By Curtis Michaels
Roswell Daily Record
Editor’s note: This story was first printed in the Roswell Daily Record’s Vision Magazine on January 19 and February 16, 2017.
Stella Modiano, nee Casuto, was born in Greece in 1931. Her father, Isaac, was a rabbi. Modiano remembers being a child during the Greco-Italian was and the following occupation by Nazi Germany before her family was able to immigrate to the United States. She now lives in Roswell.
At some point in life everyone is handed lemons. Stella Modiano, formerly Casuto, has turned those lemons into some remarkable lemonade over the years.
“My childhood in Greece was excellent until the war started,” Modiano said. “The war started in 1941, and I was born in 1931. Up until then, it was excellent. But after ‘41, for the Jewish people it was terrible. We won the war with the Italians. Then the Germans took over and they came into Greece. I was too young to remember how they got there. Overnight our lives changed.”
Things were about to get much worse.
The occupation of Greece by the Axis powers began in April 1941 after Nazi Germany invaded Greece to assist its ally, fascist Italy, which had been at war with Greece since October 1940. Following the conquest of Crete, all of Greece was now occupied by June 1941.
“Everybody was talking about the Germans coming and it was terrifying,” Modiano said, “especially for the Jews because their idea was to kill as many Jews as they can. My father was a rabbi.
“It was a Wednesday, and my mother said ‘We have to leave the city.’ My father said ‘Can’t we wait until after the Shabbat?’ and my mother said ‘No. It would probably be too late. We would never be able to get out of the city. We might be stuck here. They would take us probably.’ My mother was right. We left by Friday.”
The family had good friends and neighbors.
“We went to a small town not too far away,” Modiano said. “There was no anti-Semitism there. A friend of ours that lived across the street from us had a store where he sold men’s clothing. He said ‘if anything happens, you come to my place.’ So we went and we survived.”
From there they were helped by Andartes (guerrillas, Greek resistance fighters). The family’s belongings were packed onto donkeys and the Andartes told them to follow the donkeys because they know where to go.
“We ended up going into a mountain, a hiding place in the mountain,” Modiano said. “It was about two hours from the city when walking.”
They were hidden in an isolated monastery.
“This monastery had two things,” Modiano said. “One was a well for us to drink water and the other was an oven. The oven was quite small. We made an arrangement. All the women knew when to be there with their dough to bake bread. There were 18 families there. We started with four and ended up with 18 families.”
Monasteries in Greece were not only used to hide refugees, but were also headquarters for the Greek resistance fighters, which was known by the Nazi German troops. The risk of being found was very real. During the massacre of Kalavyrta (December 10, 1943), German troops killed all the men of the town after 78 captured German Nazi soldiers had been executed by the guerilla fighters. The Nazi German troops rounded up the village’s women and children and locked them in a church which they set on fire. Fortunately, the women freed themselves. However, all male inhabitants over 12 years were marched to a hillside and gunned down. The following day, the Nazi troops burned down the Agia Lavra monastery. Nearly 700 civilians died. Only 12 men survived the massacre.
Modiano remembered some of the other families they lived with at that time.
“Most of the people that were there had stores in the city,” Modiano said. “They had their non-Jewish employees run their stores for them.”
Life was different for her family because of her father.
“My father being a rabbi, it was different. His money was being deposited in the bank but he couldn’t go and pick it up because he was very well known. Everybody knew him because we had eight parades every year, and the priest and the mayor of the city and my father lead every parade.”
There was another distinction to being the child of a rabbi. The Casuto family had one private but very small room.
“Everybody but us slept in one very big room with a piece of carpet or a sheet or a blanket,” Modiano said. “It was our eating quarters, our sleeping quarters, our playing quarters.”
Resourcefulness was the gift most often called upon in those days.
“It wasn’t long before everybody there was running out of money,” Modiano said. “My father was a government employee so his money was going to the bank and he couldn’t go get it. My mother had been a dress maker before she got married. After she got married, she only made dresses for her and the two of us, my sister and me.”
Mrs. Casuto was blessed with the gifts of resourcefulness and pragmatism.
“She dropped everything,” Modiano said. “She started sewing. To start sewing we had to go to the small town from the place that we were hiding, which was dangerous. My mother and I and my father, every day four days a week, Monday through Thursday, we used to walk two hours in the morning and two hours at night and we were hoping that we would leave the town on time so it wouldn’t be too dark so we could find our home.”
Money lost its value with the war escalating, as it did throughout Europe.
“We never got paid with money, we got paid with food. We would get paid with flour, oil or vegetables.”
