RHODES, Greece – Almost every visitor to this Dodecanese island arrives with a guidebook in hand. I recommend instead a book called “One Hundred Saturdays.”
It is Michael Frank’s story of the hundred Saturdays he spent taking the testimony of Stella Levi, a woman unknown to most Jews but whose story begs to be known.
For more than six years, Frank, a New York writer, spent Saturdays with Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, to hear her story – a story for all time – and to record it for all time. And so if you leave your guidebook in your hotel room and have “One Hundred Saturdays” at hand, your visit will be transformed, almost as dramatically as the way this island was transformed by the coming of the Nazis and the departure of the Jews.
July 23, 1944: A Sunday. The Germans deliberately chose a Sunday, she tells me, because on Sunday all the shops were closed. And they sounded the air-raid sirens, even though no planes flew overhead, even though no bombs fell from the sky that day because the sirens kept everyone indoors – everyone else.
It took only six hours or so for the Germans – nothing if not efficient – to assemble the Jews. Thus began the longest World War II deportation to the Nazi death camps. Jews had lived, and prospered, in Rhodes for more than two millennia – they are mentioned in the Book of Maccabees – and yet their departure was noted by no one.
In all the hours – six, maybe more – that it took them, 1,650 of them, to walk down to the port, not a single civilian bore witness, or objected, or came to say goodbye.
Today only 20 Jews, none younger than 60, live in a community that once numbered thousands. I asked Carmen Cohen, who presides over the remaining synagogue and its museum, if there were services beyond the b’nai mitzvahs and weddings that are conducted for outsiders.
“Services?” she asked, almost mockingly. “For whom? For us it is more important to keep this place open than to have services.”
At the very port where the big cruise boats dock and disgorge their thousands, the Jews of Rhodes were sent on their voyage to the death camps on the European mainland. Only 150 survived. None of them lives here.
At this spot … 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 1,650 human beings to the port at Piraeus, and from there to the prison at Haidari, and from there to the trains that would deliver them to Auschwitz two week later.
Levi is now 100, and splits her time between New York and Camogli, Italy. In chapter after chapter in Frank’s book (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), she tells her story, of a life disrupted by war, shaped by its exigencies, warped by its cruelties, redeemed by its caprices. In time, Frank would accompany her to this very island, to the beginning of the story that must not end by the failure to retell it, the most horrifying story of the 20th century or maybe of any century.
In Rhodes it meant the end of a grand tradition of Jewish life and of an era where here, on a Mediterranean island, schools in the 19th century taught young Jewish men to become rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers, and teachers. The last Jewish school closed in 1938 under the fascist religious rules imposed by the Italians, who at the time controlled Rhodes and who would, in time, relinquish rule to the Germans.
Stella has come, not for the first time but possibly the last, to the Juderia of Rhodes – to connect, or reconnect, or try to connect, once again, to the neighborhood in which she was born and grew up, like her parents and grandparents before her, and generations before them, all the way back to the late 15th century to when these Sephardic Jews were banished from Spain and scattered across Europe and the Mediterranean.
The 1944 journey, like so many the Jews made, was harsh, the arrival difficult, the ending tragic.
At the end of October two and a half months after they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the women underwent a second selection. This time they were naked. They lined up in front of a man … In his hand he held a stick. The stick directed them toward life or toward death.
This was not the first separation that Jews have experienced in their history of hardship. In the Book of Judges, God orders Gideon, who was girding to fight the 135,000 Midianite troops, to reduce his forces, telling him to do so by taking his combatants to the river and separating out those “who lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth” from those “that boweth down upon his knees to drink.” Biblical commentators have taken this to mean God’s desire that the victory be ascribed not to the ingenuity or bravery of Gideon’s forces but to the intervention and intent of God.
[T]he women’s and men’s latrines were separated by a single wall of wood, that had enough of a space below to pass goods back and forth. Stella and her group traded potatoes with the men for scraps of wood that they used to light the little stove on which they cooked the purloined potatoes.
In this hardship came both death and survival. Levi survived and, as Frank tells us, many of the Rhodeslis who survived were eager to marry and settle down. “They wanted normality; they wanted safety; they wanted to be taken care of, or to do the caretaking,” he wrote.
Thus began yet another separation among the Jews. Many of the others found the serenity of peacetime. Levi didn’t want it, didn’t want to settle down, didn’t find the tranquility that so many others sought so badly and with such ardor. Instead, she wondered at the reaction of her fellow sufferers and survivors to the end of the war that had taken so much from so many.
“They forgot – they appeared to forget – what happened in Rhodes, and afterward,” she told Frank. But she did not forget. Nor should we, those of us far from the island of Rhodes, those of us who occupy the afterward.
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.