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 is a recent graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, where she studied creative writing and Latin. Currently, Kyra is a first-year MFA candidate at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, concentrating in creative nonfiction.