Zibby is joined by Michael Frank who returns to discuss his latest book, One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World. Michael shares how the conversations he had with Stella over the last six years were never meant to be a book but evolved as he wanted to share her story as a Holocaust survivor and the history of her homeland with the world. The two also talk about how Stella largely survived Auschwitz due to sheer luck and her incredible will, as well as what it was like for Michael to experience the island of Rhodes through Stella’s eyes. Morning Moon Productions, led by Zibby’s husband Kyle, just optioned Michael’s novel, What Is Missing. Read more about the big news here!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michael. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” for the second time, last time for What Is Missing and now for One Hundred Saturdays: In Search of a Lost World.

Michael Frank: Thank you for having me, Zibby. You’re the best. Actually, the subtitle should be Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World. That was an earlier version that went because, of course —

Zibby: — I’m sorry.

Michael: It’s not your fault. It’s publishing complexities. It is very much the story of Stella and the quest for this lost world of Jewish Rhodes.

Zibby: Very true. Although, I’m reading it, I’m like, What Is Missing, A Lost World, I feel like you’re on the hunt for something. I don’t know.

Michael: I am. That’s funny. Of course, leave it to you to put that together. Yes. The next book will be about more lost lives and lost people and lost stories. Maybe that’s my destiny. I don’t know.

Zibby: What is the next book? I know we’re jumping ahead here.

Michael: It’s too early to say. I’ll tell you. I spent seven years listening to Stella. Just as an overview, she’s one of, probably, the handful of people still alive today who was born and grew up in the Jewish community of the island of Rhodes, which was an Italian colonial possession from 1923 officially through World War II. She lived this amazing life in this amazing place with a horrible centerpiece when the entire community was deported in July of 1944 to Auschwitz. I went to ask her a question one day at her apartment and went back the next week and then the next. Then the next thing I knew, almost without realizing it, six years had gone by. I listened to her tell me the story of her remarkable life. When I finished, I thought, why did I do this, exactly? She’s not my grandmother. I’m not from Rhodes. I’m not a Sephardic Jew. Then it made me think, oh, I need to do this with some similar acuity for some of the people in my own life. That will be the next, next project. We’re here today to talk about Stella, so we’ll stay to Stella.

Zibby: We’ll stay to Stella. I was waiting for some giveaway title, but it’s fine.

Michael: No, no, no.

Zibby: Stella’s experience, first of all, I can’t believe how well you were able to capture it. Really, I felt like you transported me into that time and place, which is what the most successful books do. They pick you up and drop you into another completely different life. Not only do we live through the horrors, but that’s only a piece of it. First, you show us in great detail, as she told you, about her whole life, her siblings, her father. You also weave in all of the slow but steady changes that are coming. For her, she wasn’t as aware that they were following a pattern, just like we are not aware when things happen to us until after the fact. She said several times, you’re saying that from now, Michael.

Michael: Exactly. The book, in a small way or maybe in a medium-size way, also seeks to show the process of capturing somebody’s stories. I liken Stella to a modern-day Scheherazade. That’s because of her very uncanny or maybe clever and sly way of leaving me hanging from week to week and month to month and year and to year, which resulted in this remarkable relationship between the two of us as well. It’s funny. I heard you say the word slow. I’ve come to think about this book like the writing equivalent of a slow food. It’s a slow book because it was slow for me to come to understand that it was a book. Then it was a slow book to research. It was a slow story to listen to. It was a slow book to write. I don’t think it’s slow to read because it’s not that long. It’s broken into a hundred chapters, one for each Saturday, a sort of reconstitution of what our experience was. I think to honor the life of a human being who’s nearly a hundred years old and who was born in a world that was so far away from ours and had so definitively ended in July of 1944 — almost no one from the Juderia, the neighborhood they grew up in, went back to live there after the war.

It’s just a mind-boggling thing to wrap your mind around, that you’ve had this incredible life — I sometimes describe it as the Malibu of Greece because they were beach bums, these kids. While, yes, they grew up in a fairly religious ambiance, that was more for the parents and the grandparents. They were close to their traditions, but they were seduced away from them by the arrival of Italians, who brought music and food and movies and Freud and Proust, all of these things I describe in the book, and romance and friendship and wider ways to imagine your future, like going to university in Europe and having a professional life, even, maybe, which no women in the Juderia did, of course. The leaps and the intensity of changes, you point out, and of the span of time that she saw into and lived as a young woman is not something you can just gather in a net and quickly understand. In a way, it turned out, retrospectively, to be appropriate to have spent this much time of my life listening to her and trying to capture her experience.

