By Nicole Hennessy
Max Edelman remembers every agonizing detail of life in Nazi concentration camps. He’s told his story many times. Speaking in a quick, halting fashion, a trace of hatred transformed into disgust is overridden by his message – tolerance.
In a perfectly pressed suit, with his guide dog Tobin at his side, he tells a crowd at the Rocky River Senior Center Thursday what happened to him.
A forgiving person
“It was on April 15, 1945,” Edelman remembers.
At dawn, 20,000 prisoners of the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany, were lined up and forced to begin what would be an eight-day death march. Without food or water, many people didn’t have the strength to go on. Single shots being fired became a frequent sound, masked somewhat by on-and-off rain.
“By then, I was already blind,” says Edelman.
Holding onto his brother Sigmund and a friend, he was led to what he feared was not a destination at all. By the fifth day, he was ready to give up.
“Not that I was hungrier or more exhausted than my brother or my friend,” he explains – though he did have on ill-fitting wooden shoes that gnawed at his feet, making it painful to walk.
When he told Sigmund to go on without him, his friend asked him, “Do you know what day it is?”
“I don’t care! Just let me be! I can’t!” Edelman exclaimed.
His friend continued. “Today is April the 20th, and today is Hitler’s birthday, and you are going to give him your life as a birthday present?”
With that, he continued dragging his body, and being led forward, for three more days.
Then, on the morning of April 23, the United States Army appeared on that open stretch of road in Bavaria, liberating whomever had managed to make it that far.
Because he couldn’t see, Edelman depended on Sigmund for details about what was happening. What he learned was that many of the American soldiers, as they drove by, openly wept at the sight of the prisoners, throwing whatever food they had in their vehicles — their own rations — over to the side of the road.
While he says he is trying to think of himself as a forgiving person, he can’t get over the fact that, with the Americans closing in, the Nazis could have just fled and let the prisoners go. Instead, they tormented them until the very last moment possible.
Shortly after the death march came to an end, Edelman learned he would never see again. Overcome by sadness and fear, which he refused to let ruin him, he eventually entered a school for the blind, where he was the only Jew alongside blind Nazi soldiers.
From that school he received a physical therapy degree, which served him well for the rest of his life.
“It was on April 8, 1944.” Telling his tales in scenes, Edelman begins his story of blindness.
Two camp guards had beaten him senseless, leaving him to die.
“We all know what cruelty means,” he says. “But just to be cruel for the sake of entertainment, to enjoy inflicting cruelty — that is the apex of evil, and, of course, the Nazis’ trademark.”
Rescued by Sigmund, who helped him back to the barrack, he was a “bloody mess.” His left eye was gone and his right one severely injured. Without even an aspirin, the best his brother and a fellow inmate — an Austrian doctor — could do was put a cold compress on his face to keep the swelling down.
Eventually, Sigmund had to report his condition to the barrack supervisor. But he hesitated. He knew that meant his brother would most likely be killed, but his condition was so bad there was no other option.
So he went to the supervisor, a German national political prisoner named Eric, and told him Edelman was blind, meaning he could no longer work.
After sharing the news, Sigmund was sent back to his bunk.
Sleeping next to each other that night — what Edelman supposes to be the longest night of his and his brother’s lives — they knew the next day was the last day.
“But it wasn’t,” says Edelman.
When everybody left to work, Eric stopped him. “Hop up on the top bunk, just below the ceiling, and lie flat,” he said.
Edelman did what he was told.
Soon the officers came in to inspect the barrack. Eric knew they wouldn’t climb up to see if anyone was on the top bunk because the beds were full of lice, fleas and bedbugs, and they didn’t. They took him at his word that the bunks were empty and left, Edelman lying as still as possible.
Besides pure kindness, Eric’s actions remain inexplicable. If the guards had found out he was helping a blind Jew, both of them would have been hanged the next day.
“Eric took that risk,” Edelman says. “What a guardian angel.”
Not only did he hide him, Eric came to talk to him. He knew how easy it was to lose hope, to lose zest for life.
In that barrack, he loosely quoted the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which seeks and fails to destroy you, strengthens you.”
From then on, Edelman thought of that quotation, “even at times when it felt like being in a bottomless pit of despair, nothing to hold onto, absolutely nothing but a shred of hope — hope to survive that madness, and have an opportunity to tell the world what went on behind those barbed wire, electrified fences.”
As Edelman continues to speak, nearing the end of his talk, Tobin lies with his head on his paws, his eyes slightly open.
Referencing one of his personal heroes, the late Hellen Keller, who, deaf and blind, rose above her limitations to become a philosopher, writer and lecturer, Edelman shares her words: “The highest result in education is tolerance. The first principle in any community is, or should be, tolerance. Tolerance is the spirit that brings out the best in us.”
No natural disaster, he tells the crowd, has destroyed as many noble lives as intolerance. And the Holocaust was just one, perfect example of the sad truth.
“I’d like to conclude my remarks with a quote from an 18th-century sage,” he continues. “Knowledge and memories are the roots of liberty, and persecution is a result of forgetfulness and ignorance.”
Pull Out Quote — “I have seen evil – cruelty – and experienced it as well.”