Eddie Jaku is a survivor. At one hundred and one years of age he is still able to captivate an audience and challenge his listeners to make the world a better place.
During World War II, Eddie experienced the worst of humanity. He witnessed the dark forces that took hold of Germany, destroying its life and culture. When the Nazis assumed power, they began implementing their anti-Semitic policies. They demonised the Jewish race, portraying them as a scourge on society and inciting their systematic removal. It was genocide on a massive scale.
Eddie Jaku was a German Jew. He was part of loving family, a big family. His father, Isadore, had four brothers and three sisters, and his mum, Lina, was one of thirteen children. Eddie’s family worked hard, paid taxes, and used their skills to benefit the German people. He writes,
“Nothing could shake my father’s patriotism and pride in Germany. We considered ourselves Germans first, Germans second, and then Jewish. Our religion did not seem as important to us as being good citizens of our Leipzig.”
Eddie’s attitude to the land of his birth changed on the night of terror, known as Kristallnacht, when the Nazi Brownshirts targeted Jewish people and their property, smashing shop windows, vandalizing homes, burning synagogues, and harassing and killing people indiscriminately.
Eddie had returned home to see his family, having been away for 5 years studying at a mechanical engineering college in Tuttlingen. He found the house dark and locked up. He was not to know his parents had gone into hiding. Eddie still had his key and when he opened the door his dachshund Lulu greeted him enthusiastically.
At 5 am, ten Nazis broke in and dragged Eddie from his bed and beat him severely. Lulu tried to intervene but was stabbed and killed with a bayonet. Eddie was forced outside where he was made to witness the destruction of their 200-year-old house, the home generations of his family had been raised in. Reflecting on that moment, Eddie says,
“I lost my dignity, my freedom and my faith in humanity. I lost everything I lived for. I was reduced from a man to being nothing.”
Eddie Jaku has recorded his experiences in his memoir, ‘The Happiest Man on Earth,’ which was published in 2020. For many years he chose not to publish his story, believing it to be yet another retelling of the horrors of the death camps. He thought it was unlikely to attract much interest. Twelve months after publication, Eddie’s memoir has sold 220,000 copies and become an international best seller.
It seems incongruous that someone like Eddie, who experienced incredible hardship and witnessed unimaginable suffering, can talk of happiness and claim to be happy. There are many people who desire happiness but far fewer who find it. Perhaps Eddie can show us the way.
The meaning of happiness is not easy to pin down.
- Is it a ‘good feeling?’ But good feelings are like other emotions, they make a fleeting appearance and then are gone.
- Is it dependent on circumstance? But some people find happiness amid hardship and strife.
There is nothing superficial about happiness. The roots of happiness go deep.
Psychology Today suggests happiness is more than a positive mood. It is a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life, one with a sense of meaning and deep contentment. If we want to know happiness our focus must be on creating a rich, full, and meaningful life.
In reflecting on Eddie’s life, we discover the foundation for his happiness, the four pillars that support lasting happiness.
Eddie Jaku was taught the importance of family from an early age. His father’s words never leave him.
“There are many things in this world that no amount of money will buy you, and some things priceless beyond measure. Family first, family second, and family at the last.”
Eddie admired his father’s strength of character, his ability to think quickly and act decisively. He was not afraid to make the hard decisions.
Eddie was sent away from home to study engineering when he was thirteen. He was enrolled under the assumed name of Walter Schleif, a gentile German orphan who had vanished. The name concealed his Jewish identity.
Eddie’s father understood the value of an education, of learning a skill that would benefit society. He said,
“You may not be appreciated for who you are, but you will be valued for what you can offer.”
In Auschwitz, Eddie saw the wisdom of his father’s insight. Eddie worked in one of the factories of IG Farben as a mechanical engineer, responsible for the maintenance of high-pressure air pipes. It was a simple equation: ‘If his professional skills were required, he would be safe.’
Eddie never had an opportunity to say goodbye to his mother. She is often in his dreams. He remembers her smile, her cooking, her generosity of spirit, her capacity for love. Eddie remembers that every Friday night they would meet for Shabbos (Sabbath) dinner. His mother would bake challah, a ceremonial bread. There were many loaves, more than they could eat. The extra loaves were taken to the synagogue and shared with the poorer Jewish families. His father would say,
‘This is what life is all about. To share your good fortune.’
On arriving at Auschwitz, Eddie’s mother and father were sent directly to the gas chambers where they died. Four days after his arrival Eddie learnt he was an orphan. Like Eddie, we can only ponder, ‘What was their crime?’
Eddie had known Kurt prior to the war. They were of similar age. Kurt visited their home in Leipzig regularly. Eddie’s mother treated him like a son.
Eddie and Kurt were re-united in Auschwitz despite being assigned different barracks. Their friendship took on added significance. Eddie felt bereft, having lost his parents, and not knowing whether his sister had survived the selection. Kurt was his only link to his old life and a time when he was happy. At the end of every day, they would meet, and walk and talk.
“To know that someone cared about you made life possible. When one of us was injured or too sick to work, the other would find food and help where possible.”
Eddie went through some troubling times. He became despondent and could not see the point of going on. He contemplated ending his life. Their camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence. Eddie wanted to ‘go to the wire’ as other prisoners had done. Kurt opposed Eddie’s suggestion and put an end to such negative thoughts.
“The best balm for the soul is friendship. And with that friendship, we could do the impossible.”
In Auschwitz, survival seemed impossible. There were no guarantees that you would get to live another day. Thanks to his friend, Eddie survived.
Our principles reflect our beliefs. They inform and inspire the way we live.
Auschwitz was the ultimate test of character. It was a hostile environment where fear and suspicion and reprisal were rampant. Every day was a challenge, to stay true to yourself, to maintain your beliefs, to not compromise your standards, to keep your honour intact. The words of his father were never far from Eddie’s thoughts.
“If you lose your morals, you lose yourself.”
The Nazis knew that if they broke down a prisoner’s morality, they broke down their will to live.
Eddie’s father often spoke about the important things in life – family, friends, and kindness. But was it possible for kindness to exist in Auschwitz?
Eddie saw that he could honour the memory of his father by adopting these principles, by living in a manner that pleased him. Eddie never lost sight of what it was to be civilized. He knew that there would be no point surviving if he had to become an evil man to do it. He says,
“I never hurt another prisoner, I never stole another man’s bread, and I did all I could to help my fellow man.”
Little acts of kindness have incredible power. In Auschwitz, they were a reminder that there was hope for humanity.
“With a simple act of kindness, you can save another person from despair, and that might just save their life. And this is the greatest miracle of all.”
After the war Eddie experienced ‘survivor guilt.’ So many of his friends and family had died and yet he had survived. He admits he was not a happy man. He says,
“I was not sure why I was still alive, or if I truly wanted to live.”
All that changed when he held his eldest son in his arms for the first time.
“…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 chose happiness because the alternative was to live with hate and hate is destructive.
“Hate is a disease. It destroys your enemy, but it also destroys you.”
Eddie has certainly not forgotten the past nor, he stresses, has he forgiven… but he does not hate.
“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.”
Eddie travels across Australia inspiring audiences with his story of survival and sharing his message of tolerance, understanding, kindness, friendship, and humanity.