Zibby: It’s a living history.

Michael: One thing I’ve noticed — it’s funny. The book is just starting to be read by people. It seems to appeal to a lot of younger people, which is surprising to me when the protagonist, so-called, is going to be a hundred years old next May. I think people are seeing in it, something they wished they had done or something they wish they could do or something they feel they should do, which is capture the story of the people around us, the people around them who are older and at the end of their lives before it’s too late, something I only partially personally was able to do with my grandmothers, who died when I was ten and fourteen. I was alert to things, but I didn’t ask basic questions like, where did you go to school? What did you eat for dinner? Who are your friends? It’s the micro-details that end up accruing into the faceted portrait that I hope I was able to tell of Stella.

Zibby: I bet they’re also interested — so much of the book happened when she was young. Even when she was going through the camps and her story of perseverance and being with her sister and how the two of them banded together to make it through life, both during and after, it’s a young person’s tale, really. If this was a movie, you would need a star who was no more than twenty-two, twenty.

Michael: That would only be in the first year of the multi-year TV series, actually, Zibby. It’s funny. I really do think of Stella in a certain way, as a variation on the Elena Ferrante heroine. She’s a young woman both of and in opposition to the world she was born and grew up in. That’s always fascinating because the expectations of women were not very high. They were starting their trousseaus at ten. They were married by a matchmaker by sixteen, as her older sisters — except for the intellectual and rebel — were. Here comes Stella with a very different attitude, an openness, a curiosity, and ambitiousness. No interest in embroidery whatsoever, or cooking or any of the things that were expected of her. It’s an interesting window in because the choices that she made or the things she refused to do show you what the traditional world and possibilities were. Then there’s Stella trying to figure out her own path. It’s impossible to disentangle or say why one person survived the camp experience and the other not. Stella has a good deal to say about this. Part of me wants to say that it has something to do with the way she was wired as a human being, being courageous. It’s not just having pluck, not listening to all the rules all the time, yet knowing when to listen to the rules. All those kinds of speculations, I think are meaningless, as she often points out. She could’ve been all of those things and then simply not succeeded. She succeeded because she was lucky, basically.

Zibby: I feel like her closest call was when she was in the infirmary for whatever that was called. Not dysentery, but whatever, that she got from being out in the rain.

Michael: . At night, yeah.

Zibby: They sent her back to the barracks. Then everybody in the infirmary was sent to the gas chambers that day.

Michael: They sent her back. That’s a perfect example. It was a Jewish Dutch or Belgian physician, a woman with glasses, as Stella remembered her, who said, “This one can’t stay here.” It’s a collection of micro-moments like that in which you could’ve just turned the other direction, and that would’ve been the end of your life. It’s very problematic to try to understand what went on in that place. I think really, all you could do is say, this is what happened to me, and to be careful of conversations around nobility or morality. Stella said within the arc of a week, they became crooks themselves. They stole things. They traded things. They made enemies. They bonded strongly with some people and not with others.

Zibby: I’ve read a lot of stories, as most Jewish people have at some point, and non-Jewish people. I happen to have read many takes on the Holocaust and survivor stories and all of that. This one was different in that Stella was so aware of how she almost left her body. She’s saying the old Stella just wasn’t there. At some point, she just kind of put this curtain down. She operated. She existed. She got through each day. I feel like that was exhibited so clearly when she said that while there, she didn’t cry. Nobody was weeping while they were there. They were treated like animals, not even human beings. Almost as a side effect, their emotions also — to get through, they had to put on such an armor that it wasn’t until afterwards that she and her sister and others could weep in relief and that she could feel coming back into her body once the Americans freed the camps. It was such a clear portrait of what defense mechanisms you have to employ to get through the most terrible parts of your life.

