Considering all she’s experienced, 96-year-old Auschwitz survivor Stella Levi has an impressive recollective ability. It even stuns her these days. “One thing that I am amazed at is my memory,” she says, sitting in a carriage house above the West Village that’s become home to an exhibit inspired, in part, by her past: “Los Corassones Avlan.”
Levi grew up on Rhodes—a small island housing Turks, Greeks, Jews, and Italians. But her life abruptly shifted in 1944 when she became among 1,700 Jews deported and sent to concentration camps. Only 161 survived that arduous journey, which put an end to a Mediterranean Jewish community that had thrived for centuries.
That lesser known piece of Jewish history frames “Los Corassones Avlan,” a collaboration between Centro Primo Levi and the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, in partnership with NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli - Marimò, Kehila Kedosha Janina, and the American Sephardi Federation. Levi says, “I feel very proud that we were able to collect little pieces and remember.”
The exhibit culls textiles, books, and archival images—projected throughout the space—that showcase Jewish life on Rhodes. With four ethnicities living so close to one another, their cultures naturally intertwined. “[Jews] take a lot from them, even though we keep our things, as far as the rituals,” explains Levi. “They learn also how to take. I am sure that many Turkish friends and Italian friends and Greek friends had to take in a lot from us.”
Beyond the artifacts, the nonagenarian has dedicated her time to sitting in the carriage house and speaking with visitors. Sharing her story constitutes an important act for Levi, one that touches on the humanity of the past. “First of all, [memory is] different than the historians,” she explains. “It’s the little things of every day—the things that make you human, and not the historical facts.”
Telling about Rhodes means that Levi takes her place in an oral tradition stretching back generations. “I remember things that I haven’t lived or seen because they were told to me by my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts,” she says. “Before you would hear about the oral tradition, but what does it mean? I know it now, exactly what it means.”
After being released from Auschwitz following the end of WWII, Levi briefly returned to Italy before eventually making her way to the United States in 1949. Upon arriving in New York, she immediately saw the parallels between the city and her home island. “New York is full of so many groups of people and all kinds of ethnicities and that’s what makes it so beautiful, otherwise, I would have left,” she says.
“Los Corassones Avlan” will be on display through November 24 at 148 West 4th Street. For more details, please visit Centro Primo Levi.