THE LEVY FAMILY’S roots connect them to a place and a community that no longer exists. The place was the port city of Ottoman Salonica, present-day Thessaloniki, Greece, one of the few cities in modern Europe ever to claim a Jewish majority. The community was made up mostly of Ladino-speaking (or Judeo-Spanish) Jews — Sephardic families that traced their ancestry back to Sepharad, medieval Iberia, from which they were expelled in the 1490s, but who, for the next five centuries, called the Ottoman Empire, southeastern Europe, and Salonica home.
The Levys knew Salonica when one was more likely to hear Ladino on the street than any other language. As leading publishers and editors in the city, they helped chronicle and shape modernity as it was experienced by Sephardic Jews. Wars redrew borders around them, transforming them from Ottomans to Greeks. Family members moved across boundaries and hemispheres, with some leaving in optimism and others in shame. The Holocaust eviscerated their clan, destroying entire branches of the family tree. The losses that so devastated those left behind disrupted intimacies and led to new relationships among survivors driven together by grief, seeking solace in one another and, in some cases, cooperating to file reparation claims from Germany. Slowly, agonizingly, they rebuilt.
My 2019 book, Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century, explores the Levys’ fraught and fascinating history over the arc of a century, through seven generations, and across the reach of the globe. Here, I focus on a few compelling members of the family to answer an overarching question: Why do people love the things they do, and can a life be represented by a single thing a person held dear? The essay is illustrated with original watercolors by Esmé Shapiro.
Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi (1820–1903)
By vocation Sa’adi was a printer and editor, by avocation an accomplished composer, singer, and virtuoso of Ottoman Jewish music. Sa’adi entered the publishing world at 13, when he inherited a ramshackle printing press from his father, Besalel a-Levi Ashkenazi. Sa’adi’s father, 36 at the time of his death, had inherited the press from his own grandfather. Over the course of 65 years, Sa’adi and his sons would produce a staggering quantity and range of printed works in Ladino, Hebrew, and French — everything from gilded wedding invitations to rabbinical commentary, the Zohar (a compendium of Jewish mystical writing), and Salonica’s most popular fin-de-siècle Ladino- and French-language newspapers. A freethinker, Sa’adi used these papers to condemn Salonica’s rabbis as corrupt and fearful leaders threatened by modernity. The rabbinical establishment excommunicated Sa’adi for his radicalism. It was a trauma that stayed with him all his life.
Rachel a-Levi Carmona (1862–1948)
If Sa’adi’s publishing legacy passed from father to son, the family’s indomitable and sometimes headstrong spirit passed equally from mother to daughter. For decades, Sa’adi’s daughter Rachel served as a teacher for the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Franco-Jewish philanthropic organization that provided hundreds of young Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jewish women and men with a secular education and an entrée into the formal workforce. With her husband, Elie, Rachel taught in Morocco and Ottoman-ruled Anatolia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Syria. Education liberated Rachel from restrictions that had bound her mother’s generation, releasing her also from the rabbis who had challenged her father. Nevertheless, Rachel was now under a new, equally patriarchal authority: the Alliance, and with it, the ideals of the Western European Jewish bourgeoisie. Despite the distance Sa’adi’s daughter would travel, her path was determined by her superiors, and she often chafed at this. Her dilemma was the need to struggle with the force that purported to free her.
Daout Effendi Levy (David a-Levi) (1863–1943)
As a young man, Rachel’s brother David a-Levi left the family business of printing to become a student of law, a high-ranking official in the Ottoman bureaucracy, and, in time, interwar head of Salonica’s Jewish Community. These prestigious positions earned him a new name, Daout Effendi, Daout being a Turkish version of his given name, David, and Effendi being an Ottoman honorific for a distinguished, well-educated man. Daout Effendi represented the Ottoman Passport Office as Sultan Abdülhamid II reimagined the empire as a modern state. Later, Daout Effendi presided over the Jewish Community of Salonica when the Balkan Wars of 1912–’13 resulted in the Ottomans’ loss of Salonica — territory the empire had held for centuries. Sa’adi’s gifted son helped the Jewish community meet the new demands of state and, in time, manage the chaos of World War I and the population exchanges between Turkey and Greece that followed. Salonica’s refugee population burgeoned and poverty became the norm. “Each day the poor knock on the door of the Community,” Daout Effendi wrote his son, “and it is I alone who must respond and comfort them.”
