Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku endured hell under the Nazis and lost many members of his family. After years of silence, the 100-year-old has released a memoir detailing his amazing life – and his blueprint for happiness
As everyone goes slightly around the bend from Lockdown 2.0 and we head into Lockdown 3.0: Dark at 4pm, an unexpected voice reaches us from Sydney, Australia, urging us to remain optimistic, that “life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful — it is up to you”. That voice is from a 100-year-old man who has recently published his first memoir.
Eddie Jaku — born Abraham ‘Adi’ Jakubowiez in 1920 in the German city of Leipzig — wrote The Happiest Man On Earth about what he calls his own “beautiful life”, in which he celebrates friendship, family, and the importance of hope, resilience, and his determination to be kind in the face of adversity. This may sound like just another schmaltzy self-help cash-in, the book’s USP being its author’s advanced age. Except it’s not.
Eddie Jaku is a Holocaust survivor whose parents and wider family were murdered in the camps, and who for decades never spoke about his experiences, or even told his two adult sons Michael and Andre what he had been through. It was just too hard, he said.
Settled in Sydney since 1950, it wasn’t until 2019 that he gave an incredibly moving TEDx talk — https://bit.ly/398BA2p — his German accent still guttural, which to date has been viewed by 413,000 people and translated into 13 languages.
The idea of such a global audience blew his mind, he says, given how he comes from the era of telegrams and carrier pigeons.
“I never intended writing a book and never thought I would,” he says. He was motivated by a realisation that sharing his attitude to life was as important as sharing what had happened to him all those decades ago. It’s an astonishing story of horror, savagery, survival, hope and happiness. “I was at the bottom of the pit,” he tells his TEDx audience. “So if I can make one miserable person smile, I’m happy.”
His book is dedicated to future generations; he does not want history to forget about what happened and how easily any supposedly civilised society — in his case, one that gave the world Beethoven, Bach, Brecht, Goethe — can quickly transform into something monstrous. It can happen anywhere, he says. All it requires is fear, resentment and weakness curdling to hate. His story, as well as being a triumph of the human spirit, is a cautionary tale.
“We considered ourselves Germans first, then Jewish,” he writes of his warm, loving, educated family. He describes himself as a proud young German: “Our religion did not seem as important to us as being good citizens of our Leipzig.” He adored his city of music, books, and opera, where the world’s first daily newspaper began publication in 1650.
“I truly believed I was part of the most enlightened, most cultured, most sophisticated, most educated society in the whole world. How wrong I was.”
In 1933, Eddie was kicked out of school for being Jewish. He was sent by his family to study in another city nine hours away, aged 13, under a false name, where he spent five lonely years pretending to be an orphan, frightened the other boys would spot he was circumcised and report him. He finished top of his class, as a precision engineer.
Returning to Leipzig to surprise his parents on their wedding anniversary on November 9, 1938, it turned out to be “the biggest mistake of my young life”; the house was empty, his family in hiding. That night — Kristallnacht — Nazis kicked in the door, violently assaulted him, bayoneted his beloved dachshund Lulu, and burnt his family home down.
“Our friends and neighbours joined in the violence,” he remembers. Nobody intervened or shouted stop. “They were scared. They were weak. And their weakness allowed them to be manipulated into hatred.”
Eddie — still 18-year-old Adi Jakubowiez — was transported to Buchenwald with 11,000 other Jewish men. Conditions were hideous, degrading and vicious. “We were a nation that prized the rule of law above all else,” he writes. “You could get fined 200 marks for throwing a cigarette butt out your car window.”
Eddie somehow got out of Buchenwald and was reunited with his father, who paid a smuggler to get them into Belgium. There he was arrested not as a Jew, but as a German, and interned. After the Nazi invasion of Belgium in 1940, he walked from Brussels to Dunkirk to Lyon — around 900km — being surreptitiously fed by ordinary French people along the way. In Lyon his luck ran out, and he was arrested and put on a train north to somewhere called Auschwitz.
Again he escaped, found his family, and went into hiding in Brussels, his parents taking in three young orphans whose own parents had been killed for being Jewish. Like Anne Frank’s family, they hid in an attic, cramped and uncomfortable, but together.
