Braille Monitor May 2004
(back) (next) (contents)
Liberation of a Blind Survivor
by Max Edelman
From the Editor: Since Max Edelman retired fourteen years ago, he has devoted his time to writing and talking to groups about the Holocaust and blindness. He is tireless in working for the right of blind children to learn Braille. By any standard he is a humane and gentle man; to demonstrate these qualities after having been the victim of the kind of hatred and violence he has experienced is truly astounding. Here is the story of one man's survival and ultimate victory over cruelty and bigotry. It gives hope to the world:
The morning was clear and sunny, promising a fine spring day that Monday, April 23, 1945, when the SS guard officer gave the order to continue to march. Little did we realize that this would turn out to be the last day of the most demented, tormented, and barbaric period in our lives. For me that period had started shortly after the German Nazis occupied my hometown in Poland. I was caught by the SS Sonder Commando (special unit) in a roundup of several hundred young Jewish men in our town to be sent to a slave labor camp.
I spent time in several concentration camps, most in Budzyn Camp, a satellite of the death camp Maidanek in Poland, and in Flossenburg, located in Bavaria, Germany, about seventy miles southeast of Nurenberg.
Millions of words have been written about life and death in Nazi concentration and death camps. From my experience the chance merely to survive hinged upon staying relatively well and going to work every day if possible. Under prevailing conditions this was a tall order indeed--too tall for many millions of Jews and non-Jews.
The most devastating day for me in the concentration camp, in fact in my entire life, was April 8, 1944. Two camp guards in Budzyn roughed me up severely and left me for dead. Back on my bunk in the barrack, I was a bloody mess. My brother ran to fetch Dr. Forster, a fellow inmate and good friend. The Herr Doctor, as he was known to most of us, had been a practicing physician in Austria until the Anschluss. He was a superb human being, always ready to help anyone any time. Meanwhile some of my friends gathered around my bunk, expressing sorrow and offering words of hope and encouragement. Dr. Forster cleaned me up and applied a cold compress. Then I heard him say to my brother, "He is young, and he will mend. I am worried about his eyes. The left one looks very bad, and the right one could be injured too. With only my hands to work with, there is practically nothing I can do for him. God only knows how much he will be able to see."
I mended all right, but the little bit of eyesight I still had in my right eye deteriorated so that in a few months I could no longer recognize objects. To continue going to work became too risky, not only for me, but, more important, for my brother and my friends who stood by and covered for me as long as possible.
Unlike the concentration camp Budzyn, where all 3,000 inmates were Jews, the 20,000 prisoners in Flossenburg were from almost every European country the Nazis had occupied.
The winter of 1944 started early and was very harsh. At that crucial time in my life, without the help of Eric, my barrack supervisor, a German gentile national political prisoner, I would not have survived. Eric was intelligent and experienced in the art of survival in a concentration camp. During those dark days I recalled my father of blessed memory, a very devoutly religious man, telling the family time and again, "God acts in mysterious ways." Because Eric was a German, the camp officers and guards trusted him. He used that trust to my advantage. He lied and alibied to them about my whereabouts at every morning's head count and kept me out of sight. He warned the inmates in our barrack not to do me harm or steal my food. Eric was fully aware of the consequences to him if he were caught protecting a blind inmate and a Jew at that. Obviously he decided to disregard that danger and take the risk.
In late March of 1945 Eric's ability to protect me came to an abrupt end. All supervisors were ordered to have those unable to work transferred to the infirmary, one short step from the crematorium.
On the day following the transfer, Eric came to visit me. He immediately sized up my situation there. After a brief conversation and a few words of encouragement, he went to see the supervisor of the infirmary, who was also a German gentile national. Hans promised Eric that no harm would come to me if he could help it. Eric visited me every day. My brother and friends also came to see me every evening after work.