Vida Levy (1866–1940)
Among the voluminous Levy papers, one figure is all but missing: that of Vida, wife of Daout Effendi and mother to Leon, Emmanuel, and Eleanor. It is possible Vida’s letters were not preserved, or that she rarely wrote, but most likely she was illiterate, which was unusual for a woman of her class. If Vida refrained from writing, she was nonetheless expressive in showing her love. After the birth of her grandson Sadi Sylvain in 1920, Vida had a kemeá prepared for the child. A Jewish amulet containing a strip of parchment with blessings meant to ward off the evil eye, a kemeá was a kind of all-purpose spiritual panacea. Vida sent this talisman from Salonica to the German spa town of Wiesbaden, where her son Leon and his wife had traveled for the birth of their first child. Thirteen years later, when the same grandchild became a bar mitzvah, Vida readied three boxes of fruit preserves for the family, since relocated to Rio de Janeiro.
Eleanor Levy (1887–1943)
In the Levy family, it was Eleanor who remained in Salonica with her aging parents, Daout Effendi and Vida, feeling abandoned by her émigré brothers and burdened by constraint. Though Eleanor was vivacious and creative, she was always the one who filled the void left by her absent siblings. Eleanor’s husband, Abram, struggled to hold down a job, and to transcend his physical problems and low morale. The couple’s daughters, Etty and Allegra, were, in their mother’s words, “fancy,” and liked to dress well. And when Etty did at last marry, Eleanor was overwhelmed by the expense. In a letter to her émigré brother, she confessed that “[t]o marry a girl is to build a temple.” Eleanor’s son was conscripted into the Greek army in 1932, and she took on work as a seamstress to make ends meet. As her grandmother (Sa’adi’s mother) had offered mid-19th-century Salonicans their first taste of European fashion, Eleanor now made Salonica’s interwar women their first trousers.
Karsa Salem (1902–1968)
Eleanor’s first cousin, Karsa, studied engineering at the University of Manchester and then in Germany, where the young man — smart, likable, charismatic, and a tremendous raconteur — made fast friends. Karsa found work with Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG (AEG), a company that produced electrical equipment. In the summer of 1936, Karsa represented AEG in Berlin, his beloved Leica camera at hand to capture the moment. The city was draped in swastikas in anticipation of the Olympics. Adolf Hitler, führer of the Nazi party, chancellor, and self-proclaimed president of Germany, presided over the games’ opening, and the newly built Olympic stadium was filled to capacity with an international roster of athletes and a mostly German public. The equipment used to directly transmit the competitions to the world — a first in Olympics history — was contracted to AEG, which meant that Karsa’s employer was responsible for delivering images of Hitler at his most triumphant. When the audience of thousands rose to “Sieg Heil,” their arms soaring upward in unison in a terrifying fascist salute, at least two people in the audience remained defiantly seated: Karsa Salem and his future wife, Pearl Russel Payne.
Vital Hasson (d. 1948)
I expected to discover victims in the Levy family papers, as no Jewish family in Salonica eluded the Holocaust. What I did not expect to unearth was the tormenting story of a great-grandson of Sa’adi, who was a documented perpetrator, said to carry a whip and wear an SS uniform. Recollections of Vital’s actions, which swirl through Greek-, Hebrew-, Ladino-, and English-language survivor testimony, are nightmarish. He was said to prowl Salonica’s Baron Hirsch ghetto “like a lion let out of a cage.” He was said to have raped and sexually humiliated hundreds of women, and to have painted the backs, faces, and eyes of men in the midst of deportation, as well as the train cars on which they were herded, to mark them for annihilation. He was said to have reserved particular cruelty for Jewish veterans of the Greco-Italian War, killing children in front of mothers and mothers in front of children. His own wife called him a sadist. Later, at his trial, he laughed at his accusers. Vital Hasson, known as “the Jews’ nightmare,” was the only Jew in Europe tried as a war criminal and killed by a state, Greece, at the behest of its Jewish community.
