I’m preparing an ordinary Wednesday night dinner, and after putting the finishing touches on a spicy lentil soup—a sure sign that winter is in full force—I reach for bowls and placemats and am about to set the table when I hear a proverb, unbidden, speak itself in my mind:
If you eat at the table without a tablecloth, the devil will come and put you down as a tablecloth.
I rewind my steps: placemats back in drawer, bowls to one side. I take a purple and white striped tablecloth out of the cupboard, open it with a crisp snap, and let if float down onto the polished wood.
The proverb was a favorite among the Sephardic Jews of Rhodes, and—despite my moment of domestic laziness—I have it, and many others like it, wired into my brain, because I’ve spent more than one hundred Saturdays spread over the past six years listening to stories about this now vanished community told to me by Stella Levi who, at nearly 100, is one of the last people alive today to have grown up in the island’s Juderia.
Now that the book I wrote about my long encounter with Stella is finished, I find that not just my brain, but my very life has been remade in ways that I could never have imagined when, in 2015, I first sat down at a lecture next to Stella and asked her a question about her childhood.
Most evenings I do, yes, set the table with a cloth. I also know that it’s bad luck to borrow eggs at night or talk about teeth at night or to sleep without a pillow. I know that if you think too much of your old age, you lose your youth and that arguments between brothers never last (not entirely true in my case alas). Some of these proverbs, or adages, I follow or believe in unquestioningly; some, like the pillow, I have tried to decode (when a family member died in Rhodes, it was customary to signal the moment by removing the pillow from under her head).
After coming across a blue and white glass bead in a flea market in Istanbul some years ago, I identified it as a charm that protected against the oju malu (or evil eye, in Judeo Spanish, Stella’s mother tongue) and hooked it onto a chain I have not taken off my neck since. While I don’t go as far as to pin a sprig of rue, another protection against evil doings, to my underwear, as people did in the Juderia, I do keep a small pot growing on my windowsill. And almost wherever I find myself, even in the most unrelated settings, I cannot help but refer back to Jewish Rhodes. When, for instance, I recently happened on a painting that Matisse made of one of his odalisques in the south of France and noted the date—July, 1944, the same month that Stella and her entire community of 1,700-plus people were deported to Auschwitz, where ninety percent of them were murdered upon arrival—it makes me think very differently about the artist sitting out the war in his cozy Mediterranean villa.
Watching “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the new Ken Burns documentary, I recognized how Stella’s family story dovetailed with certain U.S. wartime policies Burns describes: like Anne Frank’s father Otto, Stella’s father applied to emigrate to America, where several of Stella’s older siblings resided; and like the Franks, the Levis were denied entry into the country, the explanation being that their family of four was too large. After Stella and her sister Renée were liberated, the Americans turned them down once again, this time with the explanation that a quota remained in place on Italian citizens—Rhodes having been an official Italian colony since 1923—including those who were survivors, the bureaucrat wrote in his letter of refusal, of “prisoner of war camps.” (I find his factual error particularly sobering in the way it reveals how unevenly informed most Americans were at the time about the camps.)
For me Stella’s story also serves to underline the fact that, not only is there still much to hear about the war years but how differently powerful it is to hear it from an eyewitness. On this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it’s hard not to wonder how many more of these annual markers will roll around while survivors are still among us. It’s one thing to be told, or to read, that the deportation from Rhodes was both one of the most absurd—by July of 1944 the Allies had already recaptured Italy as far north as Rome—as well as the longest, whether measured by time or geography; but it’s quite another to sit with Stella and listen to her describe the long, hot, silently ominous walk that she and her family, friends, and neighbors took as they made their way to the three boats that would transport them from the island that July and what it felt like afterward when they saw Rhodes disappear off the horizon as they pulled far out to sea.
We live in a time when anti-Semitism across the globe is widespread and on an alarming increase. The Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 calculates that over one billion people harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, out of four billion surveyed; two out of three people questioned have either never heard of the Holocaust or don’t believe the historical accounts are accurate—to cite two out of thousands of statistics. To my mind, it’s more important than ever not merely to learn about a vibrant, layered, lost world like Stella’s but to absorb and metabolize it as fully as possible. When I water my pot of rue, feel for the good luck charm under my shirt, and make sure to dine at a cloth-covered table, I am viscerally reminded of what can happen when hatred is left unchecked. I cannot be reminded often enough.