Eddie Jaku, a Holocaust survivor who became famous for his focus on peace, tolerance and hope, died this week aged 101, describing himself as the ‘happiest man on Earth’.
Though he was imprisoned in Auschwitz and his parents were killed, Jaku was determined not to let bitterness overshadow his life.
In this extract from his recently published memoir, Jaku, who was married to Flore for 75 years and leaves two sons, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, describes how he found the will to live again after being tortured and starved: ‘I have seen the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life and the lives of all my people.
‘Through all of my years I have learned this: life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.
‘My story is a sad one in part, with great darkness and great sorrow. But it is a happy story in the end because happiness is something we can choose.
‘I will show you how…’
Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku, who became famous for his focus on peace, tolerance and hope, died this week aged 101
It was February 1944, the worst of a bitter Polish winter, when the train crammed with my family and hundreds of other people arrived at Auschwitz and I saw the infamous sign looming over the barbed wire fences: Arbeit macht frei — work sets you free.
We did not know about Auschwitz then; how could any of us imagine such a thing was even possible?
But at the age of 24, I had experienced enough of the Nazis to realise the inhumanity of which they were capable.
The journey there was nine days and eight nights. There was no food and very little water, just one 44-gallon drum to last all 150 of us through the journey.
A person can survive a few weeks without food, but not without water.
My father took charge. From his pockets he produced a little collapsible cup and a Swiss army knife.
Using the knife, he cut up a sheet of paper into 150 little squares. He explained that everyone in the car would have two cups of water — one in the morning and one at night. Anyone who lost their paper would receive no more water.
Soon the water in other carriages ran out. I could hear them crying out, one woman shouting, ‘My children are thirsty! They need water! My gold ring for water!’ After two more days, they fell silent.
Eddie, who was married to Flore (couple pictured together in Sydney, Australia, in 1960) for 75 years, leaves two sons, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren
Pictured: A group of children stand behind barbed wire at Auschwitz in January 1945
In our car, only two died. Thanks to my father, the rest survived. At least, until Auschwitz.
My father and I helped my mother and sister down, and while we were helping others, they disappeared into the crowd as the Nazis herded everyone like cattle, using batons, guns, and vicious attack dogs.
Suddenly, it was just me and my father, being jostled towards a man in a clean white lab coat.
This was Dr Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, one of the most evil murderers in history.
We didn’t know it but he was conducting one of his ‘selections’ — separating those still strong enough to work from those destined straight for the gas chambers.
‘This way,’ Mengele said, pointing at me. ‘That way,’ he said to my father, pointing towards a truck being loaded with prisoners.
Later I dared ask an SS officer where my father had gone. ‘You see the smoke over there?’ he said. ‘That’s where your father went. And your mother. To the gas chambers and the crematorium.’
This is how I found out I was an orphan.
I was born in 1920, in the German city of Leipzig. Henni, my sister, arrived two years later.
Our father Isidore owned a factory and worked hard to make us comfortable. On the afternoon of every Friday, the Jewish Sabbath, Mother baked three or four loaves of challah, the richly delicious bread that we ate on special occasions.
When I asked why she made so many for our small family, my father explained that the extra loaves were to give to Jews in need.
I spent the next six months in Buchenwald, the largest concentration camp in Germany. Pictured: Nazis Richard Baer, Dr Josef Mengele and Rudolf Hoess
He told me there is more pleasure in giving than in taking, that the important things in life — friends, family, kindness — are far more precious than money. I thought he was crazy but now, after all I have seen in this life, I know he was right.
On Friday evenings we sat down for a Sabbath dinner, lovingly prepared by my maternal grandmother.
She lived with us and cooked on the huge wood stove that also heated the house. When we came in frozen from the outside, we sat on cushions next to that stove to warm up, me with my dachshund puppy Lulu on my lap.
How I treasured such nights, not knowing then that poor little Lulu would be bayoneted to death by the Brownshirts, the Nazi paramilitary force responsible for the atrocities committed on the night of November 9, 1938.
Known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, it was named for the shattered shards littering the streets after they looted and destroyed Jewish-owned stores, homes and synagogues — among them the 200-year-old house in which generations of our family had been raised.
I was then studying at an engineering college hundreds of miles from Leipzig, and had returned home to surprise my parents on their 20th wedding anniversary, unaware they had gone into hiding.
I awoke at 5am to the sound of the door being kicked in. Ten Nazis dragged me from bed and beat me half to death.
One took his bayonet and started to engrave a swastika in my arm, stabbing Lulu when she went to bite him.
I spent the next six months in Buchenwald, the largest concentration camp in Germany. There, the daily ration was a bowl of rice and stewed meat we had to eat with our hands.
One morning, I slept through the bell for headcount and was whipped. Another time, I was thrashed with a rubber baton for having my shirt untucked. But I at least had a way out of Buchenwald: my value to the Third Reich as a qualified engineer outweighed the insanity.
Requisitioned to an aeronautical factory, I was allowed a brief visit to my family before I reported there.
We seized the opportunity to flee over the border to Belgium.
Then, the Nazis had no power to pursue us there but after the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, we were forced into hiding. There we remained until we were discovered by the Gestapo and put on that train to Auschwitz.
