Recalling the once-vibrant Jewish life in prewar Rhodes, an island in the Mediterranean.
Four years ago, while researching the war years in Italy, I was introduced to Stella Levi, now 96, probably the only New Yorker among the handful of remaining members of the Jewish community of Rhodes, a Greek island with a multinational past.
I went to her apartment on a Saturday, intending to ask her a few questions; several hundred Saturdays later, she is still answering.
It turns out that other people are interested in Ms. Levi’s memories, too. Centro Primo Levi, a nonprofit focused on exploring the Italian-Jewish experience, along with the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, have created a pop-up installation in Greenwich Village, a few doors down from Ms. Levi’s home. The show is using concerts, conversations, films, artifacts, and even food to evoke Ms. Levi’s life and Jewish culture generally in prewar Rhodes.
The title of the exhibition is “Los Corassones Avlan,” which means “hearts speak,” an old Sephardic saying in Judeo-Spanish, the language Ms. Levi spoke during her childhood in the Juderia, the Jewish neighborhood of Rhodes. Ms. Levi’s mother and grandmother would use this phrase when they found themselves thinking of a friend, neighbor or relative and suddenly she appeared at the kitchen door.
This is an edited and condensed version of my most recent conversation with her.
You grew up on the Island of Rhodes, which had belonged to the Greeks, the Turks, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Italians, among other people. Why did you speak in Judeo-Spanish — and what is it, exactly?
STELLA LEVI Essentially it’s Spanish with some Hebrew words folded in. We spoke it because, while a Jewish presence was recorded on the island in the Hellenic period, my ancestors, like most of the community, presumably made their way to Rhodes at some point after Spain expelled its Jews in 1492.
And 400 years later, they were still speaking Spanish?
LEVI The older generation clung to their language, their food, their habits and beliefs. Although one of my grandmothers traveled, she only went to Jerusalem — she hoped to die there, but that never happened. My other grandmother barely left the Juderia. She never so much as stepped into a shop — that was a man’s job. Or swam in the sea, which was a 10-minute walk from our house. It simply wasn’t done.
The women of your grandmother’s generation had some very Old World practices, didn’t they?
One of the strangest was the “enserradura,” which was what was done to a young girl who fell victim to a depression or a fit of anxiety: your grandmother, or an older woman in the community, insisted that the entire street be emptied out so that you would be engulfed in silence, and she closed you up in the house for a week. All you ate was a thin broth.
This woman sat by your bed, and in her hand was a pinch of mumia — ashes, they believed, of Jewish saints. Her hand circled your face while she said a prayer over you. She kept praying, and circling, for seven, eight days and as many nights, until you yawned and she yawned. Then you would go to the hammam and come out as good as new.
Did you ever have an enserradura performed on you?
Despite its old ways, the younger members of the community crossed cultural lines, though.
My father had Turkish business partners, my mother Greek friends, my sisters studied French at school. I grew up in a multicultural world before anyone used that word.
You also grew up in a world that had recently undergone a dramatic opening up toward the west. In 1912 the Italians won Rhodes from the Turks after the Balkan Wars. They introduced their language and, eventually, their government. They brought music, cuisine, books, cinema, fashion and ideas.
From one generation to the next, younger people began to think more boldly about their futures. My older siblings left to seek their fortunes abroad — my brother Victor set off for the Belgian Congo before I was even born; my sister Selma went to America. Other people changed the way they thought about their lives. My sister Felicie, the intellectual of the family, devoured every book she could put her hands on. She rarely came swimming with the rest of us. “If you are swimming,” she said, “you must concentrate on your strokes. You cannot talk about Kant!”
You were the baby of the family.
I was also a young woman, excuse me, with a dream: I was going to work hard in school and leave the confines of the island to attend university in Italy. I saw my future laid out like the chapters in a book.
Only the story unfolded differently. In 1938 Mussolini’s racial laws extended even to Rhodes.
I was kicked out of school — me! Overnight I felt like I’d gone from being a person to a nonperson. You do not recover from that easily. Or ever.
And yet you took action.
Five boys and I accepted the offer of Professor Noferini, who taught in the high school, to organize classes at night. We met in secret, illegally. I was determined not to lose my way.
In September 1943, after Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Italian leadership in Rhodes continued to side with the Germans.
To give you an idea of how — what is the word?— surreal it all was, I met the secretary of the officer put in charge of the island, General Ulrich Kleeman, on the beach, which is where all the young people congregated. I went to see Kleeman once, on behalf of my friend Vittoria, who was engaged to an Italian soldier who was about to be deported from Rhodes. He let the young man stay a bit longer. Kleeman even asked me and my friends to sing our “pretty Italian songs” one evening — the balcony of the house he occupied overlooked the garden where we were having a birthday party.
On July 24, 1944 — not long after that party — the order came, and Kleeman deported the entire Jewish community, all 1,700 of you.
I was 21, and my sister Renee was 18. We were wearing our summer dresses and cork-soled sandals. We had no idea what was ahead. We had heard reports about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, but we thought that was another world, far away. Poland, Germany: what did those places have to do with us? For almost half a millennium we’d lived in the Mediterranean, on our own little piece of the earth. That’s how we thought of Rhodes, as belonging to us. All these people — the rulers, the conquerors, the generals — they were just passing through.
The deportation from Rhodes to Auschwitz lasted 14 days, by boat and train.
My father was ill the whole time. When we arrived at Auschwitz, I never saw him again, or my mother, my cousin, her baby. Dozens, hundreds of people I knew perished. Only 161 of us survived.
Did you go home after the war?
Not a single one of us returned to live in Rhodes. I didn’t even visit until the 1970s. It was too painful. Time had to pass. After the war, once I was able to obtain a passport, I went to Los Angeles and met my brother Victor — when I got off the train at Union Station, it was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on him.
For a brief moment I considered living in L.A. All the Rhodeslis — as the members of the community referred to themselves — lived together, worked together, worshiped together. Wherever people from the Juderia went to settle, it was like that. I found it claustrophobic. And then there was Los Angeles itself.
You chose New York instead.
New York was open to the world of possibility. There was — and is — every kind of person here. My friend Fanny, whom I met on the boat coming from Naples, said to me, “New York è l’Europa con qualcosa di più” (New York is Europe and then some). And she was right.
You learned English in night classes at Columbia. You married, had a son, divorced and worked in the garment industry. But you never fulfilled your dream of going to college. Why not?
After the camps, I was a different person. For years I found it impossible to complete ambitious projects. But I have studied all my life: the history of Rhodes and the Jews, the war, Italian literature, American literature. And every time anyone who had family in the Juderia comes to New York, they visit me and I tell them what I recall, which is a great deal. I remember how people were related, where they lived, what they wore and talked about and ate. Rhodes is as clear to me as if I left it yesterday instead of 75 years ago.
“Los Corassones Avlan” is on view Sundays through Thursdays, from 1 to 9 p.m., Fridays, 1 to 4 p.m., and Saturdays, 5 to 10:30 p.m., in a 19th-century carriage house at 148 West 4th Street through Nov. 24th. For more information, visit primolevicenter.org.
Michael Frank’s most recent book is “What Is Missing,” a novel.