths, and the bench right outside the house. On the other hand, her maternal grandmother, Sara Notrica, was an in-demand and respected “wise woman” who used homemade remedies to cure people of all kinds of illnesses. Her healer’s bag contained fruits, vegetables, leeches, salt, stones, and mumia (supposed ashes of Jewish saints brought back from the Holy Land — where Sara went annually in her old age hoping to die there).
The mumia was used in an enserrandura, an exotic practice Sara would perform on a young, unmarried woman who was anxious or depressed. Sara would close herself up in the house for a week with the young woman, who was allowed to consume only water and broth. The houses nearby were cleared out to create complete silence, and the healer would hold mumia and circle the young woman’s face with it and say a prayer. The two women would yawn, and the process was repeated over the seven days, at the end of which the young woman went to the Turkish bath to wash away any remaining bad vibes.
When Frank asked Levi if she ever had an enserrandura done to her, she was quick to answer.
“Of course not. I wasn’t that kind of girl. None of my sisters was either,” she said.
The object of affection of two men and a promising student, Levi had planned a bright future studying in Italy. However, the German occupation of Rhodes dashed her dreams. Along with almost all other Jews on the Island, Levi, her parents and sister Renée were deported to Auschwitz (her sister Felicie had already emigrated).
Levi’s parents were murdered, but she and her sister — strange Sephardic birds among Eastern and Central European Jews — survived Auschwitz, several labor camps, and a death march. Levi told Frank the only way she could survive Auschwitz was by detaching from herself.
The last part of “One Hundred Sundays” deals with how Levi found her footing in Europe after the war and her immigration and acclimation to life in the US, which was not without more pain. Levi’s only marriage failed after three years and her husband mostly raised their son after she realized she was not suited to motherhood.
But Levi’s life was also full of joy. She supported herself with her own import-export business, stayed in touch with her siblings (though they lived in Los Angeles and she in New York), and created a family out of good friends, some of them famous in their fields of endeavor.
As rooted as her identity is in her early experiences in the Juderia, she knows she would not have been happy being permanently grounded there.
“Certainly if the Juderia had continued to exist, I wouldn’t have belonged there. In New York I was financially independent, I could be free to move through different circles, I was not limited. And I never wanted to be limited,” she told Frank.
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