At night in Auschwitz we were forced to sleep naked in our barracks, because if you were naked you couldn’t escape. It was so cold, eight below zero, and with no sheets or blankets the only warmth came from other people.
Lying ten to a row on the hard wooden planks of our crude bunks, you would go to sleep in the arms of the man next to you just to survive and wake to find him frozen solid, his dead eyes staring at you.
Those who lasted the night rose to a cold shower, a cup of coffee, and one or two pieces of bread before walking to work in one of the German factories relying on slave labour from prisoners.
One guard, a woman, once had me given seven lashes for laughing at one of the jokes we told in our desperation to keep our spirits up.
Afterwards I had to stand for three hours in a cage, naked in front of everyone passing as blood seeped from the terrible wounds on my back. Every time I fell, weak with exhaustion and cold, the needle-lined walls of the cage stabbed me awake.
If you had told me while I was being tortured and starved in the concentration camps that soon I would be so lucky, I would never have believed you. Pictured: The entrance to Auschwitz
On three separate occasions, I was taken to the gas chambers but saved at the last minute when a guard saw my name, prisoner number and profession and shouted, ‘Take out 172338!’
Each time, I silently thanked my father for insisting I train as an engineer, making me what the Nazis called an ‘Economically Indispensable Jew’.
I was put to work at IG Farben, suppliers of Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers. In that factory, I discovered that one of the machine operators was my sister Henni.
She had always been very beautiful, with fair skin and lovely, shiny hair. Now she was a prisoner, her head shaved and her uniform hanging off a frame gaunt with starvation.
I was filled with joy to know she’d survived but we could not let on that we were related because the Nazis might somehow use that knowledge against us.
I couldn’t hug her or comfort her about the murder of our parents, and we were separated again when — in January 1945 — the Russian advance saw the Nazis marching us to camps deeper into German territory.
With no food and water, and temperatures falling to minus 20c, the Death March as it became known to the world, was the hardest time of my life.
When we stopped to sleep in a field one night I hid in a drainage pipe next to the road. I spent hours submerged in freezing water which was running so quickly that I lost my shoes, but when I emerged in the morning there was no one around. I was free.
For the next few days I lived in a cave in a nearby forest, surviving on raw snails and slugs, but eventually decided I couldn’t go on. I was so sick, I couldn’t walk. I said to myself, ‘If they shoot me now, they will be doing me a favour.’
I crawled on my hands and knees and made it to a highway. I looked up. Coming down the road, I saw a tank… an American tank! Those beautiful American soldiers. I’ll never forget. They put me in a blanket, and I woke up one week later in a German hospital.
I was sick with cholera and typhoid, and malnourished, weighing only 4st. I made a promise to God. If I survived, I would become a new person, dedicate the rest of my life to putting right the hurt done by the Nazis, and live every day to the fullest. And that is what I have done.
It was not easy at first. Returning to the Belgian capital Brussels after the war, I discovered that Henni was living there in a boarding house.
To know that one of the people dearest to me was still alive was incredible but I remained a miserable ghost of a man even after I met my beautiful wife Flore.
We married in Brussels in 1946 and she had a challenging first couple of years with me.
I was not sure if I wanted to live but that all changed when our eldest son Michael was born.
What a miracle to be alive and to hold my beautiful baby, my beautiful wife. If you had told me while I was being tortured and starved in the concentration camps that soon I would be so lucky, I would never have believed you.
Love saved me. My family saved me.
Here is what I learned. 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.
Happiness is the only thing in the world that doubles each time you share it. Mine was doubled by meeting Flore. Each year we celebrate our wedding anniversary on April 20 — Hitler’s birthday. We are still here; Hitler is down there.
Sometimes, when we are sitting in the evening in front of the television with a cup of tea and a biscuit, I think, aren’t we lucky?
In my mind, this is really the best revenge — to be the happiest man on Earth.
There are survivors who will tell you that this world is bad, that all people have evil inside them, who take no joy from life. These people have not been liberated. Their broken bodies may have walked from the camps 75 years ago, but their broken hearts stayed there.
I do not ask my fellow survivors to forgive the German people. I could not do this myself. But I have been fortunate enough to have had enough love and friendship in my life that I have been able to release the anger I felt towards them. It does no good to hold on to anger.
Seventy-five years ago, in the days after the war, I learned of a Nazi being held prisoner for his war crimes and I arranged to see him. I asked him: ‘Why? Why could you do this?’ He couldn’t answer. He started shaking and crying. He was less than a man, just a shadow of one. He did not look evil. He looked pathetic.
And my question remained unanswered.
The older I get, the more I think, why? The only answer I can find is hate. Hate is the beginning of a disease, like cancer. It may kill your enemy, but it will destroy you in the process too.
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. But I also live for them, and live the best life I can.
Life is not always happiness, there are many hard days. Don’t blame others for your misfortunes. Remember you are lucky to be alive. Every breath is a gift.
Life is beautiful if you let it be: please, every day, remember to be happy, and to make others happy, too.
Adapted from The Happiest Man On Earth by Eddie Jaku, published by Macmillan at £14.99. © Eddie Jaku 2020.
To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid until October 28, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.