Books: “One Hundred Saturdays” by Michael Frank
Rhodes is a Greek island visited by thousands of cruise passengers every year. Visitors may not immediately think of it as a place where there was once a thriving 500-year-old Jewish community. But actually there was, and Michael Frank’s “One Hundred Saturdays” explores this lost world through the eyes of Stella Levi, a 98-year-old Rhodesli (row-DEZ-lee) and Holocaust survivor.
Frank met Stella Levi at an event in NYC sometime during the mid-2010s. The two became friends, and over a period of six years, met weekly to discuss, among other things, her early life in the Juderia (Jewish quarter) where life and customs went on much as they had for centuries. Especially for the tiny Sephardic Jewish community, the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s.
Jews who continued to speak Ladino, the ancient language of their ancestors, lived in relative peace under Turkish and Greek rule. In the 1920 the Italians took over
and introduced running water and other trappings of modernity. Unfortunately in 1938 they also promulgated Mussolini’s racial laws which caused Stella and her classmates to be expelled from school and her father to lose his business. This horror story culminated in July 1944, when the remaining 1600 Jewish residents of Rhodes were forced onto a ferry bound for Athens, then onto a train bound for Auschwitz. Ninety percent perished.
The horrors of concentration camp existence are recounted by Stella in a way that makes the book often unreadable at time. Yet survived she did and now lives in New York and remains involved with the Primo Levi Center. (She is not related to him.)
Was it sheer moxie that helped her survive the camps? Dumb luck? A bit of both? As she enters her 99th year, Stella is philosophical, not as bitter as you’d imagine, and still bewildered by the absurdity of transporting mostly the elderly and sick from a tiny Greek Island to a death camp— only two months before liberation.
For a fascinating, down-to-earth story of how the human spirit can survive amidst the 20th century’s greatest crime against humanity, you would do well to read “One Hundred Saturdays.”