We lost an incredible man this week: R.I.P. Max Edelman

Max computer

Max and his dog Tobi at the computer writing.

Max Edelman is not a name I expect many, if any puregeekery readers to recognize.  However, Max was one of the most amazing, inspirational people I have ever had the honor of knowing, and I am sad to say he passed away this past Monday, November 4th after 91 years on this planet.

Max was a Holocaust survivor.  Surviving being at a total of 5 different work camps, on April 8th, 1944, he was severely beaten by camp guards, which shortly there after, left him completely blind.

After being liberated from the Nazis in 1945, Max entered a rehabilitation school where he learned to read Braille, how to eat food with a knife and fork which he could not see, and other skills like how to shave without being able to see.  He also learned the vocational skill of physical therapy, so he could earn a living.  Through hard work and determination, he learned how to live independently as a blind man.

Max met a woman,  Barbara, married her, emigrated to the United States, found himself in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised a family there.  My path originally crossed with his in 1989, when I was 8 years old, and his son Steve married my Aunt Janet. I don’t remember much about Max from those early years in my life.  I honestly don’t know how much interaction I had with him back then.  I know he frequently was at holiday gatherings such as Passover Sedars and Thanksgiving dinners.

The older I got, the more I made an effort to sit and talk with Max at these occasions.  He was always genuinely interested in what was going on in my life.  Where was I going to college?  What was I doing for work after college, and where did I settle down?  What stuck out to me, and impressed me so much was that he would always remember our previous conversations, and all the details.  For someone I only saw a few times a year, Max was sharp as a tack, and always knew where I worked and lived, and always wanted updates on how things were going in my life.

On top of that, he was always very relaxed and pleasant.  After living through the Hell of Nazi Germany, and living the up-hill battle of being a man who could not see, Max never acted bitter in front of others.  He wanted to enjoy the company of his family and friends.

Although he was somewhat at peace with the horrors of his past, it was extremely important to him that he, and everyone else never forget the events of the Holocaust.  He began to open up in the 1980’s about the past when he wrote a manuscript called “Liberation Day of a Blind Survivor.”  It was published in full in numerous newspapers.  He wrote many published articles in future years, and also took up public speaking about the Holocaust.

He spoke regularly in schools and temples around the Cleveland area.  He expanded these talks regionally, nationally, and eventually internationally.  Max even built up the courage to return to Flossenburg, Germany in 2008, where he had been tortured over six decades ago, to give numerous talks to high school students in media outlets.  When asked by a high school student if he hated the German people for what they did during the Holocaust, his response was that hatred gets you nowhere, and while the students should be ashamed of what their ancestors did, they themselves had no reason to feel guilty, not having been a part of these events.

Max also volunteered regularly at the Cleveland Library for the Blind, where he made a huge impact.  He started a program helping children learn to read Braille when they had no other outlet.  He learned how to use a computer when text to voice software was installed on a machine at the library, and eventually was able to user word processing programs, send and receive email, and even surf the internet.  When Max was presented with challenges like these, he regularly exceeded his own, and everyone else’s expectations in overcoming them.  A man with so much determination is nothing short of inspiring.

Possibly the largest challenge he ever overcame was when he finally agreed to get a seeing-eye dog.  While this type of thing is common for the blind, it dug up the past for Max.  While imprisoned at a work camp, when he still had his sight, Max witnessed a camp guard order a dog to attack a fellow prisoner, who was mauled to death right in front of him.  He had been terrified of dogs for his entire life after that incident, but independence and pride proved to be more powerful than fear for Max.  While the road was bumpy, he eventually bonded with the dog assigned to him, Calvin.  Now able to trust his dog, the two of them freely went where they want, when they wanted all over Cleveland.  The independent mobility helped Max be able to do more volunteer work, as well as make friends with so many people he crossed paths with on the many walks with Calvin.

A memory that sticks out so clearly in my mind of Max comes from one of my cousins Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.  He was called up to the Bema to recite the prayer before the Torah reading.  With zero hesitation, Max stood up, pulled out a retractable cane, and made his way up to the Bema without assistance.  I remember sitting there in absolute awe of a man in his 80’s, unable to see a thing, yet so confident in his other senses that he could easily get around without any help.

I’m sad that I never had the opportunity to see Max speak in a professional setting.  On the flip side, I’m happy that I was lucky enough to see a much more personal side of him through family events that many people did not.  I’m sad that I will never have the opportunity to see and talk to him again.  It gives peace knowing that he is no longer suffering though, which I can be happy about.  Finally, even though he is gone, through video (see the interview below where he tells his story of being blinded and surviving German work camps during the Holocaust), his own published works, and a book written about him (Trusting Calvin: How a Dog Helped Heal a Holocaust Survivor’s Heart, by Sharon Peters is available at amazon.com), Max’s message will live on for generations to come.

Max, I will miss you, but will never forget you.

3 Responses to “We lost an incredible man this week: R.I.P. Max Edelman”
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