Out from the Naivete of Normal
I’ll never forget Stella Levi, the World War II German concentration camp survivor at the center of One Hundred Saturdays.
She told her life story to writer Michael Frank. Levi’s tenacity and inexhaustible will to survive is a primer for belly-crawling through the bleakest of situations. Her life is an allegory as to how the force of good may triumph over evil.
One Hundred Saturdays
By Michael Frank
Simon & Schuster
After a chance meeting during a lecture in New York City, Michael Frank (author of the memoir The Mighty Franks and the novel What Is Missing) began a weekly dialogue with Stella Levi about her experiences growing up in the old Jewish quarter of Rhodes, a Greek island, and her exile through Auschwitz to a restarted life in the United States. Over the course of six years of Saturday afternoon conversations, from 2015 through 2021, the nonagenarian Levi dug into long-buried memories to tell the stories of a life of loss, sorrow and tortured reflection.
The conversations were arduous at first. Frank’s gentle questions were pushed aside with silence. “She has never wanted to be a performing survivor,” wrote Frank, “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.” Levi did not want to turn her entire life’s meaning over to the German aggressors. Also, I think, after finishing One Hundred Saturdays, that the well-read, thoughtful and intellectual Levi was still processing what all of this had done to her and that she had yet to come to terms with much of it.
“I had no way of knowing that this was the first of one hundred Saturdays that I would spend in the company of a 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,” writes Frank as he recalls entering Levi’s apartment for the first time. Levi is ponderous and prudent, energetic and enigmatic, insightful and impious, agile and alert; anything but the stereotypical timeworn 92-year-old one would expect, “…so she springs up and heads towards her desk, which stands in the corner of the living room—and springs too is the right word; it’s as if a tightly wound coil is set free, ping, sending her into the air.”
In the 15th century, Sephardic Jews, the Levi family among them, were banished from Spain and settled in Rhodes within the confines of an ancient, walled enclave. For generations, they rarely left. “For Stella’s grandmother, Mazaltov Levi, synagogue was the only place, other than the Turkish baths, and the cement bench outside of (and built into) the house, where she actually went.” While some may view this separation from modernity as idyllic or as a preservative necessity to protect a sacred mission, it also enabled a naivete, a disconnectedness, an unwillingness to accept that the outside world, the atrocities of Naziism, could breach the walls that had protected them for centuries.
On July 23, 1944, “…the entire Jewish community of the island of Rhodes—her community on her island, the place she considered her own little piece of the earth—was loaded onto three boats that would take these more than 1,650 human beings…to Auschwitz two weeks later.”
Honestly, I closed One Hundred Saturdays more than once in the first 100 pages with the intent of not finishing the book. For one thing, the early chapters contained too many details, lists of items, clothing, food and, for me, what appeared to be too little interpretation or introspection of Levi’s early life. But then I realized I was overlooking the fact that details, the scrum and minutiae of daily tasks, do, in fact, reveal much. A practiced novelist such as Agatha Christie, Evan Connell, or Ralph Ellison nudges us to learn what we need to understand about a character from the contents of a suitcase on a train, the selection of portraits on a living room wall, or the bleak sightings from a midnight train ride north.
The pastelikos, bamia, hojaldres and boyas became more than the daily menu, but threads in a colorfully woven cacophonous tapestry of a charmed existence largely unaltered for centuries.
I also knew what was to come as I read into the midsection of the book. If cruelty and hatred were a thing of the past, Levi’s story would be a relic, worth studying for the insight and context into the 20th century. But these characteristics were all too fresh, as they continue to permeate today.
I kept reading. I had to finish as Stella Levi was endearing herself to me, her charisma and chutzpah as beacons despite the horrific details. I needed to know how she had come out of the other side of this period in her life.