- Adam Gillon, the Eternal Solitary:A Tribute
The community of Conrad scholars, and the world, has lost a Giant in Exile.1 Adam Gillon’s fidelity to letters was absolute, his world view—his self-identity, even—eliding with that of the author who was to become his life’s work. Adam’s biographical essay, which he titled “My Secret Choice: By Way of a Familiar Preface,” comprising the opening chapter of his Introduction to Joseph Conrad: Comparative Essays (1994), is a personal record tracing a triple anabasis more harrowing than Conrad’s own celebrated three lives as Pole, British sailor, and author. Our Adam traversed in exile a geography of fortune and mind as Holocaust survivor in Poland, Israeli warrior, and American scholar, achieving eminence as “one of us” long before many of “us” were at all. Yet the conditions of his journey, congruent with—but not merely imitative of—Conrad’s life voyage, assured that part of him would ever remain an amalgam of the quintessential Polish exile, Jewish wanderer, and American Melvilleian isolato.
Adam first saw life as Adam Vogiel2 at Kovel (Pol: Kowel)3 in the newly reconstituted free Republic of Poland, on 17 June 1921, 4 fittingly enough, the birth year of Conrad’s Notes on Life and Letters, containing (ironically) “A Happy Wanderer,” “ The Life Beyond,” and “The Ascending Effort,” all titles that could be the touchstone tropes of Adam’s own life as an Ashkenazic Quixote. Like Conrad’s birthplace Berdychiv (Pol: Berdiczów; Rus: Berdichev), which was in 1857 part of Russia’s Empire, Kovel was in pre-partition Poland’s eastern borderland, today’s western Ukraine.
In 1939 the Wehrmacht marched into Poland from the west, while the Soviets occupied the eastern lands. At 18 years of age, Adam worked with the partisan resistance, saving Jewish refugees from certain death by smuggling them out of German-occupied Poland into Soviet-held territory, where oppression and abuse were at least preferable to the alternative. But when in June 1941 [End Page 1] Hitler violated his non-aggression pact with Stalin and invaded the eastern borderland, the killing began in Adam’s hometown. As with Berdychiv (the current Ukrainian sp.), by October 1942 Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen had rendered Kovel “Judenrein,” murdering 18,000 Jews, among them Adam’s entire family.
Away at a summer session of the University of Lwów, Adam narrowly escaped their fate. Conrad’s naming the vessel in “Youth” Judea, after the historical Palestine’s burning, was proleptic, a metaphor a priori for Adam’s eastward anabasis: like Conrad’s Prince Roman S-, in Poland’s 1831 uprising, he joined up with a body of troops and willing civilians led by the legendary General Anders, marching in the Persian footsteps of Xenophon across Iran and Iraq. They were headed for Palestine to form a Polish corps which would fight alongside the Allies in the Middle East and Italy. But Adam and other Polish Jews with him also had another motive: they aimed to become freedom fighters to win a sovereign state of Israel. After sheltering briefly with Babylonian Jews at Baghdad, they resumed their exodus into Palestine on their own.5
At Jerusalem Adam set about fulfilling his noble aim, while resuming his education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where on 13 September 1946 he wed Isabelle (Heb: Isabella) Zamojre, who was training as a professional architect and would become his life’s soulmate, helpmate, and loving mother of their devoted son and daughter. Through all these joys of marriage and academic achievement, 1947 and ’48 were the bitter last years of the Palestine Mandate leading to Israel’s statehood. Adam’s 1962 novel The Cup of Fury is his testimonial response to his own experiences of atrocity in wartime, in the Haganah’s struggle against the crumbling British Empire, and the ensuing Arab-Israeli War. While not precisely biographical in narrative, its fiction bears the timbre of those violent but heady years of his youth when, like Conrad, the author who perhaps already was engrossing his studies, he had to manger la vache enragée.
1948 was a halcyon year for...