On Sunday, April 15, 1945, my brother told me the news he had heard at work in the Messerschmidt aircraft plant, namely that President Roosevelt had died. After my company left, I walked over to the bunk of my newly found friend, Father Pierre, a French Catholic priest, to share the news with him. While we were engaged in conversation, an SS officer came in and ordered all Jews to report to the camp square within fifteen minutes. Father Pierre suggested that I pretend that I was not Jewish and not go. At that moment Vasily, a Ukrainian fellow inmate, called out to me from his bunk across the aisle, "Aye, Jew, you have fifteen minutes to get the hell out of here."
"I must go, my friend, because, if I don't, he will surely give me away," I said.
"Yes, you are right; I am sorry," Father Pierre said. We shook hands. "God be with you," he added.
"Thanks, God be with you too," I replied. I walked back to my bunk, put on my pajama-like jacket, and made my way to the door. I heard someone passing close by me, so I grabbed his arm and tagged along to the square. My brother was already there, looking for me. We were counted and recounted. Finally, at dawn, lined up five abreast, the 2,500 Jews from Flossenburg started the death march. None of us knew where we were going.
The going was slow. The on-and-off rain showers didn't help matters. The sound of single shots from a handgun became more frequent as the time went on. I walked holding on to my brother's arm on one side and my friend's arm on the other. On Friday, the fifth day of the March, I too was ready to give up. Not that I was hungrier or more exhausted than the others, but my feet were very sore from the ill-fitting shoes I had on. I mentioned this to my brother and my friend. "Do you know what day today is?" my friend Shlomo asked me.
"I don't really care."
Shlomo said, "Today is April 20, Hitler's birthday, and you are going to give him your life as a birthday present? Not if we can help it." My brother offered me his shoes. I obviously refused. My brother then inched his way to where an SS guard was standing and asked him if he could take the shoes off the dead man who was lying at the side of the road just a few yards away. Surprisingly he got permission. A few minutes later he returned with a pair of shoes for me. A steady rain on the following day added to our misery. On Sunday morning a light rain was still falling. The guards wanted time to dry out, so we stopped at a small farm community just outside the town of Schwartzenfeld. A farmer opened the door to an empty barn, and we were ordered in. At least we had a dry floor to rest on.
Early Monday morning, April 23, the barn doors opened, and a guard shouted "heraus schnell" (out quick). The sunshine and the fresh air felt comforting. Many did not move--they were beyond feeling and caring.
Just then an airplane flew over the area and dropped leaflets. We were not allowed to pick them up, but the guards did. About a half mile down the highway we turned off onto a dirt road leading to a forest. As we got close to the woods, the most incredible thing happened. The guards left us and fled into the woods with their machine guns and their vicious dogs. We experienced an indescribable feeling, a combination of fear and hope. Was it for real or a cruel trick?
We broke up into small groups and started to walk back the way we had come. We were nevertheless very fearful that the guards might still come after us. The closer we got to the highway, the more we could hear the sounds of heavy vehicles. Just at that moment someone shouted, "It's the Americans, we are free!" Not until that moment did we dare to believe it to be true.
Some were laughing, others were crying, and others were too numb to express any emotion at all.
The American soldiers threw the food they had in their vehicles, including their own rations, out on the side of the road. As the situation was becoming deeply emotional, a group of American officers arrived and took charge.
I was not feeling well. My brother walked me over to a bench at a nearby farmhouse and went to seek help from an American officer. In perfect German the American told the woman in the farmhouse to let me and several other sick survivors in and to make us comfortable. He provided us with tea and crackers and told the German woman to serve it to us. That officer came frequently to check up on us and to assure us of his concern and care. Late that afternoon he apologized for not being able to take us to a hospital before the next morning. My brother, too, was in and out that day to tell me about whatever he saw and heard. Early in the evening of that first day of my freedom, my hunger temporarily satisfied, I was sitting on a comfortable chair by the open window listening to the sounds of men and machines. The moaning of one of my fellow disabled survivors in the room made me keenly aware of my condition. I became overwhelmed by self-pity. "I am liberated all right, but I am blind." Except for my brother my whole family had perished. I was practically alone. I became very scared--more scared of life than I had been of death in the concentration camp.
