Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Wednesday, May 18, 2022: Maximum Shelf: One Hundred Saturdays

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank, illustrated by Maira Kalman

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World

by Michael Frank, illus. by Maira Kalman

This emotionally stunning biography relates the story of one of the last Jewish survivors of the Greek island of Rhodes, recounting in immersive prose her childhood in a now-eradicated community, her survival of the concentration camps and her endurance carrying that traumatic weight.

On one of their first Saturdays together--eventually becoming 100 Saturdays over the course of six years, after meeting at an Italian studies lecture in New York City--Michael Frank asks Stella Levi if she will share her life story. "Possibly," she says. "But not the camps.... I don't want to be that person." Frank realizes she doesn't want the Holocaust "placed so central, too central, in a long, layered life." Her reticence to become a "performing survivor" is likely why Frank succeeds in making vivid the myriad beauties of Levi's life.

At the story's heart is the beloved Juderia, the Jewish quarter of Rhodes, spanning about "ten, twelve square blocks in all" of narrow, unevenly cobblestoned streets, its main piazza hosting an array of shops, its courtyards smelling of "jasmine and rosemary, lavender and roses and rue." Its inhabitants listened to the old women sitting outside telling stories, who baked at the communal oven while gossiping, bathed only "at the Turkish baths, once a week, before shabbat" and absorbed proverbs "as though they were molecules in the air." Doors of houses stayed flung open, facilitating the "call and response" of housemaids and mothers.

Levi recalls the rituals that marked her younger years--deaths, weddings, Yom Kippur, Passover, the frisson of first love. When Levi, curious and ambitious, entered high school, "boom, a new world was opened to her." The image of her packing a suitcase at age 14 to be ready for university echoes throughout the book--especially when Levi recalls the 1938 racial laws that prohibited her from attending school and her father from running his business. "I felt like my family and I were being treated like animals--animals don't need to work or study, do they?"

But even as persecution of Jewish communities worsened, Levi's family stayed in the Juderia. "Terrible things were happening to the Jews, but they were happening, it seemed, in another world," Levi says. "Even as we were boarding the boats that took us away from Rhodes, we thought, Oh, we're going to another island. We're going to a work camp. All this is temporary. We'll be back, of course we will." Frank's gentle prompts ease Levi into recounting her deportation to Auschwitz, among the 1,650 Jews collected from Rhodes, and her ultimate survival of five different camps. But after her eventual liberation, there was no home to return to--"We had left a whole community in the ashes of Auschwitz"--a cutting truth and condemnation of all that war destroys.

One Hundred Saturdays is a story in which Levi's voice is always strikingly present. "This knowledge" of those dying around her was "a flame. Too ferocious to come near. If we touched it, we might ourselves die." She exudes power, the power of a woman who had the strength to keep on living. Frank adroitly lays the groundwork for Levi to divulge her courage: " 'You, a young Jewish woman, went to see Kleemann, the Nazi officer in command of Rhodes, to ask him for a favor?' She answers with a placid nod." On the weeks-long journey to Auschwitz, she asked a captain for a lemon for her faint mother and gained permission to swim alongside the boat. At Auschwitz, she took a blow for her father and bent the rules to bring him water. The luck that allowed her survival, however, is not ignored: "Every survivor has a moment, two moments, ten moments of incredible luck."

Frank also opens a window into their interviews. After recalling the agua de flor daubed on her weekly at the hamman (Turkish bath), Levi presents a vial of liquid to Frank. "Would you like a whiff?" Levi asks him. He obliges and describes the scent for readers: "Jasmine, yes. Pronounced. Maybe also a touch of orange blossom." On one Saturday, Levi opens the door "looking as though she hadn't slept," eyes "glassy and distant, and smudged with shadows" and tells Frank she dreamt of her sisters, of being confused about the location of her home. On other days, her eyes sparkle after eluding a question, or she moves "as if a tightly-wound coil is set free, ping, sending her into the air."

The accompanying artwork by Maira Kalman allows readers a fascinating lens through which to view Levi's retelling. The full-color gouache paintings, boasting a rich palette of burgundies, yellows, blues and greens, depict moments both small (Stella wearing an outfit her sister sent from "Ah-merica") and life-altering ("The window [that] was the last thing Stella saw that connected her to the Juderia"). Only two images, however, represent Levi's experience of the camps; most serve to reproduce Levi's bright memories of family and friends.

Frank's skillful descriptions and Kalman's tender illustrations, by conjuring a striking portrait of a beautifully tight-knit and unassuming community, starkly highlight the scale of hate for the Jewish population. That the war would need to touch a space that seemed almost apart from the world communicates bigotry's lack of boundary, hate's impossible reach. Yet above all, this biography pins to the page the story of a place and a people worthy of knowing--a lost world preserved in the carefully captured memories here. --Samantha Zaboski

Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, $28, hardcover, 240p., 9781982167226, September 6, 2022

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Michael Frank: On Being Open to the World

(photo: Marta Barisione)

Michael Frank is the author of What Is Missing, a novel, and The Mighty Franks, a memoir, which was awarded the 2018 JQ Wingate Prize and was named one of the best books of the year by the Telegraph and the New Statesman. His essays, articles and short stories have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, Tablet and other publications. The recipient of a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship, Frank lives with his family in New York City and Camogli, Italy. One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, Sept. 6, 2022) is a biography that illuminates the ancient Jewish community of the Greek island of Rhodes, and Stella Levi's life before, during and after her deportation from Rhodes to Auschwitz.

