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Joel Edelman - A Holocaust Survivor
By Gloria Shukert Jones © 2011 by author
Joel Edelman was a study in contrasts. Some days he was non-stop talkative; other days, taciturn and brooding. Although usually impeccably dressed and well groomed in suit and tie, other days would find him in a tee-shirt and tennis shoes. He liked to debate and make his point in most conversations; conversely, he would be agreeable and acquiescent.
Approximately 20 years ago, I met Joel Edelman through the Tom McAdams family, close friends of mine. Their son, Jay, befriended Edelman who became a frequent visitor to their home. Edelman was a Holocaust survivor born in Krackow, Poland, who, along with a group of several other displaced persons, emigrated to the United States through the generous, compassionate sponsorship of Rose Blumkin. Through various agencies he found a place to live and part-time employment in Omaha, eventually moving to a downtown senior high-rise building for several years before meeting Jay McAdams. The McAdams family took him in as a guest, providing meals and an occasional place to stay whenever he wished. He and young McAdams became inseparable friends, though they argued and teased one another incessantly and good-naturedly.
In return for their hospitality, Edelman would treat the McAdamses to dinner at local restaurants.. He would often visit this non-Jewish family on Sundays, armed with a sack of bagels, cream cheese and lox, upon which they eagerly feasted. On Passover, he introduced them to matzos. Sometimes he would bring a whole cheesecake, a legendary treat from the former Blackstone Hotel. He would often accompany his host family on picnics, camping and fishing trips and other outings.
When I first met Edelman, he impressed me as being aloof. I wondered how Jay, a jovial, friendly young man, found anything in common with Edelman, who looked to be in his late 50's or early 60's. After I got to know him better, however, it became apparent that Edelman's attitude was merely a façade, a cover-up for deep-seated emotional problems as a result of losing his loved ones and having witnessed and experienced unspeakable horrors during the Holocaust. Even through his occasional banter, one could detect great sadness in his eyes. The more I came in contact with him, the more his true, altruistic character shone through.
He told of the day his parents sent him to a store to buy a loaf of bread during the turbulent times of Nazi-occupied Poland. Imagine the trauma of returning home and finding both parents shot and killed in their own living room by the Gestapo, for the "crime" of merely being Jewish.
Edelman wrote a book about the Holocaust and what he went through during that time. It was called, "Hell Echoes the Ashes of Auschwitz". It was a thin, paperback, not widely distributed except to friends and people he thought might be interested. I obtained a copy of the book, later loaned it to someone, and unfortunately, never got it back. However, in this book are accounts of the atrocities he lived through, complete with pictures.
Edelman was spared from execution because he was among those Jews who had a special talent or trade that the Nazis could utilize. He was a barber and therefore provided this service to them. His brother was an accomplished violinist who gave concerts for the Nazi upper-echelon officers. Edelman recalls a performance that received a standing ovation. After the theater cleared, the talented musician was promptly gunned down on the stage by the same Nazi officers who moments ago had stood up and applauded him. That was one unconscionable example of what the Nazis did. Edelman told of soap made from rendered fat of human bodies, and jewelry from the gold fillings of their victims' teeth. There were other horrors he couldn't even speak or write about. Miraculously, he managed to survive and escape from the Holocaust, but its aftermath was permanently etched in his memory, and aged him prematurely.
Edelman was mostly bald except for tufts of white hair at each temple. Appearance-wise, he reminded me of Albert Einstein. Edelman also played the violin as a hobby. We would tease him about his "Stradivarius", although his strings weren't nearly as prestigious as that, nor was his playing. But through his music (he made up a lot of his songs) he found self-expression and a semblance of peace. His tunes, all composed in a minor key, reflected the angst in his heart. I then realized it was through music that he and Jay McAdams forged their mutual bond. McAdams was an outstanding classical pianist, who also enjoyed jazz and popular-song arranging, and played duets with his mother, a pianist and organist, accompanied by Edelman on the violin. These mini-concerts, would entertain passersby and neighbors with a variety of music wafting through the open windows of the McAdams residence, during summer months.
Then the McAdamses, who had become like Edelman's second family, moved from Council Bluffs where they had resided for many years, to a small town in Missouri. Shortly thereafter, Jay McAdams was tragically killed in a car accident.
Edelman, who was frequently seen in Omaha's downtown area, seemed to suddenly disappear. At first it was surmised that finding himself alone with little resources and horrific memories of the past, was too much for him to bear. He had moved from his apartment, left a part-time job without notice, and told no one where he was going. Attempts to trace his whereabouts were unsuccessful. For reasons unknown at the time, Edelman was never reported as a missing person. His acquaintances downtown thought he was just another transient who had wandered off to parts unknown, as it had been quite a while since his disappearance. No one had seen or heard from him after that, for many years. Meanwhile, the McAdams family kept trying to locate him, fearing he had met with foul play.
Then recently, while unsuccessfully searching in the Jewish Historical Society and the Kripke Library in Omaha's Jewish Community Center, for his book, I also asked at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home if anyone there might have a copy. A staff member reported she recognized the name, and recalled that Edelman had been a resident there for a number of years and had passed away around 1995. She also said he had loaned his books to the residents while he lived there, but none could be found during my search.
While saddened to learn of his death, I was relieved that he had been in a safe and caring environment all during the time he was supposedly missing. When I informed the McAdams family, they shared my feelings. At last, there was closure to what had appeared to have been an unsolved mystery.
Joel Edelman was not famous, nor did he ever consider himself to be anyone special just because he survived one of the most infamous mass slaughters in history. He wrote his memoirs so others would know what it was like. He was just an ordinary, somewhat melancholy man who went through a hell on earth and lived to tell about it. He sought solace through association with friends, and never took anything from anyone that he couldn't give back doubly -- whether gifts or acts of kindness. Though his voice is now stilled, the indomitable spirit of Joel Edelman lives on in the hearts of those privileged to have known him.
Update: A year or so following the publication of this article, my daughter surprised me one year at Chanukah, with a copy of Edelman's book, which she found on Ebay.
(This profile was originally published in Omaha's “Jewish Press”. It is with my express permission that the following account be published in the “Jewish Magazine”)
from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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