Marcel Adams: A hundred years of loving Israel and life

It’s a larger-than-life tale: born in Romania’s Carpathian mountains, surviving forced labor during World War II, making it to Palestine as a pioneer...

ADAMS STANDS with a senior officer near Kibbutz Ruhama, 1948. (photo credit: COURTESY ISRAEL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES)
ADAMS STANDS with a senior officer near Kibbutz Ruhama, 1948.
(photo credit: COURTESY ISRAEL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES)
Ten years ago, when my father-in-law, Marcel Adams, turned 90, my wife, Linda, and I decided to film this amazing storyteller in action.
As so often happened in the life of this dynamo who turns 100 August 2, he charmed our film crew – Guy Sadot and Yuval Nathan – the videographers from our son’s bar mitzvah. These young Israelis found their roots – and understood their Zionism – by chronicling Marcel’s story.
It’s a larger-than-life tale: born in Romania’s Carpathian mountains, surviving forced labor during World War II, making it to Palestine as a pioneer, fighting in the ’48 war, eventually landing in Quebec City, then becoming a different kind of pioneer – among the first to develop shopping centers in Canada.
But as delighted as they were by Marcel’s perfectly delivered punch lines, the filmmakers started getting frustrated. They couldn’t get him to go deep, to admit what made him tick.
Marcel, born Meir Abramovici, in 1920, told vivid stories about growing up in Piatra Niamt. He adored his father, Jacob, a tanner. “Some families talked Shakespeare at dinner,” Marcel explained, “we talked business.” Antisemitism lurked – schoolmates and teachers harassed young Meir.
Jew-hatred ended his studies at 16, leaving him with an intellectual hunger which he sated by reading constantly. As the historian son-in-law, my “job” was “feeding” him serious works of history, biography, current events. Whenever I threw in a novel, he scoffed: “Meiselach!” (trivialities).
Marcel rejected the “survivor” label, reserving it – out of respect – for Polish Jews and others who “really suffered.” Although most people would call being in labor camps because you’re a young Jew “slavery,” he called it “forced labor.” Characteristically, he later turned the disruptive war years into a series of adventures, with him living in a Zionist movement commune in Bucharest; smuggling food for his friends; juggling multiple IDs in different pockets to placate different authorities.
Once, his close friend Itzu Hertzig was attending a Zionist meeting and missed roll call. Meir stepped up when Itzu’s name was called, to cover for him. The camp’s commander explained that the punishment for both could have been death, but the act of loyalty moved him. Looking at the camera with that twinkle in his eye, Marcel admitted, “I was young and stupid.” Who knew that, thanks to that impulse, millions of us have enjoyed the entrancing songs of Itzu’s son – Shlomo Artzi.
Eventually, Meir made it to Palestine in 1944 – joining one sister; two others came decades later. Reliving his arrival, he grabbed his jacket’s lapels, and shouted at the camera, “I escaped. Look at me! I escaped! It’s me!” The trauma wasn’t obvious, but omnipresent – he knew the Nazis and neighboring antisemites had missed.
Channeling his father’s entrepreneurial streak, Meir started raising cows and butchering them in Pardess Hanna. He joined the IDF in May 1948. But he tired of war, instability and Labor Party socialism – especially after the IDF seized his cows, without even giving a receipt. He immigrated to Canada in 1951.
In Quebec City, Meir worked as a tanner. His boss forced him to change his name to Marcel Adams so the secretary wouldn’t waste precious long-distance pennies spelling out his long name – in one version of his name-change tale. Marcel prospered – although the chemical stench enveloping him embarrassed him – and the limited prospects when you work for someone else’s family dismayed him.
He stumbled into real estate – financing walk-ups that a friend soon warned him would be disastrous. He flipped them – with a quick profit. From there, often aided by Quebec’s small Jewish community – he built and built, working indefatigably, sweating every penny. His big leap was shifting from residential to commercial, from apartments – where “you have hundreds of bosses” – to government offices and shopping strips, “where you can make one deal and not have headaches for decades.”
In 1953, he met another Romanian refugee who had recently arrived in Canada from Israel, Annie Cohen. He was “mesmerized.” They married within months. They would have four children, eleven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren – so far. They moved to a larger Jewish community, Montreal, in 1966. Annie died of MS in 1997 – the great loss of Marcel’s life.
With his thick peasant hands, warm manner and thicker accent, Marcel loved being underestimated by elegant Canadians. They overlooked his mathematical mind, the tanner’s ability to maximize space, and an immigrant’s round-the-clock work ethic. When negotiating, he was always relentless, never ruthless. He advised: “Always leave something at the table, so everyone feels like they won. Otherwise, they won’t like you” – and he really likes to be liked.
It’s easy to like him: he beamed, bounded and bopped around. My parents nicknamed him “the most happy fella.” (I call him “The Count” because he’s Romanian and loves numbers.) He’s heimish – no airs. He’s aggressively unhip. He called his never-ending list of things to do – which he wrote over in a stubby pencil every night – “my laptop.”
He was also proudly, flamboyantly thrifty. As I joined the family, he tested me. “Name all 50 states.” When I hit 49, he said, “the last starts with V.” I had Vermont and Virginia.
Looking at me triumphantly, he burst out: “Vyomink!” But we really bonded when I found him a $7.50 parking lot at the airport – saving him $22.50 – and a $10 barber.
AS HE prospered, he applied the same laser focus to philanthropy. His friend Itzu (Hertzig) Artzi – who became Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor – steered Marcel and Annie toward Tel Aviv University. They launched, among other projects, the Adams Super Center for Brain Research – an interdisciplinary research platform. As in business, he preferred flying solo. But unlike his real estate business, Marcel insisted, “No bricks and mortar – only people and ideas.”
When his friend Dan David created a prize to honor super-high achievers, Marcel counter-programmed. He wanted to intervene in young Israeli scientists’ careers when they were cash-strapped, despairing or contemplating other paths. He launched the Adams Fellowship at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities – “to repay my debt to the Jewish Agency and the Jewish people for welcoming me in 1944.”
Since May 2005, 142 superstars have enjoyed fully funded graduate careers – some graduates are already rocking Israeli academia.
Marcel loved surprising Israelis with his fluent Hebrew and Zionist passion. “The Diaspora is a motel,” he explained; “Israel is our home.”
In 2009, he visited Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. The president, Rivka Carmi, welcoming this 89-year-old Montrealer, asked: “Have you ever been to our lovely city?”
Marcel quipped, “Not since I conquered it.”
Still, our filmmakers kept digging. In their final moments of filming in Israel, Marcel started riffing about being “an optimist.” He said whenever he’s stuck in traffic, he tries figuring out the square root of the license plate in front of him. He admitted, “When I win-win-win, I’m happy with myself.”
The filmmakers’ jaws dropped. They had their key. A constant competitor, with a fierce hunger to “advance” – one of his favorite words – matched by an ability to zero in on small, specific tasks that get you progressing step-by-step. Enough small wins – and you’ve got your good day.
On Sunday, we in the family will toast our patriarch, our role model, our inspiration. I will add three more toasts – thanking him and his late wife for raising an amazing daughter, my wife; thanking them for welcoming me into their family; and thanking him for one of the great fulfilling friendships of my life. Happy hundredth, Marcel/Meir.

The writer is the author of
The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of 10 books on American history, his next book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, will be published in September.