Michael: It’s beautifully put. It’s what one person did. Everybody did something different, but this is what Stella did. It’s not like it was a choice. When one writes it, one has to be careful about even the verb choice. It’s not like she woke up and said, I’m going to choose to detach from the Stella of Rhodes. She herself spent decades trying to figure it out. Wouldn’t you? I think I would. I don’t know what else I’d think about. For certain intervals of my life, it’s like, how did that happen? How did I make those choices? How did I not give in? Why did I have all these moments of luck and my best friend from next door — there are all kinds of examples in the book — didn’t? This is the other thing about Stella, a little bit, that sets her story apart. Although, I think everyone who’s lived that experience and tells their story has something to offer us, probably. She didn’t want to be that person, as she puts it, a storyteller of the Shoah. She didn’t see herself as a victim. She didn’t want to define her post-war life through this one year, transformative, of course, though it was. I think that’s one of the reasons why until she was in her early nineties, she didn’t fully tell her story. I find that fascinating and, in a way, admirable of her. I just find it interesting. It was an interesting choice. It made, also, for a kind of freshness in her storytelling. She had not that often told these stories. It’s never true that it’s not never. I, at least, had the feeling that I was hearing them for the first time, at least put together in this way.

Zibby: It also made it much more interesting that it was told to you and that you are the stand-in for us.

Michael: Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t thought about it that way. You’re the first podcast and the first interview I’ve done — so excited about that — except for some written things. I hadn’t thought about that, that I as the listener am a stand-in for the reader. I’m very clear, also, that someone else could come along and write another book about Stella. This is me. I’m using what I am, what I’ve read, what I’ve lived, the way I’m wired to listen to her and then to write about her. Don’t forget, all of our conversations were in Italian, so we’re at several removes from what it is on the page. To get there, there are different iterations of Stella, let’s call them. Everyone thinks that’s true always of fiction, but strangely, it’s quite true of nonfiction as well. What is true in what you’re offering? Yes, Stella’s story is true, but it’s very much seen through lots of layers of filters, which are inevitable in a book like this.

Zibby: That’s a positive. You could’ve done it where you wrote in her voice as almost a ghostwriter. You could’ve made it a biography. You made it about the relationship and the teasing out of information over time.

Michael: Right, because, look, I’m not a historian. I’m not a biographer. I’m not interested in writing those kinds of books. I am a writer who writes stories that come to me however they come to me, whether they’re my family’s stories in the first book or through imagination based on some experience, say, in the novel or this book that I didn’t even know was a book. I was just simply going about my daily life, so to speak. Suddenly, there’s this unavoidable story that I felt I had to tell. It’s strange.

Zibby: I was surprised hearing about Stella’s — not lack of ability. That sounds judgmental as well, but her difficult time being a mother herself. It seemed like, from the outside at least, she was able to reintegrate into regular society, so to speak. She could figure out where to be. She tried LA and then went to New York and got in a — she ticked off the things that made her seem like she was back in. I felt like this was a waving red flag. What was not processed and all of that for when she had a son and ultimately sent him away? Although, of course, I sent my kid to boarding school. It doesn’t mean I have deep-seated issues. It just seemed a little more dramatic.

Michael: See, there you go. In a certain way, you have a piece of information that you can apply to that choice of hers. You made a similar choice. I don’t feel super comfortable speaking to her mothering. I think that’s been quite painful for her. She has, from what I can tell, a good relationship with her son today. They care for each other very deeply. A lot of things came to her with difficulty. Again, how much do you attribute to this experience? Everything? Nothing? Some? It’s hard to know. She was a formed young woman when she went to Auschwitz. I also try to imagine — honestly, I can’t; I just can’t — what it means to get off a train, and that’s the end of your family as you know it. It’s the end of your friends, nearly all of them. It’s the end of your aunts and uncles. It’s the end of the entire world that you feel you owned, owned in the deepest emotional sense. She used this phrase, one of the first things she said to me, that she and the community thought of Rhodes as their own little piece of the earth. Of course, you would. You’ve lived there as a community for half a millennia. You’ve seen all kinds of different rulers come and go. Then just by the twist of the political dial…

Zibby: Even she repeatedly said, this doesn’t make any sense. Why would they take us across the world when they could’ve just killed us here if that’s what they wanted to do? Why take 1,650 people and put them on boats and trains and go on the longest recorded journey to extinction?

Michael: I heard one of the leading scholars of the Shoah, the Holocaust in Italy say Rhodes is the example of the extreme absurdity of the entire thing because it made no sense strategically, economically, politically. They were already losing the war. They didn’t admit it or know it, but the allies were nearly in Florence when they deport these people. Many, many people have many ideas about why. You build up machinery to that degree. It has to keep moving. You’re not willing to concede that you’ve lost. As Stella points us, just murder us. Shoot us all. Bury us on the land that we belong to, for goodness’ sake.

Zibby: Because that would’ve been great.

