Adam – a memory

My memories of Adam remain strong even now, for he brought the war into our family. As I recall, Adam came to us when he was thirteen, from a displaced persons’ camp in Europe, to our large extended family in a central California valley town. We were four families, living less than a mile apart—three older cousins, seven cousins all about the same age—and then Adam. The war with Germany had just ended and the horrors of the concentration camps were just being unveiled; those places that had names which sounded so harsh and strange: Buchenwald, Auschwitz. It was from one such camp that Adam emerged a survivor.

At the end of the war, the Red Cross published lists of the names of homeless and orphaned children living in displaced persons’ camps in Europe. On one of these lists, my aunt found the name Adam Goodman. Her maiden name being Goodman, and Adam Goodman being from Poland near the German border, she felt that he might be a relative. Although she had a son and a daughter of her own, she and her husband decided to send for and adopt this child.

When Adam arrived in this country they found out that he was not a relative, but by then it didn’t matter to her. She brought him into her family. We soon learned from the whispered conversations of our parents’ that Adam awoke every night, screaming in his sleep, to be held and rocked by my aunt. They had no common language to share his nightmares

Adam was thirteen, yet he was the size of a nine year old. His head seemed abnormally large for his body. He arrived with teeth missing, was painfully thin, jumped at any noise, spoke no English, and never smiled. He grunted when he ate and grabbed food with both hands. I remember that in the beginning we often stared at each other, unable to make contact of any kind.

My cousins and I were healthy, active, tanned and playful; Adam did not know how to play. He often stared into space, as if he were seeing things we couldn’t see. For many months, we never understood why he was as he was. Our parents explained that he had been in a concentration camp and all of his relatives had died, and now he was part of our family and we must be kind to him.            

When Adam started to school, I felt ill at ease and uncomfortable, having to explain this strange boy to my friends.  I, as a Jewish child, very much in the minority in high school, wanted nothing more than to blend in and belong. Adam’s looks and behavior required an explanation.

His English improved, and as he gained weight, got false teeth, and become more used to us, the fragments of information grew. It couldn’t be true, we all said to each other, but the number tattooed on his arm was a constant reminder to us of his losses. It was a painful reminder that we, as Jewish children, could have been Adam. Our grandparents came to America from Europe. But what if they had not?

We soon learned, or overheard more of Adam’s story from the adults in our families. Adam, his younger sister, his mother, father and grandmother were sent together to a concentration camp. His mother and sister were killed soon after. His father worked until he could no longer work, and then he was taken away.

About a year after Adam arrived, he and I went for a walk alone.  I remember that it was in the spring.  The orange blossoms covered the trees and the air was fragrant and warm.  Both of us were barefoot, and Adam said that our bare feet reminded him of early mornings in the camp. He asked me if I wanted to know about the day that his grandmother was taken away.

Each morning the guards came into the barracks to look over the prisoners.  Those who were too sick to work and those who had died in the night were taken away.  Those who could work were lined up, to repair roads or go into the coal mine.  As the guards entered the barracks, Adam’s grandmother pushed him under a pile of bedding and she herself was taken away. 

The next day, Adam lined up with the others, stood straight and tall, and told the guards that he could work as well as a man-perhaps even better– in the close confines of the coal mine.  He could fit into small spaces. He convinced his guards to allow him, a  small child, to join the work detail. 

Adam didn’t grow much.  He lost many of his teeth from malnutrition, but he worked—and he survived—until the allies entered the camp and took him to his third home—a displaced person’s camp. Adam’s journey was long; from a ghetto in Poland, to a concentration camp, to a relocation camp and finally to California and to us.  Adam learned three years of schoolwork in a year. He learned to ride a bike, he played ball, shot marbles and flew kites with us. He grew taller and stronger and began little by little to trust those around him. By the time he went on to high school, the other students treated him with respect—and something akin to awe. In his senior year of high school he ran for class president and he won. My aunt adopted Adam, but so did our larger family, and in some way the school, and the people in our part of town who knew him.

Yosemite is beautiful in February; the snow is deep, the weather is cold, and the air chills your lungs as you ski downhill.   It is freedom to ski—to allow the hill to draw you downward—but to feel in control.  The school ski trip marked the end of high school for Adam’s mid-year graduating class. Adam’s schoolmates told of his having lunch. He and his friends took the lift to the top of the hill.  It must have been good to be with friends, to graduate, to be an American, to fit in, to see snow and play in it and not think of the cold, frightening snowy days in Poland.

Adam died on that snow-covered hill in California.  He died quickly before he could reach a hospital. The doctors explained later to my aunt that the combination of lunch, the high altitude and the intense activity was too much for his heart, which had been weakened by his earlier malnutrition and work in the coal mine. 

My disbelief at the news of Adam’s sudden death evoked my earlier disbelief when he came to us and we learned his story. I thought about him for many years afterward. This spring, looking back on my own long life, I thought of him again, and remembered our barefoot walk together. I thought what he had meant to me.  His life was short, his time with us brief.  We taught him to play.  He taught us what treasures we had. Our parents, our homes, and the security of our lives was a precious gift that I grew to cherish, appreciate and deeply understand as never before.

Interconnecting Circles   

#Marion Bar-Din