Memories of a lost world

Review: Vivien Horler

One Hundred Saturdays, by Michael Frank (Souvenir Press)

By July 1944 World War 2 had just 10 months to run, although no one then knew that for sure. But the tide had turned in the Allies’ favour.

Almost a year previously the Italians had surrendered to the Allies, and Allied troops, including South Africans, were fighting their way up Italy.

The D-Day landings had already taken place, and more Allied troops were fighting east across Europe towards Germany.

But these inconvenient truths did not stop the Nazis proceeding with their Final Solution. On July 23, 1944, a total of 1 700 Jews were rounded up on the Greek island of Rhodes for the first leg of their long journey to Auschwitz.

Around 70 years later Stella Levi, 92, and author Michael Frank were at the island’s port, where the Jews embarked. She mused: “We were old people and young women and children. Most of us had never been off the island in our entire lives, and that included me. It would have simpler to murder us all here and let us, at least, be buried with our own kind.”

The Jews of Rhodes were different from most European Jews. They had been banished from Spain in the late 15th century, and had scattered across Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Rhodes Jews had been on the island for 400 years. They did not speak Yiddish but a language known as Judeo-Spanish. By 1939 many of the younger people also spoke Italian, as the Italians had colonised the island early in the 20th century.

Stella also spoke some French, a fact she believes helped save her life. With no Yiddish or German, the Rhodes Jews in Auschwitz would not have understood orders or what was going on. But because Stella, her sister and a group of young women from Rhodes spoke French, they were placed with French and Belgian women who could understand the Germans’ orders, and translated them.

Prize-winning American writer Michael Frank met Stella by chance at a lecture in New York in 2015. She asked him to edit a speech she was due to make in English about her childhood and youth on Rhodes, because she felt her English was not sufficiently polished.

This led to Frank visiting her in her Greenwich Village apartment for the first of what turned out to be 100 Saturdays, over six years, while Stella talked about her life before, during and after the camps.

Aged just 14 and the youngest of seven children, she announced to her family she intended to go to university in Italy. “I wanted to be free. I wanted a life, a bigger life than I could have in this small neighbourhood on this small island in the middle of nowhere.”

But lately, she said, she had realised “that the world I was born into might have been… I don’t know… interesting”.

And it is. Her family lived in Rhodes’s Juderia, the Jewish part of town within the old walls, where everyone knew everyone and traditions were observed. Unlike stories told by Eastern European Jews, of cold and darkness and poverty, Stella grew up on a sun-drenched island within a close community, where young people gathered at the beach.

But the war came, and everything changed. The Italians left and the Germans took over. Eventually the Jews were told to report to the local airport. They thought they were going to be interned on another island. Stella turned up wearing a green-spotted white frock and espadrilles.

By the time the war broke out, five of Stella’s siblings had emigrated, leaving just her parents, her nearest older sister Renee and her on Rhodes, along with cousins and friends. Once they arrived at Auschwitz, her parents were murdered, but the core group of young women stayed together.

After the war the sisters, still in their early 20s, found themselves in Europe without papers or money. Somehow they reached the US, where four of their siblings were living. They married and had children, and despite it all, lived normal lives. But their losses never left them,

Somewhere during the process of producing this book, Stella says to Frank: “We need to finish before I’m finished.” But at the time of publication, in 2023, she was still going strong.

Her parents were gone, and so were all her siblings. Frank tells her of an old adage: “ The youngest child is the one who gets to tell the story – the one who gets to have the last word.”

And Stella did.

I devoured this book.

  • One Hundred Saturdays was one of Exclusive Books’s top 25 reads for March.

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