They were eventually found by the Belgian police and handed over to the Gestapo — although the three orphans stayed hidden, survived the war, and were reunited with Eddie years later. He and his family were sent to Auschwitz in the freezing winter of 1944, where his parents were immediately gassed. Eddie says he misses his mother “every day of my life”.
They slept naked on bare boards without covers, in temperatures of minus eight. Every night up to 20 people froze to death. During the day they were used as slave labour for local industries.
At the camp they were beaten, tortured, starved. Many “went to the wire” — ended their suffering by hurling themselves at the electrified fences; the average survival time for an Auschwitz prisoner was seven months.
As a precision engineer, he was categorised an ‘economically indispensable Jew’, and three times pulled back from the gas chamber. His education saved his life. A tiny spark of hope ignited when Eddie found his best friend Kurt at the camp. “Thanks to my friend, I survived,” he writes. “A friend is someone who reminds you to feel alive.”
On the final death march, as the Allies approached, Eddie feared they would be shot by their guards, and escaped into a drainage pipe. He was barefoot, starving, hiding in a cave for months, surviving by eating slugs and snails.
Finally, he was so sick that he crawled to the highway, longing to be shot by approaching soldiers. He had reached the end.
The soldiers, however, were American. They took Eddie, who weighed 28kg and had cholera and typhoid, to hospital. His chances of survival were 35%.
“In that moment I made a promise that if I lived I would become an entirely new person,” he remembers. “I have a belief that if you can hang on to hope your body can do miraculous things… and, my friend, I lived.” Incredibly, he found his friend Kurt in a refugee centre in Brussels: “I wasn’t alone in the world anymore.” His sister also survived.
But Europe was poisoned for him, anti-Semitism still rife. One day, he saw a stranger wearing his own very distinctive suit, which he’d had tailor made in Leipzig before the war, stolen from him along with everything else. A tiny detail that left him outraged.
For many of Eddie’s Jewish peers, liberation meant suicide. He read how two young Jewish women had tried to jump off a bridge, survived and were sent to a grim psych ward; Eddie and Kurt visited then took them in as sisters.
“All they needed was a little kindness,” he writes. “With a simple act of kindness you can save another person from despair.” They are still in touch. When he met his wife of 75 years, Eddie says he was “a very difficult person” then, having “lived in fear of my life for so long that I could not stop thinking like a survivor”. He was “a miserable ghost”.
His wife had spent the war in Paris pretending to be Christian under an assumed name and had no concept of the horror he had been through.
Everything changed for him when his first son was born. “I realised I was the luckiest man on Earth,” he recalls. He made himself another promise: “Until the end of my life, I would be happy, polite, helpful and kind. I would smile. Life is wonderful if you are happy. Love saved me.”
Each year, he and his wife Flore celebrate their wedding anniversary on April 20 — Hitler’s birthday. “I do not hate,” he says. Hate “may kill your enemy, but it will destroy you in the process too.” So he does not hate Hitler, but nor does he forgive him, as he says such forgiveness would make him a traitor to the six million killed.
In Australia, after a successful life running businesses with Flore, Eddie reached his 100th year surrounded by family — “my greatest achievement” — and reminds us how lucky we all are to be alive. He has finally shared his story and the personal philosophy which grew from it.
“Remember to take time to appreciate every moment of your life, the good, the bad. Make yourself a friend to the world. Do this for your new friend Eddie.”
⬤ There are many things more
precious than money
⬤ Beware how weakness can be turned into hatred
⬤ Tomorrow will come if you survive today, one step at a time
⬤ You can find kindness everywhere, even from strangers
⬤ Hug your mother
⬤ One good friend is the whole world
⬤ Education is a lifesaver
⬤ If you lose your morals, you lose yourself
⬤ The human body is the best machine ever made
⬤ Where there is life, there is hope
⬤ There are always miracles in the world, even when it seems dark
⬤ Love is the best medicine
⬤ We are all part of a larger society, our work is our contribution to a free and safe life for all
⬤ Shared sorrow is half sorrow, shared pleasure is double pleasure
⬤ Share your hope, not your pain
makes a difference.
Health & Living