The adults at Mondiano’s monastery tried to protect her and the other children from the reality of the occupation.
“We had so much fun not being in school,” Modiano said. “We kept saying ‘We hope the war never ends’ so we could have fun forever. We stayed a year and a half in this monastery. The people who ran the monastery were not Jewish. They took very good care of us.”
Fortunately, the children didn’t get their wish. The war did end.
“One day after a year and a half, my father said to us ‘let’s go out of here,’” Modiano said. “’Put your right foot on this step and we hope we’ll never see this place again.’ We went back to our city hoping that we would find our home.”
What they found called upon even more resourcefulness.
“We get to the house and the door was locked,” Modiano said. “So we knocked at our window. This woman says ‘what do you want.’ We said ‘we live here’ she said ‘you can’t take our house.’ We were lucky, the landlord was home. He told my mother ‘Oh Mrs. Casuto, don’t worry I’ll get you a room right away.’ and we got a place.”
They were not to remain in Greece much longer.
“My father had a sister in America,” Modiano said. “She came to America when she was 18 years old.”
Stella Modiano’s aunt had been told that her brother’s name was on a list of deceased. When that was determined to have been a mistake, she had trouble believing it.
“After the war my aunt thought that she had no relatives left,” Modiano said.
Once Modiano’s aunt understood she still had family she got busy figuring out how to get them to America.
“When you came to America you had to have a sponsor or a job,” Modiano said. “My aunt had a friend in Indianapolis. Her friend said ‘We’re losing our rabbi.’”
“My aunt started laughing and crying at the same time. Her friend didn’t know what to think but when my aunt caught her breath she said ‘tell your congregation to hire my brother and I will pay all expenses.’ And they did.”
The journey was arduous.
“We went from Greece to Paris to Italy to London to America,” Modiano said. “It was February and the train was slow because of the weather.”
Upon arrival the adults got down to business.
“There were about 20 men waiting for us at the station,” Modiano said. “They took my father away. We didn’t know where he went. The men told my father that they wanted a rabbi with no beard. They took him to the barber to cut his beard.”
Adjustments were difficult, they persevered.
“In three months we were able to speak English,” Modiano said. “We went to night school three nights a week. We practiced at home and we practiced with people who spoke English.”
By the time the Casuto family were in Indianapolis, Modiano’s aunt was ready for them.
“She lived in Cincinnati and we lived in Indianapolis,” Modiano said. “My father was her only family who had survived. She stayed next to my father at the dining room table talking and making sure that he’s not going to leave her alone for three months.”
The family had much to learn about their new homeland.
“In Greece we thought all Americans were rich,” Modiano said. “We thought Americans didn’t have to work, you’d find money to pay for things on the floor.”
By the time Modiano was ready to start life on her own, New York City had caught her attention. It wasn’t long before she had a chance to help someone who was where she had been.
“I remember this one time in New York on the Subway, this older woman was standing up and I was sitting,” Modiano said. “She was crying. I stood up and asked her why she was crying, if she’d like my seat. I talked to her in English, of course, and she answered me in Greek. I was so surprised.
“She was lost. She wanted to go to Brooklyn and she didn’t know where she was. I said to her ‘I don’t know where you want to go but let’s get out of the subway. Let’s ask somebody who knows, and then you can go home.’ She must have thanked me a hundred times.”
It was in New York that she met the love of her life.
“I met my husband through a friend,” Modiano said. “There were three men who were friends from the day they were born. They were sent to Germany. They survived.
“I was in New York about two weeks. I went to this store to buy food and I saw one of my friends that I knew from Greece. His name was Leon.”
It was Leon who introduced the two.
“Leon said ‘I want you to meet my friend, Isaac,’” Modiano said. “Isaac said ‘I have to go to a wedding, and they told me to bring a friend. Would you like to go as my guest?’ I had heard about New York weddings and I was dying to go to one, so I said yes.
“The next day Leon called me and he said ‘Isaac wants to go out with you.’ I asked him ‘Why doesn’t he ask me?’ He said ‘He’s afraid you’ll say no.’ I said ‘Sure, why not?’ and we were never apart again until he died.”
A few years into their marriage, Isaac bought the store they had met in and they ran it for many years. In 1970 they moved from the Bronx to Bayside Queens. Stella and Isaac Modiano had three children and 49 ½ years as husband and wife. She lost him in 2002. Stella Modiano has lived in Roswell since 2016. She moved here to be closer to her family members who live in Ruidoso.
The New Mexico Jewish Link extends its sincere appreciation to the Roswell Daily Record for allowing a reprint of this article.