Commentary Magazine


Adam and I

I was quite unprepared for Adam, for his peculiar insensibility, his directness, his momentous inertia. He didn’t at all fit the picture that I had imagined—or that had been imagined for me—of the liberated Jew.

I met Adam in the spring of 1945 at the Zionist headquarters in Marseille, a shabby building on the Rue de Convalescence not far from the center of the city. It was a murky side street, dingy in the light of day, shadowy and dangerous after dark. Not fifteen feet from the building, huge yellow signs proclaimed that the rest of the street was “off limits” to American and British military personnel, a negative advertisement for a row of brothels. The infrequency of my visits to the building had nothing to do with its unpleasant location, or unprepossessing appearance. (I found it necessary to assure myself of this constantly.) Rather it arose from the anomalies of my position as an American and a soldier. These people had undergone so much and I had been so fortunate. . . . I had no wish to play the benevolent American uncle dispensing chocolate and cigarettes (though not enough to go around). What I wanted was to be with them in their sorrows, to be a scapegoat among scapegoats. I had daydreams of impoverishing myself, of donating all my worldly goods in an attempt to share their state of abandonment; but I knew that this would be the most sensational patronization of all. Knowing themselves, and knowing others through themselves, they would suspect the hidden sources of such a grandiloquent renunciation.

Not that they were unfriendly; they were, on the contrary, courteous and frank, as the democrat in a third-class coach is courteous and frank to the “others” in the first-class car. We were unalterably equal and irrevocably discreet.

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On that particular evening a thin young man earnestly lectured on details of organization while the audience gossiped tirelessly and noisily. The room was crowded, which permitted me to lounge inconspicuously against the rear wall. I wanted a cigarette, but I did not dare indulge in such ostentatious luxury. I was wondering how to get out with the least show of insolence when a voice next to me inquired in slow, heavily accurate English: “Would you like to step out on the balcony for a smoke?”

He looked non-Jewish enough to pass in the street as a typical product of the Mar seille docks. He was short, like the majority of Frenchmen (though I learned later that he was Dutch), with close-cropped black hair, a round face needing a shave, and a flat, broad nose. His cheekbones were high, and with his solid bearing he reminded me of photographs that I had seen of young Russian generals. He wore a British army jacket over a polo shirt, GI woolen trousers, and high, black leather boots. He seemed durable, like a young peasant or a city tough. His black eyes looked into mine without any expression, cordial or otherwise—except, perhaps, an intangible glimmer of tranquil self-confidence.

The “balcony” turned out to be a tottering fire-escape at the rear of the building. Adam patiently waited for me to break open a package of cigarettes, and when I offered one he took it without a word. I had a suspicion that he had obtained exactly what he was after, and both the suspicion and the sensation that it might possibly be true made me feel guilty and foolish. Nor did Adam take pains to soothe me.

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After inhaling deeply he said: “I was two years in Auschwitz.”

Just like that. I furiously wondered what he expected: sympathy, commiseration, gratitude? Or simply more cigarettes? I made up my mind that I would concede nothing. Many people had been in Auschwitz.

Before I could formulate a comment he asked me a question.

“Are you a Zionist?”

“There are all kinds of Zionists,” I hedged. “Revisionists, Labor Zionists, conservative Zionists. . . .” This seemed to amuse him. There was a frankness about his smile, with only the slightest tinge of irony.

“Do you wish to go to Eretz?” he asked.

“Well, yes, vaguely,” I replied, “but that will have to wait.”

He nodded seriously, in recognition either of the complexities of the situation or of the fact that his doubts had been confirmed.

“You are fortunate not to have to live on this stinking Europe,” he said. “We must go or die.” The simplicity of the statement (which might have been attributed to his rough knowledge of the language) was melodramatic. But I could not quarrel with its exaggerated truth.

“Do you wish to go to Eretz?” he asked. “Do you expect to go soon?” I asked.

Adam shrugged his shoulders. “That is why I came to Marseille. But of lately I have learned that my father is still alive—in Poland. I must go to see him and bring him out.”

