By Heller McAlpin in The Wall Street Journal
A chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor blossomed into weekly conversations—and a journey into a vanished world.
Never underestimate the power of friendship at any stage in life. That’s one of the lessons from Michael Frank’s beautiful portrait of the wise and charming nonagenarian, Stella Levi, one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors from the vanished Sephardic community of Juderia on the Greek island of Rhodes. In relaying her life story, Mr. Frank has pulled off something special: “One Hundred Saturdays” is a sobering yet heartening book about how friendship, remembrance, and being heard can help assuage profound dislocation and loss. It is also a reminder that the ability to listen thoughtfully is a rare and significant gift.
“One Hundred Saturdays” grew out of a serendipitous encounter in 2015, when Mr. Frank arrived late for a talk about museums, memory and Nazi Fascism at Casa Italiana, home of the Department of Italian Studies at New York University. An elegant older woman seated nearby asked him in her Italian-accented English, “Where are you coming from that you’re in such a hurry?” In response to his answer—a French lesson—she told him how she first encountered French at Auschwitz, where some French and Belgian women helped her to survive.
After the lecture, Ms. Levi, then 92, asked if Mr. Frank would be willing to help polish a talk she was to give in English about her childhood and youth in Juderia for the Centro Primo Levi, a New York-based organization that explores Italian-Jewish history.
A couple of editing sessions in her book-filled Greenwich Village apartment led to 100 Saturday conversations, spread over six years. Mr. Frank was enchanted by this “woman I would come to think of as a Scheherazade, a witness, a conjurer, a time traveler who would invite me to travel with her.” He was dazzled by her sharp memory, her “grace and grit,” and her remarkable ability to forge lifelong friendships.
From the start, she told him she was hesitant about discussing the camps, explaining that “she has never wanted to be a performing survivor, a storyteller of the Holocaust, ossified, with no new thoughts or perspectives, and with this one event placed so central, too central, in a long, layered life.”
Over time, Mr. Frank’s sensitive, respectful questions earned Ms. Levi’s trust. Although she parried probes about her intimate life—“Why does it matter who you go to bed with? What was important was the power of these connections,” she insisted—she opened up about some of her darkest moments, subjects she had shied from with family and therapists. Why now? “Because you were patient with me, and because you wanted to know the whole of me,” she tells Mr. Frank. Indeed, at 98, she pays him the ultimate compliment: “Well, our talking, it seems like it’s kept me alive.”
Ms. Levi is not the first nonagenarian Mr. Frank has written about. In his 2017 memoir, “The Mighty Franks,” he tackled his difficult relationship with his glamorous but controlling aunt, Hollywood screenwriter Harriet Frank Jr., who latched onto him from a young age as a surrogate son. It, too, explored questions of nurture and influence in families whose members are interrelated to a mind-boggling degree. (Ms. Levi estimates that she knew or was related to about 10% of the local population of Juderia.)
Complemented by Maira Kalman’s vibrant illustrations, “One Hundred Saturdays” re-creates the world of Stella’s youth in the tight-knit Juderia, where the dominant language was Judeo-Spanish, a mix of Castilian, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish and Hebrew, and where life was full of rituals. For half a millennium, descendants of Jews who had been expelled from Spain during the Inquisition had followed customs that were more Turkish than European. (Stella’s father even wore a fez to work at his import-export business.) But things changed when Italy took control of Rhodes in 1923.
The Italians brought improvements such as electricity, running water and modern medical care to the community, and also overhauled the educational system. For a time, Stella thrived at an Italian Catholic school outside the Juderia—which she hoped would lead to a university education off-island. Her dreams, along with her family’s prosperity, were destroyed in 1938, with the Fascist racial laws that forbade Jews from owning businesses and attending schools.
Born in 1923, Ms. Levi, the youngest of seven children, watched as her older siblings left Rhodes for brighter prospects in America and the Belgian Congo. Morris, the eldest, left in 1920, before Stella was born. Felicie, an intellectual freethinker openly critical of the Fascist regime, headed to California in 1940 on the last steamship to sail from Rhodes. It fell to the two remaining children, Stella and her older sister Renée, to care for their aging parents, Miriam and Yehuda, first at home, and finally during their horrific three-and-a-half-week transport to Auschwitz in 1944.
Mr. Frank delicately asks how the 1,650 Rhodeslis rounded up for deportation in July 1944 hadn’t seen it coming during the years when the Fascist Italians grew “uncomfortably close to the Germans.” The short answer is that such monstrosity was simply inconceivable to them. (Also, the Levis had applied for but been denied visas to join family in America.) More than 70 years later, Ms. Levi still cannot understand why the Germans would waste resources to transport a small, aged group—mainly women, children and the elderly—further than any other deportees, when “it would have been simpler to murder us all here.” Just as galling was the Italian role in the rapid deportation: Officials readily provided lists of Rhodes’s Jewish residents to the Nazis.
More than seven decades after liberation, Ms. Levi’s detailed recall is chilling. She explains that she survived Auschwitz and Dachau by becoming a different Stella. The key, she says, was to edit out both the past and future and live in “a perpetual present,” not allowing oneself to feel or think. She had to become someone who “robbed, cheated, connived . . . did whatever it took to keep herself going every day.” Among her coping mechanisms she counts laughing at the Beckettian absurdity of their situation—along with resourceful tricks like rubbing beet juice into her cheeks before inspections to mask the sickly pallor that might get one sent to the gas chambers. Years later, when asked if she knew a particular Auschwitz inmate, Ms. Levi shares a humanizing memory: how the woman, determined to preserve a part of her former self, hid her cherished eyebrow tweezers in her mouth during inspections.
A recurrent theme of “One Hundred Saturdays” is what it is to be a perpetual exile. Survivors like Ms. Levi, “severed from our points of origin,” were left with “a confusion about where home was, what home was.” Young Stella had “no vision” for her future. Returning to Rhodes was out of the question. Should she stay in Italy and marry her teacher? It takes more than a year for Stella and Renée to procure the necessary papers to join their siblings in America.
Mr. Frank, a beautifully unobtrusive interlocutor, reminds us that “memory is not history.” “One Hundred Saturdays,” however subjective, evokes a lost world that deserves not to be forgotten. It is a deeply affecting addition to the literature of the Holocaust.
—Ms. McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR.org.