The door opened, and I heard my brother saying, "You have company." Immediately I was embraced in a bear hug. It was Eric. "We made it; we have survived; we are free," he exclaimed joyously, then, "Aye, you are crying, are you in pain?" he inquired.
"No, not that kind," I managed to say between sobs. "Yes, I have survived," I continued. "If it were not for the two of you, I would have gone up in smoke long ago. I am liberated all right, but I cannot see the proud liberators and the rejoicing liberated, including you. I am very scared," I admitted. "The two of you have done everything possible to keep me away from the oven, and you have succeeded. Right now I just don't know whether I should thank you or hate you for it." A moment later I heard the two of them sobbing as well. This was my first day of freedom.
The following day an American officer took me to a convalescent hospital in Amberg, Bavaria, Germany, operated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). A nurse took me to Dr. Hasselt, the only eye doctor in Amberg, a German of course. He examined my eyes for a minute or two and said, "Max, you will never see again."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and I became furious. I turned to the nurse and said, "What else can you expect from a Nazi doctor!" The American woman in charge of the convalescent hospital--I don't recall her name--promised me that, as soon as I regained some strength, she would make sure I was taken to Munich to be examined by an eye specialist at the university clinic. Three weeks later my brother and I went to Munich. The conditions in Germany right after the war were chaotic--no transportation to speak of--but we were given priority to travel the 210 kilometers to Munich on an army truck.
I was examined by the head of the eye clinic, Dr. Meisner, a high-ranking Nazi officer. I was admitted to the hospital, and two days later he operated on my left eye. He cleaned out the eye cavity to be fitted with an artificial eye. Two weeks later he started a medication therapy hoping to revive the optic nerve of my right eye. After two months of treatment the result was nil. Dr. Meisner told me that nothing could ever have been done to save my left eye but that, if I had received treatment immediately following the beating, some or all of the sight in my right eye could have been saved. Unfortunately sympathetic ophthalmia set in and killed the optic nerve. Dr. Meisner suggested that my brother take me home and bring me back to see him in December.
Take me home? What a joke! Home was a furnished apartment in Amberg, so that is where we went. The landlady, Mrs. Eichenmueller, greeted me warmly, and in time we became good friends. Everybody tried to help me snap out of my depression. Mrs. Eichenmueller knew a blind music teacher, so she made an appointment for me to meet him. He tried to teach me violin, but that didn't work. Then he tried to teach me the accordion, but that didn't go very well either. Obviously I couldn't read music, and with the hearing impairment that I sustained as a result of a high fever when I had typhus in camp in 1943, I had a hard time recognizing different notes. Besides, I had no musical talent, so instead of being helped, I just became more depressed.
Somebody told my brother about a great eye doctor in Wiesbaden, so there we went hoping for a miracle, only to receive the same diagnosis Dr. Meisner had given us. When we went back to Munich to the University Eye Clinic in December, we found Dr. Meisner gone, replaced by Dr. Wesseli, who had been head of the eye clinic before the Nazis came to power. Dr. Wesseli had been removed from office because he was a freemason. He was a kind, elderly gentleman who spoke to us like an uncle. After a lengthy examination he confirmed Dr. Meisner's diagnosis, adding that in his opinion no eye doctor could do anything for me unless someone in the future were to come up with a technique or therapy that might help.
In the meantime, he asked, what was I going to do? I had survived the Holocaust, but only the first part. The second part was not going to be any easier for me. He told me that I had three options: 1) do nothing and be a burden to my brother and society; 2) since the Nazis hadn't managed to kill me, kill myself; or 3) try to rebuild my shattered life. In my depressed state at that time, I needed this ice-cold shower of straight talk. This no-nonsense analysis of my situation came from a stranger, a German whom I still considered an enemy so soon after the liberation. But he was a kind person who earned my trust. We decided on the third option. If it didn't work, I could go back to either of the first two.
