It’s been 75 years since Stella Levi, 96, long a New Yorker, was taken from Rhodes with the Greek island’s Jewish population to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, she being one of the few lucky survivors to be able to tell the world to this day of the horrors there.
She prefers to talk about the sweet life she and her family had on Rhodes, where they lived under the Italians, who got the island from the Turks in 1912 after the Balkan Wars and then as they waited after Nazis arrived for what would happen to them.
“I was 21 and my sister Renee was 23. We were wearing our summer dresses and cork-soled sandals. We had no idea what was ahead. We had heard reports about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, but we thought that was another world, far away. Poland, Germany: what did those places have to do with us?” she told The New York Times’ Michael Frank in a feature report.
“For almost half a millennium we’d lived in the Mediterranean, on our own little piece of the earth. That’s how we thought of Rhodes, as belonging to us. All these people – the rulers, the conquerors, the generals – they were just passing through,” she said.
So were the Nazis, and the Italians, with Greece taking the island in 1947 but in 1944 the Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz, a 14-day journey by boat and train to an unknown fate that is part of the story told today in a Greenwich Village exhibit titled Los Corassones Avlan, which means “heart speak,” an old Sephardic saying in Judeo-Spanish, the language Ms. Levi spoke during her childhood in the Juderia, the Jewish neighborhood of Rhodes. Levi’s mother and grandmother would use this phrase when they found themselves thinking of a friend, neighbor, or relative and suddenly she appeared at the kitchen door.
Her story got the notice too of Centro Primo Levi, a non-profit focused on exploring the Italian-Jewish experience, along with the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, which created the pop-up exhibit a few doors down from where Levi lives, using concerts, conversations, films, artifacts, and even food to evoke her life and Jewish culture generally in prewar Rhodes.
It’s painful too. Not a single Jew removed from Rhodes went back, she said, those who lived.
“My father was ill the whole time. When we arrived at Auschwitz, I never saw him again, or my mother, my cousin, her baby. Dozens, hundreds of people I knew perished. Only 161 of us survived,” she said.
THE PAST PAIN
Levi said she didn’t even visit Rhodes until the 1970s because it hurt too much. After the war, she got a passport and went to Los Angeles where she met her brother Morris for the first time but decided she didn’t like the city although so many Jews from Rhodes had gone there.
“For a brief moment, I considered living in L.A. All the Rhodeslis – as the members of the community referred to themselves – lived together, worked together, worshiped together. Wherever people from the Juderia went to settle, it was like that. I found it claustrophobic,” she said, deciding on New York instead.
She told Frank that despite some severe traditions that kept her grandmother from being able to enter a shop or swim in the sea, only 10 minutes away, that younger members of the community in the pre-WWII days crossed cultural lines: her father had a Turkish business partner, her mother had Greek friends and her sister studied French in school.
“I grew up in a multicultural world before anyone used that word,” she said, remembering the young wondering what was out there past Rhodes at the time, setting her brother Victor to head to the-then Belgian Congo, her sister Selma heading for the United States.
“I was also a young woman…with a dream: I was going to work hard in school and leave the confines of the island to attend university in Italy. I saw my future laid out like the chapters in a book,” she said.
In 1938 though, Mussolini’s racial laws extended even to Rhodes and she and her Jewish friends were kicked out of school. “Overnight I felt like I’d gone from being a person to a nonperson. You do not recover from that easily. Or ever,” she said.
She said she and five boys accepted an offer from a professor who taught in the high school to organize classes at night. “We met in secret, illegally. I was determined not to lose my way,” she said steadfastly.
Life became New York because, she said, it was open to the world of possibility. “There was – and is – every kind of person here. My friend Fanny, whom I met on the boat coming from Naples, said to me, “New York e l’Europa con qualcosa di piu” (New York is Europe and then some). And she was right,” she said.
She learned English in night classes at Columbia, married, had a son, divorced and worked in the garment industry but didn’t go to college although she said she studied all her life, reading the history of Rhodes and the Jews, the war, Italian literature.
“Every time anyone who had family in the Juderia comes to New York, they visit me and I tell them what I recall, which is a great deal. I remember how people were related, where they lived, what they wore and talked about and ate. Rhodes is as clear to me as if I left it yesterday instead of 75 years ago,” she said, still remembering what once was.