In the midst of starvation, disease, random shootings, and trigger-happy guards, any person surviving the Holocaust has an incredible story of how he (or she) defied the odds. Surviving the Holocaust with a disability? An extraordinary testament to triumph of the human spirit. Trusting Calvin is the incredible story of a blind Holocaust survivor.
Welcome to Inspirational Tuesday! A while ago on Facebook, I posted the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved 6,000+ Jews during the Holocaust. Many of you commented you had never heard of him, and it got me thinking: You know the Adam Lanza’s, the evil people of the world. Yet often, for some weird reason, the good people often go overlooked. I decided to balance this out by showcasing a courageous and inspiring person. Feel free to comment your requests.
“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies.” -Hub, Secondhand Lions
Born in Krasnik, Poland, Max Edelman was one of five children. He grew up in a Jewish family that kept traditions and owned a small mill. Max was just a teenager when WWII broke out, and Germans began bombing Krasnik. Soon after, his family was herded into a ghetto, where they shared a small apartment with a few other families. Without warning, one night he and his older brother Yankel were arrested and taken to a makeshift labor camp.
For months, they labored in a sawmill and a rail yard. When they were done there, they were taken to Budzyn, a concentration camp a few miles away from Krasnik. Although small, the camp is known for having one of the most brutal commandant’s of the time – Reinhold Fiex. Each day was the same – they would wake, have a measly cup of coffee, and went to role call. From there they would be assigned to their work duties, mostly factory work for the German war effort. After a few days in the camp, Max spotted his other older brother Zalmen in a new group of prisoners. Zalmen had been taken prisoner by the Germans before, and was witty and sharp.
Commandant Feix was known for and enjoyed entertaining his guests in an odd fashion. One particular day after the second daily roll call, he ordered five prisoners – Max being one of them, to stand in a line. Without warning, the commandant ordered his snarling German shepherd to kill the young man standing next to Max. The anxious dog lunged forward, grabbing the prisoner by the neck. Several gruesome minutes later, the screaming stopped, and the prisoner was dead. From that point on, Max developed a morbid fear of dogs that would haunt him for decades.
A few weeks later, on April 8, 1944, two bored guards randomly picked Max out of a crowd and began beating him. The last clear thing Max remembered seeing clearly was the two blond guards kicking him and their vivid blue eyes. This incident left Max with no eyesight in his left eye, and very little in his right.
Max quickly learned to adjust to his new normal, with his brothers and friends faithfully helping him along the way. The three brothers were transferred to a factory. Zalmen and Yankel made sure they were all in the same work detail, and were quick to help Max when he made a mistake. As the weeks rolled by, his right eye was getting continually worse. He knew if the guards found out about it, he and all of his helpers would be killed. However, Zalmen refused to hear anything about giving up and urged his brother to not lose hope.
In February, his worse nightmare came true – Max became completely blind. After weighing their options, Zalmen spoke with their barrack supervisor, a German political prisoner named Erich and softly explained their situation. Erich looked at Zalmen, and simply told him to go back to his bunk. None of the three brothers slept that night, and Max, preparing to die, spent the night reliving happy moments and had no regrets.
Morning roll call finally rolled around. To his surprise, he suddenly heard Erich’s voice whisper to him, “Go back and get in the top bunk.” When the Germans came to inspect the barracks, they never bothered to look in the top bunks. Not only did Erich successfully help hide him, he also kept him company when he could. Both Erich and Max fully knew if they were discovered, they would both be murdered. Two months later, in April, floor-to-ceiling inspections were conducted. Erich led him to the infirmary, and made the supervisor swear he would protect Max. The supervisor kept his promise, and even was kind to him.
It was no secret the Allies were nearing. In panic, the Germans rounded up the camp for evacuation. The prisoners, in groups of 2,500, were crammed into several boxcars. Max had his brothers right beside him. The Allies soon began bombing the trains, and Zalmen once again saved Max’s life by flinging himself over him when their car was bombed. Because of this, they were forced to walk the rest of the 140-mile journey.