“Won’t that be difficult?”

“Yes.”

We leaned over the iron railing and stared into the barely visible back-yard with its litter of boxes, refuse, and rusty pipes. Brusquely Adam suggested that we go down and have some doughnuts and coffee. I agreed, wondering where he meant to lead me: the American Red Cross club admitted only American and British personnel.

The meeting was finished and we made our way to the stairway over the empty benches. At the front of the room three men were arguing in loud, hoarse voices in a language totally unfamiliar to me.

Walking beside Adam in the street I was struck by his quality of self-rootedness, of impenetrability. He swaggered slightly, shoulders thrown far back, arms swinging freely, avoiding passers-by with only the slightest twists of his body, as if they encountered him at their own risk.

He led me directly to the Red Cross club, preceded me through the door and, after hesitating for a moment, walked across the room to a table in the comer. He gave the order, too, to the French waitress who approached. “Two cups of coffee and—” he made a quick mental count, “eight doughnuts.” After she had brought the doughnuts and coffee he grinned at me, an astonishingly youthful grin of pure delight. “It always works,” he said smugly.

I ate two of the doughnuts and Adam ate the other six—quickly and methodically. Afterwards we lit cigarettes and sat silently smoking. The electric bulbs were reflected glaringly in the mirrored walls, giving the room the barren brightness of a New York cafeteria, a brightness that was somehow akin to, if it did not create, a form of desperate loneliness. Adam spoke first, leaning his elbows on the table and inclining his body directly toward me.

“How old do you think I am?” he asked.

“Twenty-six,” I replied with no conviction.

He smiled again, his pleasant smile, and said: “I am exactly seventeen”—not without pride, it seemed to me.

He continued rapidly: “We were deported from Holland—my mother, father, two sisters, and myself. We were early separated and now only my father is left by me. I was through many concentration camps and I can speak Polish, German, French, and Czech like a native.” Here again, an unmistakable note of vanity. “It was worst of all leaving one camp after you became accustomed to it, after you learned who was reliable and who was cruel, which guard could be bribed and who the real Nazis were. At Auschwitz they worked me in the mines; for thirteen months I did not see daylight. I was young and strong and the Russians liberated us finally. I do not know what happened to my father, I only just learned that he was alive.”

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I was nonplussed by the directness with which he said this to me, an utter stranger. It was not “story-telling” in the familiar vein, being entirely devoid of dramatic embellishment. Perhaps it derived from an adolescent desire to establish supremacy of character through physical endurance, the same urge that makes children brag of their athletic prowess, or even of the prowess of their fathers. Or perhaps it went deeper, down to a psychopathic compulsion to exorcise the events by baring them repeatedly to the world; but, frankly, it is difficult to think of any such irrational compulsions in connection with Adam.

“When the Russians came,” he went on, “they gave me a machine gun and set the SS men against the wall. I killed thirty of them.” He put the slightest emphasis on the word “thirty,” uttering it deliberately and drawing out the first syllable. He brought his legs out from under the table and displayed the black leather boots. These came from one of them.” He hesitated for a moment, brooding. “But when I wanted to take their clothes, the Russian soldiers took them from me. All bloody and dirty, but they took them all away.”

“What did you think of the Russians?” I asked curiously.

He reflected for the briefest instant and then, for the first and only time that I heard, relapsed from English. “Ils sont des barbares. Ils violent des femmes comme on mange du pain.”

“But they are not anti-Semitic,” I pointed out.

“No,” he agreed, “they are not interested in the Jews. But who can say? Perhaps they too will become as bad as the Poles. Why not? Ah—the Poles!” A slight giggle accompanied by an incredulous shake of the head illustrated his attitude toward the Poles. “Do you know, in Auschwitz, every night before the Jews were led to the gaschamber the Poles had a celebration party? Even when they knew that they were going next. . . .” And again he giggled, as if the Poles in Auschwitz had perpetrated a ludicrous joke against themselves.

