For the JC January 25 2023
I’m about to interview a woman who is nearly 100 years old. But as our Zoom screen opens, for a moment I’m not sure if I’ve got the right person.
Sitting on a comfortable couch in a New York apartment is Stella Levi, smartly dressed and made up, sitting alongside a gorgeous, furry and very strokable dog, owned by the second person on screen, the writer Michael Frank.
Nobody, just looking at Levi today, would credit her actual age. She is bursting with good humour and enthusiasm, and tolerant of questions she may have heard many times throughout her long and eventful life. She is sharp and funny, the antithesis of the “little old lady” I thought I might see.
Frank tells me that it took him more than a year to decide that “this thing was bigger than I was” — this thing being the fascinating weekly conversations he was having with a woman he dubbed “my modern-day Scheherazade”.
Levi, the Scheherazade in question, was a mere stripling of 92 when she and Frank met in 2015 in the Casa Italia in New York, part of the Department of Italian Studies at New York University.
Levi was eternally curious about others. But she also had an extraordinary story to tell, the life of the now vanished Jewish community of Rhodes, revealed in fascinating layers by Frank in his book One Hundred Saturdays, which is published today.
The story of the Juderia, the close-knit quarter of Rhodes where Jews had lived for more than 500 years before falling prey to Nazi deportation in 1944, unfolds like petals in Frank’s telling.
He says today that he did not have any intention of writing a book when he and Levi first met.
She would tantalise him with hints and unfinished tales of her family — her siblings (she was the youngest of seven), her parents, and two remarkable grandmothers — so that Frank was compelled to return week after week to find out what happened next.
The conversations took place in several languages — English, Italian, French, and sometimes in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that could be said to be the Sephardi equivalent of Yiddish. Turkish and Greek also fell into the mix.
Frank could speak the first three and gradually Levi began teaching him Ladino; but to begin with he took only minimal notes, content just to absorb her stories until he was familiar enough with the history of the Jews of Rhodes in order to be able to write “with some authority”.
“I got her story at several removes,” he tells me. “She lived it; she remembered it; she told it to me and I translated it from Italian. But I also translated it into ‘Michael-ish’ — it had to be in my language in order to feel, truthfully, that I had captured her life.”
Only months after they had first met, in 2015, Frank joined Levi on a late-life visit to Rhodes, to see for himself the places and buildings she was skilfully re-creating in their weekly meetings.
It was his decision to join her there that persuaded Levi to trust him with her memories, she told him.
And what memories: the bustling, burgeoning life of the Juderia, where a reaching out to 20th- century opportunities flourished side by side with a series of almost mediaeval traditions.
Among the first stories Levi shared, for example, was the practice of enserradura performed by an older woman on a younger, troubled woman. Levi’s own grandmother was just such a practitioner.
The young woman, no matter from what she was suffering, would be confined to her room for a week, while the neighbours on both sides vacated their homes so that complete silence reigned.
The healer would sit next to the bed, clutching a handful of mumya, supposedly the ashes of Jewish saints brought back from the Holy Land, which she would wave in circles around the head of the “patient”.
Only water and thin broth would be consumed by the young woman — who, if she didn’t expire from sheer boredom, was deemed cured after a week.
Frank’s question to Levi if she had ever been subjected to such practices received an almost affronted response. “Of course not. I wasn’t that kind of girl. None of my sisters was either. I wanted to be free. I wanted a life, a bigger life than I could have in this small neighbourhood on this small island in the middle of nowhere.”
As proof of her desperate longing to be free, she told Frank the story of her 14-year-old self and her suitcase, packed with “clothes, shoes, empty notebooks, pens, a coat”. This, she told her mother Miriam, was destined to accompany her “to university in Italy”.
It became something of a family joke, particularly with one of her sisters, Renée — “Stella and her suitcase”, which she updated and re-packed, right up until the time that the Nazis invaded Rhodes, deporting 1,650 Jews to Auschwitz, doing so deliberately on a Sunday so that all the island shops would be closed and there would be the least number of witnesses.