Dr. Wesseli suggested I enroll in the Rehabilitation School for Adult Blind in Bavaria, Germany, to learn independent living. I had to relearn how to use a knife and fork, how to shave myself, how to tie my shoes, how to take care of my clothes, how to walk from point A to point B safely, etc. I had to learn to communicate--to learn Braille and to type. But most of all Dr. Wesseli advised me to learn a skill so that I could earn a livelihood and not have to be supported by anyone. If I regained some sight in the future, he pointed out, I would have lost nothing, but if not, I would have gained much. What a tall order for a twenty-two-year-old with almost no family in a chaotic, uncaring world. But I agreed to his recommendation, so Dr. Wesseli called the director of the school and made an appointment for us.
I started school in January of 1946. The school was located in Tegernsee, a small lakeside resort town forty-five miles south of Munich. It was a residential school. We were seventy students in all, sixty-nine former Nazi officers and soldiers and one Jewish Holocaust survivor. I was assigned to a room with two former soldiers. How did I feel in such a school atmosphere so soon after my years in concentration camps? Dr. Wesseli guessed what was going through my mind and told me not to let what anyone said or did bother me but to pay attention to my studies, learn as well and as fast as I could, and get out of there. He was right of course.
I chose to study physical therapy. The school days were long, from 8:00 a.m. to noon and from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., plus Saturdays from 8:00 to noon. There were no Talking Books in those days. Actually most of the textbooks were in Braille or in print, and someone had to read them to us. The schedule was deliberate, so as not to give us much time to feel sorry for ourselves. Every Saturday afternoon and Sunday young ladies from the town volunteered to take us to a movie or concert, for a walk, or to a cafe for a coffee and cake. They also read the print homework to us. School vacation was two weeks in the summer and ten days around Christmas and New Year.
The long school days and the hard work eventually paid off, and I graduated with a diploma in physical therapy and passed the state board examination in August of 1948. The head of the examining board and Dr. Wesseli made a few calls on my behalf and found a job for me at the Bogenhausen Hospital in Munich. I started my first job ever on September 1, 1948. I wish I had framed my first paycheck. I enjoyed my work there and the people I worked with.
Some time later a young sighted lady decided to take a chance on me. Fifty-three years later we are still married and have raised and educated our two sons and now have five grandchildren, bless them all.
But back to the late forties. The nightmare of my life continued unrelentingly. My wife and I decided to emigrate to America, where we arrived in December of 1951. I started with two strikes against me: I didn't know English and I was totally blind. I had a hard time finding a job.
One day my wife noticed an ad in the newspaper for a masseur in a health club. I decided to give it a try. We went to the health club, and I applied for the job. After introducing myself to the manager and answering a few questions, I learned that another person was also applying for the job. The manager said that she would notify me once she had made her decision. She then put a folded piece of paper in my hand. On the way out I asked my wife what it was, and she said it was a five-dollar bill. I was offended, humiliated, and furious. I went back into the office and said to the manager in broken English--mostly in German--that I hadn't come for charity but to apply for a job. I put the five-dollar bill on her desk and walked out.
A mobility instructor named Jim from the Cleveland Sight Center taught me how to use a white cane. He was blind and knew the city well. Jim was a chain smoker, and he always had a cigarette in his hand or mouth. He was taller than I am, and one day he got too close to me with his cigarette in his mouth. Suddenly I smelled something burning, but I didn't say anything. When I got home, my wife asked who had burned a hole in my hat. The expensive hat I had brought from Germany was ruined, but I never mentioned that incident to Jim.
An opening for a physical therapist became available at Mount Sinai Hospital. I applied for it. I took my diploma and the letters of recommendation (all in German) when I went for the interview with the personnel director. She was fluent in German. As she finished reading the documents, she commented that I was qualified for the job. In order for me to be hired, the department supervisor had to agree. The director introduced me to the supervisor and explained my qualifications to her. Before she even finished the sentence, the supervisor said, "I don't care how qualified he is; I don't want a blind man in my department." Then she walked out of the office.
