One Hun­dred Sat­ur­days: Stel­la Levi and the Search for a Lost World

By – September 8, 2022

Stel­la Levi is not a reli­gious per­son. Yet it feels fit­ting that her one hun­dred meet­ings with Michael Frank took place at the inter­sec­tion of Shab­bat and Hav­dalah: on the page, they rest some­where between com­mem­o­ra­tion and renewal.

Stel­la, now nine­ty-nine, is adamant from the start that she does not want to be reduced to a vic­tim, nor cel­e­brat­ed as a hero.” This, she says, is why she has wait­ed so long to tell her sto­ry in full. Frank does not take her con­cern light­ly. Over the course of six years, he lis­tens as Stel­la recounts her upbring­ing in the Jud­e­ria — the once-vibrant home of the Sephardic Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Rhodes — and her expe­ri­ences dur­ing and after the Holo­caust. The result is a hun­dred vignettes that impress the read­er with an almost myth­ic qual­i­ty. But they do so with­out ever sac­ri­fic­ing Stella’s lived reality.

One of the book’s great strengths is the way it inter­weaves the pub­lic and the per­son­al, the fac­tu­al and the felt. One moment, Stel­la recalls the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment assum­ing con­trol of Rhodes, a Greek island that was for­mer­ly gov­erned by Turkey; and the next, she is a teenag­er among friends, singing not in her native Judeo-Span­ish but in her new­ly acquired Ital­ian. Of course, it’s very easy, as Stel­la insists, to chart these kinds of causal rela­tion­ships in hind­sight — a fact that Frank con­firms when he asks her why, when anti­se­mit­ic racial laws befell the Jud­e­ria in 1938, she and her fel­low Rhodeslis did not antic­i­pate a worse fate. Michael,” she replies, you are look­ing back from a point of know­ing. You must remem­ber that. We did not know.”

What Stel­la did know was that it was her rela­tion­ships — with her sis­ter Renée, with her cousins, with her first loves and dear friends — that sus­tained her, whether she was at the Turk­ish baths, on a forced march from one camp to anoth­er, or in New York City (where she ulti­mate­ly set­tled after the war). They nour­ished her sense of self and kept her alive at crit­i­cal points. They served as the embod­i­ment of a Judeo-Span­ish phrase that Stel­la learned as a tod­dler: ten­eme aki, or watch over me.” And she, too, became that for them.

There is, to be sure, anoth­er rela­tion­ship at the core of Stella’s ongo­ing sto­ry, and it’s the one she shares with Frank. Where­as oth­ers in her post­war life have skirt­ed the sub­ject of Rhodes’s colo­nial his­to­ry, the Juderia’s even­tu­al dis­in­te­gra­tion, and, name­ly, her time at the camps (best to let sur­vivors rest, went the old line of thought), Frank does not hold back — even when he’s not sure how Stel­la will receive his ques­tions, and even though he often won­ders what it [is] like for her … leav­ing behind a dif­fi­cult swirl of mem­o­ry.” If their con­ver­sa­tions do stir up such a swirl, they also, accord­ing to Stel­la, afford the deep­est form of affirmation.

One Hun­dred Sat­ur­days is a nec­es­sary work about a woman whose life resists cat­e­go­riza­tion. Fea­tur­ing live­ly illus­tra­tions by Maira Kalman, who man­ages to trans­late a num­ber of lan­guages into a series of images, Michael Frank’s patient, brac­ing book remem­bers as much as it ren­ders anew. It hon­ors, lis­tens, and names. It sets out to prove los kora­sones avlan: that hearts real­ly do speak. 

Kyra Lisse is Jew­ish Book Council’s Edi­to­r­i­al Fel­low. She’s a grad­u­ate of Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege in Lan­cast­er, PA, where she stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing and Latin. Cur­rent­ly, Kyra is a sec­ond-year MFA can­di­date and grad­u­ate assis­tant at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty in Roanoke, VA, con­cen­trat­ing on cre­ative non­fic­tion. Her email is kyra@​jewishbooks.​org.