Bitterly, Levi told Frank that she never understood this deportation, the longest journey made by Europe’s doomed Jews: “It would have been simpler to murder us all here and let us, at least, be buried with our own kind.”
Levi and Frank have an extraordinary relationship today, the result of the near-endless conversations they have had since they first met. They chaff and tease each other, picking up each other’s sentences, smiling —are they flirting? Possibly.
It took nearly six years before Frank was able to show Levi the first draft of his manuscript, and she says now that it was a strange feeling to see her life laid out in the pages of a book. “In a way, I have accepted it more.
And it meant I was able to tell the story of the Jews of Rhodes. That was my main aim.”
For her, she said, “the Holocaust was not the most important thing in my life, though it was the most tragic. But the book allowed me to see my life in a way that made sense.”
At her very first encounter with Frank she asked him if he were “interested in knowing how French served me in my life” — it was her knowledge of the language that led the Nazis to decide to put her and her sister Renee with French and Belgian women in Auschwitz.
“Because they understood what was going on, they managed to survive — and therefore so did we.”
Nevertheless, for a long time Levi resisted talking about what had happened to her in the camps, declaring somewhat scornfully that she did not want to become “a performing survivor, a storyteller of the Holocaust, ossified.”
Bit by bit, however, she did open up to Frank, though she admitted that she had told her only son, John, “only a few parts” of her experiences.
Many young people on Rhodes had left the island before the deportation by the Nazis in July 1944.
That included all of Stella’s older siblings, apart from Renée, who was with her in the camps. So although she lost her parents in Auschwitz, after liberation she and Renée were able to reunite with her brothers and sisters, something rare among survivors.
Despite her teenage dreams of studying at university in Italy, she couldn’t settle on this as an option and instead set up home in New York, becoming, as Frank records somewhat vaguely, “a successful businesswoman” and having a brief, three-year marriage that resulted in the birth of her son.
Frank says that he has never stopped asking questions, even though the book is complete and published. “I still go to see her every week and she often comes out with juicy anecdotes, which she never told before. I tease her and say, what, NOW you’re telling me this?” He says that if there is a second edition of the book, he will have to update it.
Despite having “the living subject sitting across from me during all those days, there were things I didn’t think to ask”, he says.
“I tried to follow every clue, I read everything about Rhodes that I could, I looked at all of Stella’s photographs, and would often ask questions over and over again — but I still missed things. That was really the biggest challenge.”
It took him four years, for example, to ask if there had been a family pet, and until our interview he still didn’t know if there had been a clock in the Levi household. “Of course there was,” Levi tells us both, with slight scorn.
Of such tiny, seemingly unimportant details, Frank has drawn an evocative portrait of the Juderia, which both he and Levi are at pains to say was not the equivalent of an Ashkenazi ghetto.
Instead, the pages breathe a unique island Jewish life, in which the strong women of the Juderia would sing songs together as they worked at home; of Passover in the neighbourhood when houses would be whitewashed, inside and out, before the festival; of the shrieks of children as they ran past the home of the man who prepared the Jewish dead for burial; of the labour-intensive cooking, and the seemingly endless desserts that led Levi to the tart observation that her entire family should have been diabetic.
And yet, despite all the strict ritual and what that meant, there was still a reaching out to modern life, from Levi’s mother’s regular cinema outings to her penchant for handmade shoes.
Once liberated, Levi and Renée spent time in California, where both sisters had their Auschwitz tattoos removed by a doctor they met. They didn’t like people looking at them in their short-sleeved summer dresses, she explains.
And she says that living in New York “kept me young”, opening up a whole range of new experiences very far removed from life on the island.
Levi tells me there is no real trace left of the Juderia on Rhodes, and that there is only one Jewish family there today, who are not from the original community. Her last visit was with Frank in 2015. Would she ever go back? “Of course,” she smiles. “I will be buried there.”
‘One Hundred Saturdays, Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World’, by Michael Frank, is published today by Souvenir Press at £18.99.
Stella Levi and Michael Frank are speaking at a Jewish Book Week online event on March 2. jewishbookweek.com