Not since the Holocaust had I felt so humiliated. It was perhaps a good thing my wife and I didn't have enough money, or we might have considered returning to Germany. I had to learn English fast. I read a lot and listened to good English. Among other things I listened to many recorded speeches by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, president of the National Federation of the Blind. His eloquence was unmatched. I came away from his speeches encouraged and inspired. Some of his speeches I read in the Jewish Braille Review, edited by Dr. Jacob Freid, an ardent Federationist.
With my language skills getting better, I was ready to tackle any job. An opening for an X-ray darkroom technician became available at the Veterans Hospital in Cleveland. I couldn't apply for it because I wasn't eligible for a civil service test. Lee Feldman, the placement counselor at the state vocational rehabilitation service for the blind, offered that job to a visually impaired man who worked at the Cleveland Clinic; the man applied and was hired at the Veterans Hospital, which was not far from his home. Mr. Feldman engineered the whole thing in order to create an opening for me at the Cleveland Clinic, and he introduced me to Dr. Hughes, head of the X-ray department. Again with Dr. Hughes I had two strikes against me because I was totally blind and Jewish. At that time not a single Jew was in the X-ray department. Dr. Hughes insisted on a six-month probation period instead of the customary ninety days, and he offered me a dollar an hour. Lee Feldman advised me to take the job.
I started to work at the clinic on October 20, 1952. When I arrived on the first day, I was greeted by a fellow employee, Art Hayes, a sighted man who had been working there for six years, asking me, "You are a Jew, right? We here don't like Jews and don't like niggers; got it?" By then I understood enough English to say yes. I was the first Jew and the first totally blind employee in the department and had the feeling everybody was staring at me and sizing me up. Of all the people in the department, only one technician asked me if I would like him to show me where the washroom was. I really appreciated his considerateness.
Lee was frank with me; to get an employer to hire a blind person had not been easy. Therefore, he told me, "When you get a job, you have to make an extra effort to hold on to it. Work harder than your sighted coworkers, do a better job than they do, don't ever be late to work if you can help it, don't leave until your work is done, even if it takes extra time to finish what you have been doing, and show loyalty to your employer. If you practice all these things, the employer might come to consider you a good employee, but never an excellent one. These are the facts, and don't forget them."
I took Lee's advice seriously. I was determined not to give Art or my supervisor a chance to complain to Dr. Hughes about my work or behavior. Six months later Art Hayes was fired for repeated negligence, and, because I had been doing a creditable job, Dr. Hughes hired another blind man to replace Art.
By then my wife and I had begun to know people and had made some friends. One German-Jewish lady, after she found out that I was a physical therapist, asked me if I would give her a therapeutic massage, and before I knew it, I had five customers for therapeutic massages.
It was difficult to find an apartment in those days, since rent control was in effect and apartments were scarce. One day we responded to an ad in the paper. When we checked it out, the apartment owner asked us if we were saved. I didn't know what he was talking about; then he asked if we were born-again Christians. I replied that we were Jewish, and he said, "no apartment." We eventually found a nice apartment. I didn't go with my wife to see it. I had made the mistake once; the apartment manager refused to rent to me because I was blind. My humiliating experiences seemed to have no end.
Dr. Hughes was a strict boss, but he was not a bigot. In 1959 an incident happened that almost cost me my job. Inside the darkroom was a view box. In that box was a bright fluorescent light bulb enabling a technician to look quickly at a film as soon as it was processed. One day the on and off switch broke. An electrician from the maintenance department came to replace it. The convention is that a switch in the down position is off and in the up position is on, but the electrician installed the switch upside-down. Obviously I didn't know this, flipped the switch down, and started to process films.
Mr. Williams, the chief technician, walked by, noticed it, and shouted, "Max, the light is on!" By then I had ruined three cases; three patients had to come back to have their X-rays retaken. Mr. Williams, a reasonable man, tried to reassure me that it was not my fault. He said, "We have dumb electricians in this place." In no time the whole department knew about that incident. We had a bigot in our department, and he tried to use that incident to get rid of "that blind Jew." By then, though, I had established a reputation as a reliable and loyal employee, and Dr. Hughes did not allow himself to be persuaded by bigotry.
