Sa’adi a-Levi and his second wife, Esther

Family of Leon Levy

Sa’adi a-Levi and his second wife, Esther, circa 1890s

Salonica, the historic city on the Aegean Sea (now called Thessaloniki), was at the turn of the twentieth century probably as close to paradise as a European Jew was likely to get. The salon cultures of Berlin, Vienna, or Paris may have been more glittering, but there Jews sat uneasily on the edges of elite society and public life, warily eyeing growing anti-Semitism. In this vibrant, multicultural, and multiconfessional Mediterranean port, by contrast, Jews were the dominant population, preeminent in various commercial sectors, pillars of municipal life, and enjoying close relations with the ruling Ottoman Empire.

The pride felt by Salonican Jews in their Ottoman citizenship, civic stature, and cultural attainments is palpable in the epitaph on the tombstone of Sa’adi a-Levi (1820–1903), the patriarch of the Sephardic clan whose story is told by Sarah Abrevaya Stein in Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century. The epitaph opens by proclaiming that “he…was the chief poet who composed several poems for the visit of the sultan and his entourage [in 1859],” and closes by noting that Sa’adi published newspapers in both Ladino—the primary language spoken by Salonica’s Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had been expelled from Spain in 1492—and French, embraced as a second language by Salonican Jews, Sephardic and otherwise, who favored Westernization and modernization.

Yet the tombstone no longer exists; the four-hundred-year-old Jewish cemetery was seized by German occupying authorities and dismantled by the municipality in 1942. We only know of the epitaph from a book about the Salonican Jewish cemetery published in 1931; all that remains of Sa’adi’s grave is one small fragment found in 2013 paving a suburban walkway. If the inscription testifies to the accomplishments of the Salonican Jewish community, its shattered state signals the fragility of its apparently secure earlier existence.

The “Sephardic Journey” traced in Family Papers is similarly bounded by confident cosmopolitanism and aching loss. The nineteen men and women we meet in its pages—Sa’adi’s children, in-laws, and descendants—lived rich, expansive lives. One of his sons became an Ottoman imperial official; another moved to Paris and founded a journal dedicated to Sephardic culture; a daughter crisscrossed the Mediterranean during a long teaching career. Subsequent generations include a soldier, a dairy farmer, an engineer, a doctor, and a film actor. The Levy men and women (as Stein comes to call them, after the spelling adopted by younger generations) frequented cafés; wrote music; started businesses and saw some fail; built houses; traveled; learned new languages (with impressive facility); married, divorced, and remarried; raised children; and eventually fanned out over five continents.

Many of the siblings and cousins shared certain characteristics: they tended to be strong-willed, ambitious, well-traveled, linguistically gifted, forward-thinking, and outward-looking (first toward Vienna, then toward Paris and beyond). Yet in the end, in spite of their distinctiveness, the modern history of the Levy clan echoes that of all too many Jewish families, Ashkenazi and Sephardic alike: it is characterized by geographical scattering, economic struggle, political insecurity, and, inescapably overshadowing it all, the Holocaust.

Family Papers is organized chronologically, as Stein, a professor of Jewish and Mediterranean history at UCLA, follows the family members, one at a time, through the decades. Although the years covered were dramatic ones in Salonican and European history—encompassing two regional and two world wars; regime change and dictatorship; fire, famine, earthquake, and pandemic—Stein does not offer a sweeping historical narrative. Instead, her focus is on the papers she has tracked down and the individuals whose lives they document, piecing together intimate stories from letters, diaries, photographs, and legal, medical, or governmental records, as well as interviews with descendants. Stein guides the reader through these sources with a restrained but humane voice, occasionally providing useful context or foreshadowing troubles to come, but mostly limiting her discussion to the circumstances at hand. We consequently experience the Levy family history in the way the Levys themselves did, and as all humans go through life: as it happens, with little idea of what is taking place elsewhere, much less what will happen in the future. The result is a book of unusual emotional power and immediacy.

