For the past twenty years, I have been the director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, and for the past twenty years I have hosted musicians, actors and poets, singers and politicians, scholars and film directors, both Italian and American. I would have preferred not having met some of them and continued instead to know of them only through their work and their public image; while with others instead, I appreciated the traits of their character and personality that emerged from personal dialogue. Often times, friends who see me on social media with a gallery of “famous people” will ask me who is the most extraordinary celebrity that I’ve ever met, the one person that has moved me the most. And I always reply, without any hesitation: “Stella Levi!”, and in front of surprised expressions I explain that she isn’t a “famous person”, but a woman of great elegance and still greater finesse within her soul and in her manners, that represents the best of humanity after having witnessed and experienced the worst of it.
Stella had been a happy child on her island of Rhodes where Turks, Greeks, and Jews – (mostly Sephardi that had escaped the persecution of the ‘Most Catholic Kings’ )– lived together for centuries, each one following its own traditions and customs. From 1912, the island was governed by Italians, and from 1923, it also became recognized as an Italian province in every sense, with its own license plate initials: RD. Stella grew up in this small cosmopolitan universe speaking Ladino (the Spanish spoken by Spanish Jews), French, and of course, Italian, the language that was taught to all of the Rhodian children, along with our literature, history and music. She was (and she felt to be) an Italian in every sense; everything that was Italian seemed beautiful, elegant, and refined to her.
In 1938, the infamy of the racial laws also hit the small Jewish community on the island and it is only thanks to a couple of anti-Fascist teachers that the Jewish kids of Rhodes were able to continue their education. But the worst came one hot July day in 1944, when the Nazis – who after the armistice had seized control of Rhodes – proceeded to sweep up and deport the island’s entire Jewish community, using the lists of Jewish citizens accurately prepared by the Italian authorities. The war was in its final stage, the defeat of the Axis powers was by then certain, but the order was nonetheless carried out, and Stella, along with her entire family and about 1,800 Rhodian Jews, was taken to Auschwitz.
Stella’s family was exterminated and only she and her siblings survive those endless, agonizing months. After the camp is liberated, the rescuers ask the survivors where they want to go. Stella knows that all of the homes of the Rhodian Jews have been seized and confiscated, and she asks to go to Italy. She is Italian in every sense, but she has never been to Italy. She arrives in Florence, and slowly comes back to life again in the capital of the Renaissance that she had studied from when she was a child.
At the end of the 1940s, she arrives in New York. There is a building where many Jews have been put up. They call it “the Vatican”. And it is right in New York where, many years after her arrival, I come to know Stella. She is a very active Board Member of the Centro Primo Levi, and together with her and her colleagues we organize many initiatives on Italian Judaism. Stella never ceases to fascinate me with her wisdom, her profound humanity, and her sense of humor. But above all, Stella remains for me an example for her profound and deliberate Italianness, an Italianness of culture and affection that was put to the test, but never dimmed, when Italy and the Italians betrayed their fellow Jewish citizens, actively participating in their segregation, deportation and extermination.
Stella loves Dante and Verdi because she feels that they belong to her, because there is also a part of her in those verses, in that music. I will see her Monday outside the Consulate General of Italy in New York, where each year we read the names of all the Italian victims of the Shoah. We will all remain there for about 10 minutes or so, we’ll read the list of names that will be assigned to us and then we’ll leave. Stella will remain there the entire day, despite the suggestions and the reprimands of the many friends who love her and would like her to avoid the cold and take care of herself. The first thing I’ll do when I get there, I will look in the crowd for her reassuring smile.
Translated by Emmelina De Feo