In 1970 our living-room furniture needed reupholstering. In those days many high schools offered adult education courses in the evening. Collingwood High offered a course in upholstering. I signed up for that course. The instructor was skeptical about a blind man learning to reupholster. I asked him to give me a chance, and if I failed, it wouldn't be for lack of trying. A couple of times I needed sighted assistance, but other than that, I mastered the job quite well. When I was done reupholstering our sofa and the two chairs, I invited my teacher to come and take a look at them. He commented that never again would he doubt a blind person's ability.
While recuperating from cancer surgery in 1983, I had time to reflect and reconsider the advice of my friend, Dr. Freid, editor of the Jewish Braille Review, who had time and again urged me to come out of my self-imposed isolation. Silence, he argued, was no longer an option; it was a luxury I and the other Holocaust survivors like me could no longer afford. We must tell the world the truth about the Nazi Holocaust; otherwise the Holocaust deniers would have a green light to continue to disseminate their lies and distortions.
Of course Jacob Freid and others were correct. My surgery convinced me that, if I ever intended to talk about my experience, now was the time. It was perhaps later than I thought. For almost forty years I didn't talk about my Holocaust experiences even with my family. I kept my emotions bottled up inside me, unable to put the horror into words. It is easy to share joy, but I found it very difficult to share with the people I loved such deep-seated pain. But I forced myself to put down on paper the experiences recounted at the beginning of this article. Writing down these unforgettable memories has been emotionally painful. It is, however, even more painful to realize that now, more than a half century later, in spite of the overwhelming evidence, some people in America and elsewhere still deny that the Nazi Holocaust ever happened.
I am often asked how I managed to survive in a Nazi concentration camp after I was blinded, when thousands were dying every day. The simple answer might be by the grace of God, but that is too simplistic a response. I have no illusions; if it had not been for my brother and several friends, I would not be here to describe my experience. But I did manage to avoid the rifle barrels and the crematorium fires thanks largely to my brother and friends who truly were their brother's keeper.
During the darkest days of my life, when the pit of my despair seemed bottomless and hope wafer thin, my friend Eric often quoted the words of the German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche to me: "What does not destroy me makes me stronger." Over the past sixty years I have remembered that quotation whenever I have felt humiliated and degraded as a blind person.
These days I often speak to high school students about the Holocaust. In January of this year, at a very difficult time in my life, I made one of these presentations because the coordinator could not find a substitute for me. In the question period a student asked me why I came to America. After a brief pause for reflection, I said something like this: What does freedom mean to you? Is it a birthright, like air, for example, free for you to breathe? Let me tell you, my young friends, it is not. As we are assembled here in this room, millions of people in this world of ours don't know what freedom is.
From the day I was born until I arrived in America at the age of twenty-nine, I had no idea what freedom really meant. During those years I was kicked around, beaten up, forced into slave labor, imprisoned in a concentration camp, blinded, liberated, sent to a rehab school, graduated, got a job, married, and still had no idea what freedom was. For years nightmares in living color tormented me almost every night. Then I woke again, drenched in sweat and enveloped in perpetual darkness.
My wife said, "We can't go on like this; we have to get away from here." That's why we decided to immigrate to America. We were eternally grateful to the American people for giving us a chance for a new start.
One who has never had freedom but one day attains it or one who lost and then regained it truly knows how to cherish freedom.
Freedom is not free, my young friends; freedom must be protected and defended. If I were called to defend it, I would gladly do so with everything I have in order to protect it for my children and grandchildren. That's why my late wife and I came to America. Yet in this wonderful land of the free and home of the brave, blind people are still engaged in a struggle for equality of opportunity.
Since my wife and I arrived in this country fifty-three years ago, with the dynamic leadership of Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer, the blindness community has made remarkable progress. Yet we still have a long and hard road ahead. God willing, we shall overcome.
Editor's note: On January 3, 2004, Barbara Edelman, Max's wife of fifty-three years, died after a long illness.
(back) (next) (contents)