A personal tone is set from the start, in a preface entitled “Writers.” As the title signals, Stein’s primary interest here, as throughout the book, is not with events but texts—chiefly the letters she has collected and the people who wrote them. The Levys are introduced by way of their record-keeping, as Stein describes the various family archives she consulted, the individuals who created and guarded them, and the precious contents they contain. But the most prominent writer in this chapter is Stein herself. In a narrative that is part detective adventure and part ethical meditation, she details the process that led her from editing Sa’adi’s memoir almost a decade ago to tracking down Sa’adi’s great-great-grandson in Rio and gaining access to his rich trove of documents, to wrestling with the decision to reveal a painful family secret uncovered during her research.


Thanks to the survival of Sa’adi’s memoir, Stein is able to provide a vivid portrait of the a-Levi patriarch. In a photograph dating to the 1890s he looks the embodiment of a bygone era, arrayed in a traditional Ottoman fez and kaftan, but Sa’adi was anything but old-fashioned. He used his memoir not to muse about the past but to rail against the intolerance and intransigence of the Salonican rabbinical establishment, with whom he clashed at various points in his life (while remaining an observant Jew). Already as a young man he had enraged a rabbi by setting a Jewish prayer to a melody based on a secular Turkish song, and the two newspapers he founded became vehicles for promoting progressive causes and attacking what he considered to be fanatical or exploitative rabbinical practices. He ensured that his children would receive a modern, Western-oriented education by enrolling them in the local French-language Alliance Israélite Universelle school, which he had helped establish in 1873.

The women closest to Sa’adi remain more enigmatic—he doesn’t even tell us the names of his mother or his first wife, who both died quite young. But the a-Levi matriarchs seem to have shared, perhaps to have inculcated, his progressive tendencies. Sa’adi’s maternal grandmother had immigrated to Salonica from Italy in the eighteenth century and imparted a taste for and expertise in making European-style clothing to her daughter. When this daughter, Sa’adi’s mother, was widowed at a young age, she used her sewing skills to support her family, eventually building a thriving business that catered to the city’s diplomatic and commercial elites. Sa’adi’s sisters, also seamstresses, inherited their mother’s talent.

The next generation is represented by four of Sa’adi’s fourteen children (three died young, three are mentioned only briefly, and four proved difficult to trace). All four benefited from excellent Alliance educations, but they took very different paths. The eldest daughter, Rachel, attended a teacher-training program in Paris, married a fellow educator, and taught in a dozen different Alliance schools in cities and towns around the eastern Mediterranean. Her letters to her employers, brimming with complaints about her students and the conditions of her postings, reveal a strong, demanding, sometimes abrasive personality.

A second daughter, Fortunée, married young, soon after graduation, into a prosperous Sephardic merchant family. Though still practicing Jews, she and her husband were even less traditional than Sa’adi. They partnered and socialized with Muslims, sent their children to a Catholic school, and left Salonica’s Jewish neighborhood for an Italian-style villa in a fashionable, multi-ethnic suburb. Fortunée’s personality is inaccessible, as she left no letters of her own, but Stein was able to plot her life through photographs, documents, material artifacts, and relatives’ reminiscences.

Sa’adi’s son Shemuel Sa’adi moved on from the Alliance school to study at an imperial Ottoman lycée, where he acquired a Turkish nickname (Kemal) and became fluent in Ottoman Turkish; upon graduating he went to work at the Anatolian Railway Company. But he was evidently a restless soul, not cut out for a desk job, and after a visit to Paris during the height of the Dreyfus Affair, he became radicalized. Adopting the name Sam Lévy, he took over his father’s newspapers and plunged into activism and political journalism, first as a socialist, then as an antisocialist Ottoman patriot. Sam’s older brother David, by contrast, was a disciplined and meticulous young man who thrived in an administrative setting. After briefly reading law, he was appointed to the influential position of director of the Ottoman Passport Office. Now known by the Turkish name and title Daout Effendi, he became a pillar of Salonican society.