“Can’t you return to Holland?”

He blushed very red and looked down at the table top. “The people of our street turned us over to the SS. I could not see them again.” A living reminder of their shame, he must obliterate himself.

We were both silent. In that too bright room the conversation, even Adam’s very character, seemed unreal. To what end was all this?

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Adam came directly to the point. “I want you to help me,” he said.

A wave of relaxation swept over me; things were real and natural again. Something definite was being proposed, something that required planning, decision, action, no matter how trivial; something that could be settled and satisfied by a simple exchange of human goods or services. I felt an absurd gratitude toward Adam now that he was so human, so dependent.

“I must get to my father. All necessary papers will be obtained. But I need clothes—an American uniform will be best for traveling. In Poland—I know what to do. And, if possible, a pistol.”

It was very clever. If I refused his request for a pistol—and he had, I am sure, no confidence in my ability or willingness to provide one—I would be morally bound in some strange fashion to provide the clothing. A calculus of compensation, almost, that he had worked out intuitively. Or could it be that I was not the first?

“What do you want with a pistol?”

“It’s a good thing,” he answered soberly.

I wavered, uncertain how to present my squeamishness. To say that I did not want the blood of innocents on my hands—or any blood, for that matter—was out of the question. Adam would not have understood what this meant, no more, perhaps, than I did. The unvoiced problem throbbed through my head: isn’t it a question of whose blood rather than of blood in general? What responsibility had I for Adam? Did I have the right to mistrust the use he might make of this weapon, this seventeen-year-old whose adolescence had been an unbroken nightmare of terror and brutality? The worst of it all was that—unhappily—I did possess a .32 automatic, “liberated” from a German officer, and what I really had to ask myself was this: Did I have the right to refuse? What claim had I to counterpose to his?

Adam stood up suddenly and buttoned his jacket. I rose too, and we walked to the door. As we passed the doughnut counter he stopped short, quickly stuffed his pockets with doughnuts, and strode rapidly into the street. He was smug and smooth once again as he assured me: “I don’t know what I would do without the Americans.”

He was staying at the British YMCA; he had “papers” for that too. He appeared to have forgotten entirely the request he had made of me, and when I suggested that we meet at the doughnut bar at a specified time, two evenings hence, he agreed grudgingly. I felt that my existence had assumed a diminished significance in his eyes, that I was in a way “worn out.” I couldn’t bring myself to believe that it was plain boorishness or lack of tact, but that may have been because I truly did feel vapid and hollow next to Adam. As a receptacle for his confidences, did I share the contempt and repulsion that they certainly evoked? He replied to my “shalom” with a curt “good night,” ignored my outstretched hand, and marched briskly down the street.

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For the next two days I was angry with both myself and Adam. Especially Adam. Who did he think he was? And why had I played the innocent, timid American? In large measure—I see this now in retrospect—this rebellious emotion was an evasion of the lucid moral problem that his demands had raised. The clothes were easy to supply, and giving them would soothe my ruffled feelings; that was never in, doubt. But I refused to reflect on the other matter.

On the appointed evening I stuffed the clothes into an old laundry bag and then, almost as an afterthought, tossed in the .32 automatic along with a box of ammunition. Adam was waiting for me in front of the Red Cross club. Without a word of greeting he took the bag from me and hefted it with satisfaction. He made no move to enter the club, and when I invited him to do so he smiled, pointed to his bulging pockets, and said, “I already have enough.” So we stood there in the darkening street, jostled by boisterous GIs and passing civilians, I irresolute, while Adam appeared lost in thought.

“When do you expect to leave?” I asked.

“Very soon,” he said. “There are many things to do.”

He abruptly threw the bag over his right shoulder, stretched out his left hand and said: “Shalom—and thanks for the troubles.” I had barely touched his fingers when he whirled and swiftly disappeared down the crowded street.

Some time later, overcoming my pride, I inquired about Adam at the headquarters. But no one professed to have ever heard of him, or to have any knowledge of his whereabouts.

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