Few people can begin a book thus: “I have lived for a century, and I know what it is to stare evil in the face. I have seen the very worst of 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.”
Eddie Jaku can.
A German Jew who turned 100 in April, he survived the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, incarceration in Buchenwald and Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, a Nazi “death march” and much else besides. But he is now bringing cheer to Australia, his adopted home, during this bleak year of pandemic with a memoir that extols the power of hope, love and mutual support, and puts the relatively mild hardship of lockdowns into perspective.
Since July The Happiest Man on Earth has sold 100,000 copies in Australia and New Zealand, and topped the best-seller lists. Rights have been sold to 25 countries including the U.S., where it was published earlier this year, and Britain, where it was published on November 12 — Remembrance Day. “It’s a big success. I never dreamt of it,” Jaku says with a chuckle during a WhatsApp interview from the Sydney care home where he now lives.
Australia’s equivalent of Captain Tom has even been deployed by companies to raise employees’ morale during the lockdowns. “I tell them, ‘You have a bed. You have food. You have a telephone and family. You can order something. You have a television, and the whole world is with you. That can’t be bad.’ ” Compared with what Jaku endured during the Second World War, it certainly isn’t. Indeed, his story is so extreme that it almost defies belief.
He was born in 1920, the son of a Leipzig factory owner. “We considered ourselves Germans first, Germans second, and then Jewish,” he writes. Hitler took power when he was 13. Jaku was ejected from school for being Jewish. Using a false identity, he enrolled instead at a mechanical engineering college nine hours by train from Leipzig. He excelled, graduating top of his year. He returned home on November 9, 1938, to surprise his parents on their 20th wedding anniversary. The house was empty. At 5am Nazi soldiers burst in, killed his dog, beat him and sent him to Buchenwald with thousands of other Jews. It was Kristallnacht.
“We could not fathom why we had been rounded up and imprisoned. We weren’t criminals. We were good citizens,” he writes. “We were a nation that prized the rule of law above all else, a nation where people did not litter because of the inconvenience it caused to have messy streets.” Jaku saw prisoners shot en masse and committing suicide. He was whipped and beaten. After six months, a guard with whom he had studied mechanical engineering recognized him and recommended him as a toolmaker. His father — still at liberty in those last months before war broke out — collected him from Buchenwald, but drove him straight to the Belgian border instead of the aeronautical factory to which he had been assigned.
Jaku was smuggled across, but arrested in Brussels for being German and put in a refugee camp. When the Germans invaded Belgium a year later he and other inmates walked to Dunkirk, hoping to reach Britain. They arrived during the legendary evacuation of allied forces in May 1940. A colleague took a dead British soldier’s uniform and slipped onto a boat. Jaku lacked the stomach to do the same. He instead joined hordes of refugees heading for southern France, reaching Lyons ten weeks later. There he was again arrested for having a German passport, and put in a French internment camp at Gurs, near Pau.
In early 1941 the Vichy and German governments agreed to a prisoner exchange. Jaku and 800 others were put on a train to Auschwitz. He managed to escape before the train left France by loosening two floorboards. He returned to occupied Brussels and was reunited with his parents and sister who were hiding in a boardinghouse attic. At night he secretly repaired machinery in a factory in return for cigarettes, which he traded for food. But in February 1944 the family were discovered and put on another train to Auschwitz. “I had some idea of the nightmare ahead of us, [but] I had no idea just how bad it would be,” he writes.
“We could not fathom why we had been rounded up and imprisoned…. We were a nation … where people did not litter because of the inconvenience it caused to have messy streets.”
Those who did not die during the nine-day journey were greeted by a tall, handsome man in a white lab coat who singled out those few like Jaku deemed strong enough to work. Jaku later learned that the man was Mengele, the “Angel of Death”. Two days later an SS officer pointed to a plume of smoke and told him: “That’s where your father went. And your mother. To the gas chambers.”
The number 172338 was tattooed on his arm — 76 years later Jaku removes his jacket and shows it to me. He was put in a barracks with 400 other Jews. They had to sleep naked to prevent them escaping, ten men to a row, no blankets or mattresses, “curled up like herrings in a jar”. Men died from the cold each night. “You would go to sleep in the arms of the man next to you just to try to survive, and wake up to find him frozen solid, his dead eyes wide and staring at you.” Others killed themselves by throwing themselves against an electrified barbed-wire fence.
Jaku survived because he was resourceful, had a friend — Kurt — who looked out for him, and was deemed an “economically indispensable Jew”. He worked as a mechanical engineer in a factory of the chemical company IG Farben, which made Zyklon B, the poison gas that killed his parents and a million others.
“My education saved my life,” he says.
In January 1945, as the Soviet army neared Auschwitz, the Nazis forced its 60,000 prisoners to march toward Germany. They had no food. Some froze to death. Those who fell were shot. As many as 15,000 perished on the “death march”. “It was the hardest time of my life,” Jaku says, but he survived and was returned to Buchenwald where his toolmaking skills saved him once more.
During the war’s final months he worked in a specialist machine shop in Sonnenburg, a small camp near Buchenwald. His overseer had known Jaku’s father when they were German prisoners during the First World War. He, too, gave Jaku food. The camp was evacuated after being bombed. Amid the chaos Jaku escaped and hid in a forest for several days. Sick and starving, “I decided I couldn’t go on,” he writes. “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!”
Jaku weighed barely 70 pounds, half his prewar weight. His sole possession was a belt he had bought in Leipzig on Kristallnacht, now with several extra holes to fit his skeletal frame. He returned to Brussels, but liberation brought no joy. He had lost his home, family and about a hundred relatives. He felt guilt at surviving when so many others had not. He considered suicide. “I had to decide what to do, to live or to find a tablet and die like my parents,” he writes. “But I had made a promise to myself and to God to try to live the best existence I could, or else my parents’ death and all the suffering would be for nothing. I chose to live.”
Never Forget—or Forgive
Miraculously, he found his sister and Kurt. He married another Jewish survivor, Flore Molho, and in 1950 they emigrated to Australia, where he bought a service station and later opened an estate agency. But for three decades he never spoke about his wartime experiences, partly because they were too painful and partly to spare his two sons.
That changed in the 1970s. He and other survivors decided it was their duty to speak. “My voice is the voice of six million people. I’m alive to tell the story that others can’t. I’d be a traitor to my people if I didn’t speak out,” Jaku tells me in heavily accented English. His elder son, Michael, first heard his story when he hid behind a curtain while his father spoke at a synagogue and later emerged tearfully to embrace him.
“I’d be a traitor to my people if I didn’t speak out.”
In 1992 the survivors formed the Sydney Jewish Museum where Jaku’s belt is now displayed. He became a regular speaker there and around Australia. In 2013 he was awarded the Order of Australia medal. Last year he received an emotional standing ovation after giving a TED talk to 6,000 people.
Jaku and his ailing wife now live in a care home, but he is still sharp, still fit and still driving, a deaf ear from an Auschwitz beating his only wartime legacy. He calls himself the world’s happiest man because he has children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — “everything I ever dreamed of”. He uses his book to talk about the restorative power of love and to renounce hatred — “It may kill your enemy, but it will destroy you in the process.”
But there are limits. Jaku has never returned to the land of his birth. “I don’t put my foot in Germany,” he says. “I’m ashamed to be German. This was the elite who did this to us, not the sweepers, laborers and bricklayers, but the doctors, lawyers and architects. The cream of Germany were our guards and our torturers and you want me to forgive? Never!”
Martin Fletcher is the author of Almost Heaven: Travels Through the Backwoods of America