During Sa’adi’s last years, the future of his family must have seemed stable and secure. Yet within a decade of his death in 1903, a great deal had changed. The Young Turk revolution of 1908 caused little upheaval for the Levys (and was ardently welcomed by Sam the political firebrand), but the effect of the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912–1913) proved to be dire. Life during wartime was hard enough, as the city was flooded with refugees and soldiers, business and transport came to a halt, and food was in short supply. But the greatest changes came after the war, when the new Greek rulers of Salonica (renamed Thessaloniki) began to introduce measures promoting Hellenic culture, favoring Greek Orthodox Christians, and marginalizing Jewish and Muslim elements of Salonican society. These stresses were swiftly followed by World War I; the Great Fire of 1917, which ravaged nearly two thirds of the city; and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, which led to widespread forced population displacements, as Balkan Muslims were relocated to Turkey and Greeks were moved out of Turkish lands.


All these developments placed Salonican Jews, the Levys included, in an increasingly precarious position. The Great Fire took a particularly heavy toll on Jewish property—many Jewish businesses were destroyed, and 70 percent of the people rendered homeless were Jews. The devastated community faced further economic hardship when the new Greek municipal government passed laws banning Jews from working at the port and changing Salonica’s official day of rest from Saturday to Sunday, placing Jewish merchants and laborers at a severe disadvantage. Daout Effendi, loyal subject of the sultan though he had been, stayed in Salonica and adjusted to the new regime. He became general director and financial manager of the Jewish community, doing his best to protect the interests of his fellow Jews even as rabbinical and Zionist leaders attacked him for (allegedly) lax observance. But by 1920 three of Daout’s siblings and both his sons had left the city. Other relatives sought out non-Greek passports in anticipation of eventually having to leave.

The subsequent experiences of these siblings and sons diverge with their destinations. Fortunée’s family followed a brother-in-law to Manchester. Despite rocky beginnings—a son interned by the British as an enemy alien during World War I, financial struggles, encounters with anti-Semitism—they thrived in England. Her children were educated in Christian schools, married British subjects, and opened businesses or entered respectable professions, becoming solid members of the British middle class. (In a surprising twist, Stein discovered that one of Fortunée’s granddaughters played Miss Moneypenny, the secretary to James Bond’s superior in the British secret service.)

Daout’s son Leon, after several unsettled years shuttling between Paris, Switzerland, and Germany with his wife and baby boy, accepted an invitation to join his brother-in-law’s import-export firm in Rio de Janeiro. Leon’s life there was not trouble-free: he missed his home and his relatives, he worried about his place in his father’s heart (and estate), his business occasionally floundered, and his marriage ended. But overall, Leon did well in Brazil. He was able to send money to distressed relatives back home, he remarried happily, and his son became a prominent surgeon and devoted father of four. Family Papers owes its existence to Leon’s determination to stay in touch with his relatives and to preserve family photographs and papers, including his grandfather Sa’adi’s memoir; his collection forms Stein’s most important archive.

The tale is very different for those who remained in continental Europe. Though a chief characteristic of Sephardic historiography—which seeks to balance perceived overemphases on Ashkenazi Jews and experiences of suffering in Jewish studies—has been its resistance to putting the Holocaust at the center of its narrative, for most of the Levy clan there was no escaping the Final Solution. Between those who had fled to France and those who had remained in Salonica, at least thirty-seven members of the Levy family were murdered by Nazis and their collaborators. Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the book is that one of these collaborators, a notorious bounty hunter who tracked down Greek Jews on the Nazis’ behalf (and apparently terrorized and murdered many of his fellow Salonican Jews for his own pleasure), was Sa’adi a-Levi’s great-grandson Vital.

Stein relates each of these livesfrom Vital’s dark history to the restless, resentful wanderings of Leon’s brother Emmanuel and the courage and endurance of Sa’adi’s grandson Jacqueswith a storyteller’s skill and with deep empathy. But the greatest strength of Family Papers—its author’s thoughtful guiding voice—is also its primary weakness. A puzzling feature of this archival tour de force is how little we encounter the actual sources. A letter from Vital’s sister, Julie, expressing anguish at her postwar ostracism in Salonica is quoted at some length. But often the Levys’ thoughts and feelings are filtered through Stein’s words; we rarely get to read their own.