When did you know that your Saturdays with Stella Levi should be a book?

One Hundred Saturdays crept up on me. I met Stella by accident, went to see her casually at her home in Greenwich Village, returned again... and then again. At first I took a few notes. Then one day I brought my computer. Pretty much from the beginning I was captivated by the reach of her memory, the quality of her thinking, the vividly different worlds she'd inhabited, the way she dealt with heartbreaking loss and soul-humbling compromise, and how she'd lived with and through anger, hatred and regret to come to a deep understanding of human nature and human beings.

After about a year I asked her outright, "Have you ever told, truly told, your story?", and when she said that she hadn't, I asked her if we might continue, as we had been, talking on Saturdays about her life. She said yes and--though we had our difficult moments, to be sure--she continued to talk. Weeks, months, then years passed. Even still, I didn't think she was the subject for a book until I stumbled upon a way to share this story after I had been listening to her for more than two years. I thought: I'll invite the reader to join me on the weekly journey I've taken. I would continue to take it for six years in total.

Stella recalls even the smallest details of her days as a young girl in the Juderia, like sleepovers at her neighbor Nisso Cohen's and being awakened by the shamash calling people for prayers. What images from Rhodes have stuck with you the most?

The Greek man bringing pure, sweet water into the Juderia after Yom Kippur: I love the way it shows these two worlds cohabiting so naturally on the island. The young people waiting in the courtyard for bread and meals to bake in the communal oven: unknowingly, they were enacting patterns that their parents and grandparents had lived out before them. Stella's swims with Tescione, the soldier/lawyer/poet, and her fateful dream of him: here was a great, deep connection in Stella's young life which came to an abrupt end when Tescione's life did. He was a prisoner of time--as we all are--but in his case his imprisonment ended in a suicide that might never have happened had certain events (centrally, the Italian surrender of the island to the Germans) not have unfolded how and, more precisely, when they did. Stella's premonitory dream of Tescione lying naked on the ground is something I will never forget.

In telling her story, Stella didn't want to talk about the concentration camps, much like she seldom spoke about them throughout her life. How did it feel for Stella to break this silence with you?

It felt like a responsibility: to listen carefully, describe accurately and allow Stella to say (or not say) whatever she chose.

There were many insidious ways that the Jewish people of this particular island were already being persecuted prior to their deportation.

Yes. The 1938 racial laws meant Stella was kicked out of school and her father compelled to relinquish ownership of his business, a development that imperiled the family's economic stability. Stella herself describes being thrown out of school as the deepest affront she had ever experienced: "Quite honestly, I am what I am from the racial laws. Being kicked out of school was the greatest possible humiliation.... This experience formed me, you might say malformed me." A hard part, for her, was not being able to see--and therefore outwit or outmaneuver--the enemy: "Who was I to fight against? I had no idea."

Your conversations seem to have sparked remarkable self-insight from Stella. To what unexpected topics did this lead your Saturdays?

A tender question: her intimate life, her sense of herself, her failures, her disconnections. But also their obverse: how deeply attached to people she is and how abidingly curious and engaged with the world she remains, even at 99.

What do you hope Stella's approach to living--to being open to meeting "different vivid characters"--inspires readers to do? What do you think it has done for Stella?

She has told me more than once that her friendships have made her life. She likes to say that being open to new people means being open to the world. I think we can all learn from that.

In what ways has meeting Stella impacted the way you live your life?

It makes me, too, want to be as fiercely connected to the world as Stella is. And to ask every older person I know every question I can think of. And to be compassionate and patient, both with other people and myself.

Stella herself could not choose, for so long, how to live her life.

No. Stella did not choose to be thrown out of school, or lose her home, or be deported to Auschwitz, or have her family murdered upon arrival there. When faced with all this lack of choice, Stella elected to live--to try to live.

Can you describe Stella's power as a storyteller?

At a memorial service for Spalding Gray, John Perry Barlow spoke about the monologist's "selfless generosity of spirit," a phrase that I think beautifully encapsulates Stella. "He gave us himself, as he was," Barlow went on to say, "flawed and naked before our judgment. In doing so, he extended a healing permission to us. Being utterly disclosed before strangers creates a zone of general amnesty that loosens the shackles of everyone's quiet desperations. It is a blow against the pursuit of loneliness." In the way she speaks so candidly about herself, Stella has created her own zone of general amnesty, and to my mind may help to unshackle desperations she is unaware of. Certainly, she has done so for me. --Samantha Zaboski

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