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Holding on to hope when death haunted every breath

Published Oct 30, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - Many books and accounts have been written about the Holocaust, but for every book that has been written we need more.

Because for every atrocity and genocide that has taken ever place we need to say: “Lest we forget”. We need to remind and jog memories.

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Eddie Jaku, at the age of 100, has documented his experiences of surviving the Nazi Holocaust. His book may be harrowing for the most part but is also so heart-warming – demonstrating man’s remarkable resilience and, in his case, the incredible gift of remaining positive and grateful despite the indelible scars he still bears.

Jaku always considered himself a German first and then a Jew. He grew up in Leipzig, a cultural town, where Germans of all creeds and beliefs mingled, enjoyed concerts, theatre and walks in the beautiful parks and boulevards.

He graduated from high school in 1933 but, due to attend a school in town, he was barred when history had other plans for him as Hitler ascended to power.

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Under a false name, he was enrolled at a mechanical engineering college out of town, where an isolated few years led him to acquire an apprenticeship.

His loneliness and the unbearable yearning for his family, however, could not prepare him for what was to come.

In 1938, as a graduate and working in a smaller town, he decided to pay his parents a visit in Leipzig. He had not heard much news as he laboured away but the growing cloud of anti-Semitism was becoming darker and darker.

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He made the terrible mistake and life-changing decision of surprising his parents by celebrating their 20th anniversary. The family home stood empty – everybody was gone, save Lulu their pet Dachshund.

The same night 10 German soldiers stormed into the house.

The same night 10 soldiers stormed into the house. They killed the dog, beat Jaku and took him to Buchenwald concentration camp – the start of seven years of almost unbearable evil and depravity at the hands of SS guards.

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He was saved because of a skill he had that separated him – one of a very few – from the gas chambers or of being shot and killed... He had studied machine-making and became a valuable asset as his skills could be used to make and maintain equipment in the camps.

Despite his unique skills, he was still tortured, starved and underwent indescribable hardship.

When he managed to escape the horrors of Auschwitz where he had later been moved to and the Allied forces liberated Europe; he weighed 28kg.

His hunger and suffering took years to heal – tormented and haunted – his scars were as indelible to remove as the tattoo that was carved on his forearm with his concentration camp number.

Jaku got a job in Belgium but, as he writes, he found it difficult to remain in Europe after all that happened to him, even after marrying a Sephardic Jewess called Flore, he was traumatised.

The birth of his first son somehow allowed him to see things differently – that there was hope and new beginnings that could give slightly softer edges to the unimaginable ordeals he had survived.

Hence the title of the book, The Happiest Man on Earth ... With the help of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, he and his family moved to Sydney, Australia and the family grew and so did his happiness and prosperity in different successful business ventures.

He and his wife only stopped working in their 90s.

Written in a simple style where it is largely the stated facts that tell the story, Jaku’s story is a remarkable one.

Suffering, untold horrors and escape within a hair’s breadth of death, Jaku signifies how important it is to always see the light (however dim and elusive) at the end of the tunnel – “if you can imagine another day you can imagine life”.

The Happiest Man on Earth - The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor by Eddie Jaku is available on loot.co.za (R321)

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