Sa’adi’s life is clearly outlined, but we do not hear the tones or cadences of his memoir. At one point during Rachel’s often-rocky teaching career, when she was posted to a small, backwater Bulgarian town in the midst of a typhoid pandemic, her husband was accused of attempting to rape the rabbi’s daughter-in-law. Stein’s summary of the letter Rachel sent to her employers at the time says merely that Rachel “declared the situation ‘totally insupportable.’” We are left wondering in what context Rachel addressed the charge, and whether and how she defended her husband against the allegations. Similarly, Stein notes that in Sam’s diary he was “judgmental of his brothers’ intellect,” but we do not know how severely he judged them or what provoked his remarks.

We are told that the thirteen surviving letters exchanged between Leon and Emmanuel were “harsh” and “angry,” but from this emotional correspondence we see a total of two words and two sentences. One can well believe that Leon’s first wife, Estherina, was “moody” during an “unstable decade” in which she was plagued with poor health and deteriorating eyesight, but Stein doesn’t share her source for Estherina’s state of mind. We are assured that Rachel was treasured by her family, but Stein quotes only the briefest of formulaic snippets (“a ‘true mother,’” “my much loved wife”) from what presumably were warm testimonies.

Toward the end of the book Stein poses a question: “What, if anything, ties [these people] together?” She is here referring to Sa’adi’s great-great-great-grandchildren, some of whom were raised as Christians, none of whom speak Ladino, and almost all of whom were ignorant of their family history and of one another’s existence until Stein contacted them. But the same question might be asked of the Levy clan at almost any point in their pastor indeed of the Jewish people at any point in theirs. Family Papers provides no easy answers. As with any family, love and a sense of connection coexisted among the Levys with alienation, indifference, and silence. Long periods went by during which siblings and cousins of the same generation neither wrote nor spoke to one another. Sam and his wife cut off contact with their daughter upon her marriage, disapproving of the husband she had chosen. For years the young daughter of Vital, the brutal cousin whose violent nature made him a willing and useful servant of the Nazis, languished unhappily in a Catholic boarding school, largely neglected by a family that preferred to forget her existence.

Such family tensions and ruptures are intimate examples of larger divisions within European Jewish communities. Sam’s son Jacques, the sole Levy to survive deportation to a Nazi camp, hailed “sublime Jewish solidarity” when he was helped by a Jewish Soviet officer. But as Sa’adi’s and Daout’s clashes with rabbinical authorities and Zionists alike testify (and as Stein notes of Sa’adi’s living descendants, who practice very differing forms of Judaism or do not practice at all), Jewishness can mean different things to different people. European Jewry encompassed many ethnicities, languages, and practices. The decades before World War II contained lively, sometimes fierce, debates between secular and observant Jews; members of Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities; Zionists, socialists, and capitalists.

Jewish solidarity was not inevitably on display even after the war, when one might think shared suffering would transcend other differences. Survivors who had been interned in Bergen-Belsen, considered a “favored” destination, were shunned by those who had endured Auschwitz, or who had spent the war in hiding. The same treatment or worse was meted out to relatives of suspected collaborators. Israel and Zionism, so often held up as central pillars of modern Jewish identity, were of little importance in the Levy family’s consciousness.

The story of the Levy clan suggests that identity, connection, and survival, whether of a family or of a people, is to a considerable extent a matter of contingency, and even luck. It would be bracing to be able to discern a pattern in this journey. One might be tempted, for example, to prescribe as an antidote to intolerance a multiethnic or multicultural state along the lines of the Ottoman Empire. But the same empire that provided such a welcoming haven to Jews was responsible for the Armenian genocide. No easy patterns determined the fate of individual Levys either. Jews tend to feel safer in liberal democracies, but Leon’s family fared better under a dizzying succession of coups, military dictatorships, and regime changes than their relatives who sought refuge in the City of Lights. Life or death depended upon the mood of a Portuguese official issuing passports, or upon whether an in-law set up shop in England or Brazil rather than France.

Family ties were reduced to a thread. Had Leon not been determined to assuage his loneliness by keeping in touch with the relatives he left behind, and then to track them down after the end of World War II, Sa’adi’s surviving offspring might never have found one another or reunited. And had he not decided to collect and preserve all those letters, Family Papers could not have been written. We can be grateful that he did, and that it was. But we also remain painfully aware of all the blank pages in the family history.