Michael: Yeah, that would’ve been great. That certainly happened enough in other places in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Zibby: What was it like for you going to Rhodes with all of this information? I’ve been trying to put myself in your shoes of feeling all that history and knowing what happened, and even Stella’s shoes. Tell me about that.

Michael: The truth is that I went to Rhodes in 2015 when I had just began talking to Stella. Unfortunately, come later. I had started to put together a plan just for the year of COVID to go back with her, which would’ve been the perfect way for me to ultimately metabolize this information and for both of us to finish this project like that. It didn’t happen. Even so, it was a most fascinating experience. The Juderia of today, you look at it through one set of eyes, and you see stupid souvenir shops and T-shirt dealers and restaurants. Then you see it through another set of eyes — meaning, the storyteller’s eyes — and you see all of that as an effect in a movie or a dream really disappearing. Through Stella’s narrations and her memories, many of which at that point she’d begun to share with me, you saw that this is where the cobbler was, the tailor. This is where they sat and gossiped on the stairs. This is the communal oven. Imagine being alive today and still taking your dishes to bake in a communal oven. This is the Turkish bath. This was the synagogue. This is where I first was kissed. It was this strange, bifurcated experience, being there and seeing the 2015 Rhodes but also being there and feeling and seeing 1940, 1935, 1925 Rhodes. It was haunting, that experience. I’m more haunted by the fact that I can’t go back. Also, as I’m a stand-in for the reader, I had to imagine it and capture it in language, and so I became Stella’s listener. That was my way of traveling to Rhodes, ultimately.

Zibby: One other thing that’s so unique about the book are Maira Kalman’s beautiful illustrations sprinkled throughout and the cover, yes, of course, but also these beautiful images that are sprinkled through. Why illustrate at all?

Michael: It’s a great question. The obvious choice, of course, would be photographs. First, you’d have to ask, how are there photographs of this deported community? The answer to that is that — and how are there even photographs on which Maira could base some of these paintings? — is that the older siblings had been leaving the island through the twenties and earlier, and so they took photographs with them, as you would, to remember home. That’s why there are photographs. They’re quite amazing too, a number of them. I felt — this is all going back to something you said earlier about my being a stand-in for the reader and, as I say, that I’m at a certain remove from this story and had to reimagine it for myself, both first listening to it in one language and translating and writing into another, but also having to find a way to tell Stella’s story as a story and not just these conversations that we had over all these years.

I thought that illustrations do a similar thing. They aren’t literal depictions of a reality. They are the interpretation of, in this case, the painter Maira Kalman. It just felt like a natural direction to go in. Maira also had heard this story, had heard about Stella’s story and offered to paint them for us. I thought, great. There’s one other thing that the paintings do that I think maybe the book doesn’t entirely succeed in doing because how could it? which is what I call that Malibu of . This very lush, aromatic, sensual place that Stella grew up, a place of color and aromas and water and sunlight are, in a way, easier to depict when you can paint them than when you say, the sea was blue. The flowers were pink. They smell good. In theory, one would do a little bit better than that. There’s something very immediate in Maira’s illustrations that help take us back and remind us that, wow, this was a kind of paradise. All the more heartbreaking to have people taken away from it.

Zibby: I think I’m going to go and do a Google Image search after this for images and see.

Michael: It’s funny. I just did a little interview myself with Maira. I’m going to write a little piece. I’m just trying to figure out how to do it. I thought it would be interesting to show the photographs alongside that inspired her, to show them alongside the finished paintings. You can see those classic Maira liberties with more color, bigger bows, juicier slices of cake.

Zibby: It’s wonderful. Congratulations on One Hundred Saturdays, for not only immersing me as a reader in the experience and the community, but teaching some history quietly, subtly along the way of all the different periods of invasion or whatever. Not invasion, but ownership of the territory and the history behind it and the war, really. This is how history gets passed down. It’s through stories about one person. It gives me the chills.

Michael: Walter Benjamin has this wonderful quote in which he talks about the power of the oral tale and how it passes on tradition more powerfully than the written story in some degree. When you think about it, it is like — I tried to do, in this book, some rough equivalent of that sitting around the campfire or sitting at the foot of your grandparents or sitting out in the garden and listening as a child or a young person or an older person. Listening to the story of another human being’s life, it’s very powerful.

Zibby: She said it kept her alive, which was so wonderful. It gave me the chills. It’s wonderful.

Michael: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for this wonderful conversation. You’re the best.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye, Michael.

Michael: Bye.

Zibby: Take care.



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