Auschwitz survivor’s beautiful life | Sunday Observer

Auschwitz survivor’s beautiful life

21 November, 2021

Title: The Happiest Man on Earth
Author: Eddie Jaku
Publisher: Pan Macmillan

There are hundreds of thousands of books in holocaust literature, but only a few of them are life affirming, cheerful and uplifting. ‘The Happiest Man on Earth’ by Eddie Jaku is such book which was launched last year. Not only is it a bestselling book – already it’s a ‘NY Times’ bestselling autobiography – but also its author is self-proclaimed as the ‘happiest man in the world’ which is very rare for a holocaust survivor. Thus, the book has naturally becomes both a heartbreaking account and a hopeful memoir of how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.

A survivor’s Story

Eddie Jaku is a Jew, born in April 1920 in Leipzig, Germany. He was then named Abraham ‘Adi’ Jakubowicz, and his family – he had a sister too – was well off in Leipzig. He always loved their German homeland and considered himself a German first, a Jew second. But after Hitler came into power in 1933, Eddie was expelled from his school along with other Jewish children. Eddie’s father, who was an educated man, using his influence in the community obtained false papers for his son. Thus, Eddie became a gentile and enrolled in an elite engineering school far across the country - it took approximately nine hours to reach the school.

Eddie Jaku lived five lonely years at the boarding school as a gentile under an assumed name. During this time he was always frightened that the other boys would spot that he was circumcised. However, at the age of 18, he graduated at the top of his class as a precision engineer and even registered for the Master’s Degree.

On November 9, 1938 on his parent’s 20th wedding anniversary, he returned home hoping to surprise his parents, but found the house empty. In fact, they were in hiding because it was the infamous Kristallnacht, when Jews endured massive atrocities across Germany - as Eddie describes this in his memoir it is “the biggest mistake of my young life” – However, Eddie passed the night at home, and close to dawn Nazi soldiers stormed the Jakubowicz household a second time to find Eddie living in the house. He was then violently beaten, bayoneted and arrested. The soldiers also burnt down the house. Thereafter, he was taken to Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp located on Ettersberg Hill near Weimar, Germany.

Eddie remained in Buchenwald for six months under appalling conditions. However, as a brave youth, he managed to get out of Buchenwald and reunite with his father, who paid a smuggler to get them into Belgium.

There, he was arrested once again not as a Jew, but as a German, and interned. In May, 1940 Nazis invaded Belgium. He quickly walked from Brussels to Dunkirk to Lyon — around 900km — being surreptitiously fed by ordinary French people along the way. In Lyon, Eddie’s luck ran out, he was arrested and put on a train north to somewhere called Auschwitz.

Again he escaped and found his family. Next, they all went into hiding in Brussels, Belgium. His parents also took in three young orphans whose own parents had been killed for being Jewish. They hid in an attic, cramped and uncomfortable, but together, very much the same as Anne Frank’s family.

Entering hell

They were eventually found by the Belgian police and handed over to the Gestapo — anyway, the three orphans stayed hidden, survived the war, and were reunited with Eddie years later. Eddie and his family were sent to Auschwitz in the freezing winter of 1944, where his parents were immediately gassed.

In Auschwitz 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. As Eddie observes many inmates “went to the wire” and ended their suffering by hurling themselves at the electrified fences - the average survival time for an Auschwitz prisoner was seven months.

However, as Eddie was a precision engineer he was categorised an ‘economically indispensable Jew’ at Auschwitz. Because of that he was pulled back three times from the gas chamber - his education saved his life. There he happened to meet his best friend, Kurt, which ignited a tiny spark of hope about surviving. “Thanks to my friend, I survived,” he writes. “A friend is someone who reminds you to feel alive.”

As a precision engineer Eddie could stay alive until the death march which started during the final months of the war. So on the last death march, as the Allied Forces were approaching them, Eddie feared they would be shot by their guards. He hurriedly escaped through a drainage pipe and hid in a wood. He was barefoot, starving, hiding in a cave for months, surviving by eating slugs and snails. Finally, he became so sick that he crawled to the highway, longing to be shot by approaching soldiers. He had reached the end. But the soldiers, however, were American. They took Eddie, who weighed 28kg and had cholera and typhoid, to hospital. Then his chances of survival were 35 per cent. Nevertheless, he survived.

The extraordinary thing about Eddie Jaku is he could live more than a full life, because he died just a year ago when he was 101 years old. In fact, the book was written by him to commemorate his 100th birth anniversary.

‘The Happiest Man on Earth’ is not a big book, only 208 pages, but the amount of facts in it is huge – it is a compact book with a large amount of historical facts on World War 11. The author not only documents the immense struggles of his life, he also gives life lessons. He recognises the values which shaped him, and acknowledges the relationships which saved him. Following is how he sees his life:

“I have lived for a century, and I know what it is to stare evil in the face. I have seen the worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life, and the lives of all my people.

“But I now consider myself the happiest man on Earth.

“Through all of my years I have learned this: life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.”

Not happy

However, when Eddie came out from the hell surviving the holocaust, he was not a happy man. Even when he was married he was not satisfied. But when he held his eldest son in his arms for the first time, all the agony in him began to disappear:

“... it was a miracle. In that one moment, my heart was healed and my happiness returned in abundance. From that day on I realised I was the luckiest man on Earth. I made the promise that from that day until the end of my life, I would be happy, polite, helpful and kind. I would smile.”

Eddie stresses the value of kindness and compassion, but he is not ready to forgive the culprits of the holocaust:

“So I hate no one, not even Hitler. I do not forgive him. If I forgive, I am a traitor to the six million who died.....When I say this, I speak for the six million who cannot speak for themselves. But I also live for them, and live the best life I can.”

The second part of the book contains an analysis of what is good and what is bad. There he elaborates happy in a spiritual context:

“Happiness does not fall from the sky; it is in your hands. Happiness comes from inside yourself and from the people you love. And if you are healthy and happy you are a millionaire.

“And happiness is the only thing in the world that doubles each time you share it. My wife doubles my happiness. My friendship with Kurt doubled my happiness. As for you, my new friend? I hope that your happiness doubles too.”

The book ends with this note:

“Through all the years I have learned this: life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.”