Julie Hasson Sarfatti Confortés (1914–1997)
Julie’s home was immaculate. She soaked cotton balls in jasmine oil and positioned them in bowls that would disperse the scent through her apartment. She loved beautiful crepe-de-chine nightgowns and wore gloves so that her hands would remain soft and white and her nails pristine. She served peaches cut in half, stripped of their fuzzy peel, filled with brandy and whipped cream, and topped with a cherry. Modeling herself on Grace Kelly, she posed for photographs like a starlet leaning casually against a wall, wearing a string of pearls, nails lacquered, eyebrows arched, and boudoir slippers tufted with marabou feathers. This was before the war, and again later, much later, when the trauma of the war began to fade, even if it never wholly disappeared. In the war’s immediate aftermath, Julie was demonized because of the crimes of her brother Vital, and because she was deported not to Auschwitz, with the majority of Salonica’s Jews, but to Bergen-Belsen as a family member of a Salonican wartime official. When Julie returned to Salonica from Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war, she and her father were among two thousand Jews from their city who had survived. Salonica was unrecognizable. Entire neighborhoods had been purged of their residents. The roads were impassable. Nearly all of Salonica’s synagogues had been gutted and ransacked. Julie stayed in Salonica, remarried, rebuilt. Hers was the home to which all of the visiting family returned.
Leon Levy (1891–1978)
Leon was the most prodigious letter writer of his generation, and also the person who tried hardest to keep the extended Levy family whole. He left Salonica as a young man, newly married to his wife Estherina. The pair lived a peripatetic life across Europe before moving to Rio de Janeiro, and they would live apart for most of their unhappy marriage. Over six decades, Leon wrote a dizzying number of letters to his relatives, at times chastising them when their own correspondence did not keep pace. His letters tethered the family to one another, binding them together with news, gossip, and confession. More than one relative claimed that Leon was the one they held most dear. Yet he could be difficult, even on the page. Leon berated his relatives for neglecting him, for taking him for granted, and for falling short of his expectations. Once, Leon chided a cousin for sending postcards, a medium he found superficial and unworthy of him. Leon could let entire months pass without word: nonetheless, when he wrote, he thirsted for an immediate reply. He was stubborn, and he could drive an issue — whatever it may have been — very hard. These were qualities Leon displayed before the war, and they intensified as he aged, especially in the postwar decades. Leon and his cousins, all grandchildren of Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, had lived under Ottoman, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Indian, and Brazilian rule; they had witnessed the 1917 fire in Salonica, the Balkan Wars, the First and Second World Wars; and they had emigrated in multiple directions, some more than once. When Sa’adi died in 1903, Leon and his cousins were mostly old enough to carry memories of this old-world figure into the late 20th century. Their own children grew up in a global diaspora, with no one speaking Ladino, the family’s historic mother tongue.
The Levys were strivers, seekers, writers, survivors, heroes and anti-heroes. They were citizens of the world; they were family. They loved the things they did because they were quirky individuals who lived intimate histories. In this, they were very much like us all.
Sarah Abrevaya Stein is a professor of history at UCLA, where she holds the Viterbi Family Chair in Mediterranen Jewish Studies and directs the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. She is the author or editor of numerous books, including Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century(2019).
Esmé Shapiro is an award-winning author and illustrator of books for children. She has exhibited at The Society of Illustrators, and her work has been featured in Taproot, Quill and Quire, and Plansponsor. Her first book, OOKO, was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.