Days into the march, something felt different. The Germans were tense and evidently worried. They marched the prisoners into the woods, and without warning, they left. As they headed towards the road, American soldiers began to appear. After over five years in captivity, they were finally free.
After the war, Max saw Erich one last time. However, he had learned from Erich’s family that Erich had been beaten to death by Ukrainians a day later. Why he decided to consistently and fervently risk his life for a blind Jewish stranger, Max never found out.
Zalmen and Yankel took Max to a German eye doctor, where he learned that he would never see again. With the doctor’s urging, Max reluctantly enrolled in a two-year rehabilitation for blind adults. During that time, Max learned Braille, how to feed himself, how to shave, and other basic skills. Through the school, he also earned a degree in physical therapy and quickly received his license.
Max married a German woman named Barbara. The couple, plus Yankel (now Jack) and Zalmen (now Sigmund) and their wives, finally moved to America. Jack was sent to New York, and both Max and Sigmund to Cleveland, Ohio. The couple enrolled in English classes, quickly moved up the ranks at their jobs, and raised two sons.
Through the years, Max became increasingly bitter and angry over his situation. Nightmares constantly plagued him, and it frustrated him that although he couldn’t see in the day, vivid nightmares of the camps haunted his sleep. He kept to himself, and didn’t want to upset his wife or children with his troubles.
As he reached retirement age, Max didn’t want to be a continued burden to Barbara, and needed something to fill his days. After weighing his options, he finally came to the conclusion he needed a guide dog. From his previous experience in the camps, dogs terrified him. Somehow, he managed to convince himself his fears were petty, and he sent an application in for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, a non-profit that provides guide dogs for the blind. He was accepted, and was soon flying to New York to meet his new dog, a chocolate lab named Calvin.
At first, Max remained distant from Calvin, but began to accept the fact that Calvin was a good dog. However, Calvin sensed Max’s distance, forced affection, and unwillingness to fully trust him. Going against everything he was trained to do, Calvin stopped obeying Max’s commands. He filtered into depression, and began losing weight.
One September morning, when Max was ready to give up on Calvin, Calvin saved Max’s life at an intersection from a car whose driver had ignored the stop light. Had Max not had Calvin, or if Calvin had not been paying attention, Max surely would have been hit. In that one instant, Max’s heart melted. For the first time, he genuinely gave Calvin a hug, and praised him. As he and Calvin walked forward, he sensed Calvin’s change in attitude. The dog was happier, and Max began to trust Calvin more.
Max’s overall mood began to improve. He was now becoming a more sociable person while out-and-about, speaking about his experiences during the Holocaust, and getting involved with volunteering for causes involving the blind. He and Calvin worked together faithfully for nine years, until Calvin had to retire. Max’s new dog Boychick offered him the same comforts and freedoms Calvin had, and they too bonded well. It was during his time with Boychick that Barbara, his wife of 52 years, died.
He continued his life as usual, until Boychick had to be put down five years later. His last dog was Tobi – a black Lab with great focus. Sharon Peters has written his biography, Trusting Calvin, and I can’t recommend it enough. You can read Max’s story in his own words in his short publication, Liberation of a Blind Survivor. After defying odds and spending decades giving back to the community, on November 5, 2013, Max Edelman died at the age of 91, peacefully in his home.
Commandant Feix survived the war and died in 1969, at age 60 – never punished for his crimes. Both Sigmund and Jack lived long, happy lives, only dying a few years before Max.
Sesame Street‘s Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I burst into tears when Erich – who didn’t even know Max prior – helped save Max’s life fully knowing what the consequences would be if he were caught hiding a blind Jew.
I also can’t forget Max’s incredible brothers, Jack and Sigmund, who helped and encouraged Max every step of the way. There were also many others featured who selflessly risked their lives to save Max, or just to do the right thing when the opposite would have been much easier. And lastly, I love Max’s three incredible guide dogs – Calvin, Boychick, and Tobi – who selflessly devoted their lives to him, and taught him the meaning of life. Showing both the very best and the very worst of humanity, Trusting Calvin poignantly reminds us of triumph of the human spirit, and the everlasting importance of tolerance, kindness, and character.
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