NEW YORK — Growing up on the now Greek island of Rhodes in the 1920s, Stella Levi remembers having big dreams for herself. She used to sit at a window of her home, overlooking a beautiful garden and think about what she wanted to study at university. “Psychoanalysis was the thing,” she says. She was so determined that she had prepared a small suitcase with “a sweater probably, and two books,” ready to leave Rhodes when the time to go pursue her studies arrived.
At 96, Levi, who survived the Holocaust in Auschwitz, has been telling the story of her childhood in Rhodes and its tight-knit Jewish community for the past month in a pop-up multimedia installation entitled “Los Corassones Avlan” (“The Hearts Speak” in Judeo-Spanish).
The exhibit, which will end Sunday, is held in a 19th-century carriage house in Manhattan’s West Village and was put together by Centro Primo Levi — an organization dedicated to exploring Italian-Jewish history — and the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation.
But this is not your traditional museum exhibit: There are no “Do Not Touch” signs, no long texts to read and the public is even encouraged to touch the artifacts on display, all documenting traditional Jewish life in this then-multicultural Mediterranean island.
The idea, according to Centro Primo Levi Director Natalia Indrimi, is to cross the lines between cultures, history and personal memories, and merge past and present. “We are not in a museum,” she says, sitting on the upper level of the location. “If you take these objects, put them under glass and bring them to the museum and then you have some big white wall with a big projection and writing, it’s alienating.
“It’s like you are trying to capture a dream and the dream is escaping,” she continues.
Instead, the organizers of the exhibit opted for a different approach. “Inside this space we built these fragments of the past: conversations with Stella that we wrote down for years, images, textiles, books and a few objects,” says Indrimi.
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From Ottoman to Italian era
The installation focuses on 1920s Rhodes, when the island went from Turkish rule to its Italian colonial era.
“Italians occupied Rhodes in 1912 and ratified the occupation in 1925,” Indrimi explains. “So it is in 1925 that they began to completely Italianize the island, and in the meantime Italy had become a dictatorship.”
Under the rule of Benito Mussolini, Rhodes became a center of Italian propaganda and served as a “postcard” image of Italian heritage. Many of the young men had left the island to keep businesses afloat and a fresh generation of young women, among them Levi, were experiencing a new European way of life.
“These women were on the cusp of an immense change of which they had their own understanding, probably not a political understanding or historical understanding,” Indrimi continues. “They no longer belong to the Ottoman past, but their parents and grandparents completely do: They speak only Turkish and Greek, and are completely part of the disintegrated Ottoman empire,” she says. In contrast, “the daughters are lured into a [shiny] vision of Europe. They’re curious and the parents encourage them [to adopt the new way of life]. There are no generational clashes.”
That time on the island is one Levi remembers as a joyful period where she “always felt free,” went to the beach from May to October, was fascinated by every detail of the little streets, and never experienced even the slightest nuance of anti-Semitism.
Although each ethnic group — Turks, Greeks, Italians and Spanish, among others — lived in different quarters, Rhodes as Levi recalls it was like “a very nice bazaar where everybody was a friend.”
But her sense of freedom and her dreams of studying psychoanalysis were shattered in 1938, when the Mussolini government enacted racial laws limiting the rights of Jews. Levi was no longer allowed to attend school. “That was a blow I didn’t expect,” she recalls.
With the Nazi occupation of the island in 1943, Levi and her family were deported to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. After the war, and after losing much of her family in the Holocaust, Levi made her way to New York with some of her siblings.
“Los Corassones Avlan,” however, does not focus on the Holocaust, and neither does Levi herself.
Although she is always asked about her experience in the Nazi concentration camps, Levi says she prefers to leave the Holocaust to “people who have brains to study what makes human beings do what they did.”
Focusing on the Holocaust “would make my life very miserable and it would make the life of the people around me also miserable, because I’d be projecting that kind of a thing,” she says. “Whereas I would like to instill, especially in young people, [a sense] that maybe there is something in the human being that can be better.”
It took Levi 20 years to go back to Rhodes after the war. “I went to all the narrow streets,” she recounts, “but I couldn’t hear any more of the singing, the voices, the talking from one house to the other.”
Indrimi hopes that through the exhibit people will get to know Jewish life in the Mediterranean, “how diverse it was, how people lived, and the type of interactions they had.
“And then I’m hoping that we can encourage people to be a little more aware of how we refer to and think about the past, how we absorb information,” she says.
Levi, who has been mingling inside the space every day during the exhibition, is also part of the experience: People stop to ask her questions and engage in conversations about her life.
She hopes that the format of the installation and the illustration of her life in Rhodes will remind visitors to not just use their head, but to “let the heart also speak — because it speaks well.”