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Book Review: One Hundred Saturdays

ONE HUNDRED SATURDAYS COVER.jpg
Maira Kalman
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One of the terrible ironies of history is that those who do not remember the past, especially in its most horrific manifestations, are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher wrote in 1905, decades before the Holocaust. A scary prophecy. Now, 77 years after the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, a growing number of people of all ages, Americans and worldwide, deny the Holocaust or don’t know or care to know much about it.

One Hundred Saturdays, a collection of edited interviews the author Michael Frank did with Stella Levi, is in part a history lesson that goes back thousands of years, as well as a dark narrative of the mid-20th century.

In 2015, Frank by chance met the then 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor Stella Levi at NYU’s Casa Italiana. He was late, coming from a French class, and Stella, elegant and audacious, piqued his interest when she asked if he wanted to know how French saved her life. It was clear that here was someone who did and did not want to tell her story. As Frank recounts, she said “I don’t want to be a storyteller of the Shoah, atrophied and with my ideas fixed and unevolving . . . I don’t want to see myself as a victim.” How was this ambivalence possible? What DID she want?

Over the course of several years, always on a Saturday, Frank patiently and compassionately teased out of the still feisty Stella — now 100 years old — most of her story. She was a Sephardic Jew from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, and an Italian citizen. Coming to terms with what happened to her and her village meant, he learned, never coming to terms with what happened, but moving on, though with disturbing, unanswered questions about how it could have happened at all.

Of the total 100 Saturdays they spent in her apartment, they had to stop at times, their connection quietly subliminal. Two strangers, who just started talking and knew when to elaborate, pause or not pursue. That Frank’s book also bears the artwork of The New York Times and New Yorker book illustrator Maira Kalman gives the memoir a rural, folk-art like-quality that adds to its appeal. Stella’s was not the story of an urban or urbane culture set to rout by inflamed ideologues, but the insidious imposition of racial laws by the Nazi-allied Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, and the surprising betrayal by friends and supporters near the 10-12 square block Juderia, the section of the city where the Jewish population lived.

Who knew that Jews had lived comfortably, happily on Rhodes for centuries and had become an integral part of the Turkish, Spanish, Greek, and Italian culture of the island.

Stella recalls her childhood with sensual warmth and joy. But, on Sunday, July 23, 1944, 1650 people, mostly old, ill, and female were transported to death camps even though it was apparent by then, that Germany had lost the war. Stella was 22. Her concentration camp number was A24409.

The camp was liberated by the Russians 15 months later, but it takes Stella a long time to go back to see her old neighborhood, to think about the wonderful life there, her family, the music, the stories, the scents, the food, her thwarted hopes to go to Paris and become her own artistic person. Some people refused to go back, ever.

She was lucky. She got to America through a relative. And she got around with spunk, and charm but not forgetfulness. She was, for a while, part of a late-night poker game with Wood Allen and others. A woman who separated all the savvy men from their money, she tells Frank. And she once lived briefly in the Hamptons, where a grumpy neighbor was artist William de Kooning. Now, thanks to One Hundred Saturdays, here is an unusual, necessary voice, that must be heard.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.