Discussion Questions

Holo­caust Memoir:

This beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book is based on jour­nal­ist Michael Frank’s one hun­dred inter­views with nine­ty-nine-year-old Stel­la Levi, one of very few Holo­caust sur­vivors of her small Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Rhodes, Greece. It is also exquis­ite­ly illus­trat­ed with water­col­or draw­ings by Maira Kalman.

Stel­la did not want to be defined by her expe­ri­ences dur­ing the Holo­caust. She want­ed to tell Michael about her vibrant life in the old Sephardic Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the Jud­e­ria, the Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood of Rhodes, whose first set­tlers were descen­dants of the Jews who fled from the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion at the end of the fif­teenth century.

Stel­la describes her close-knit com­mu­ni­ty in the Jud­e­ria as akin to a very large extend­ed fam­i­ly, steeped in Jew­ish tra­di­tion and obser­vance. Her vivid nar­ra­tive allows us to fol­low in her foot­steps as she describes the streets and the shops, imag­in­ing that we can smell the spices and hear the women singing and shar­ing sto­ries as they pre­pare for Shab­bat. That vibrant com­mu­ni­ty was destroyed when nine­ty per­cent of the Jews were mur­dered in the Holocaust.

In July 1944, the Ger­mans, who by then occu­pied Greece, sud­den­ly ordered all the Jews of Rhodes — 1,650 peo­ple — to report for depor­ta­tion at the har­bor. They were all loaded onto boats to begin a tor­tur­ous jour­ney of three and a half weeks to Auschwitz, a trip that was longer than that of any oth­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the world.. Only 151 peo­ple from the trans­port sur­vived the Holo­caust, among them Stel­la, who is prob­a­bly the last liv­ing survivor.

Stel­la explained that Greek Jews had such a low sur­vival rate because they did not under­stand the Ger­man com­mands and could not get help from oth­er Jews because they did not speak Yid­dish, the lan­guage of most Euro­pean Jews. In fact, the oth­er Jew­ish women in Auschwitz did not believe the Greek women were real­ly Jew­ish until they saw them light­ing Shab­bat can­dles and recit­ing the Hebrew prayers. What saved Stel­la was that she had gone to a French-Jew­ish school and could talk to the women from Bel­gium and France who trans­lat­ed for her.

This short note can­not pos­si­bly cap­ture the rich­ness and poignan­cy of the one hun­dred sto­ries in this book. It can only attest to the unique expe­ri­ences of the Greek Jews in Auschwitz, a top­ic that is large­ly unex­plored, and to the great plea­sure of fol­low­ing the fas­ci­nat­ing life of Stel­la Levy.

Sephardic Cul­ture:

In evoca­tive prose, Michael Frank brings the read­er into the remark­able and unfor­get­table world of Stel­la Levi, a near­ly one hun­dred-year-old native of the Aegean island of Rhodes who sur­vived Auschwitz-Birke­nau. Medi­at­ed by Frank’s sen­si­tive ques­tions and prompts fol­low­ing a chance meet­ing between the two in New York City, Stel­la recounts the world of the lost Sephardic Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Rhodes pri­or to the war — from Ottoman to Ital­ian rule — as well as the dark­est chap­ters of her life that com­menced with the onset of the Nazi occu­pa­tion. Frank shows that Stella’s sto­ry needs to be told and heard, not only because of the poignan­cy of the tale and the urgency and clar­i­ty with which she nar­ra­tives it, but also because it serves as a rare trib­ute to the fate of the Judeo-Span­ish-speak­ing Jews of the east­ern Mediter­ranean whose expe­ri­ences tend to remain side­lined with­in the broad­er col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the Holocaust.

Part biog­ra­phy, part his­to­ry, part ethnog­ra­phy, part med­i­ta­tion on the pow­er of mem­o­ry and for­get­ting, and part­ly an account of the blos­som­ing friend­ship between two strangers over the course of a hun­dred meet­ings, One Hun­dred Sat­ur­days offers pro­found insight into one woman’s sto­ry and the trag­ic fate of an entire com­mu­ni­ty. The accom­pa­ny­ing illus­tra­tions by Maira Kalman add an addi­tion­al dimen­sion of cre­ative rep­re­sen­ta­tion and con­nec­tion to the text.