Macmillan. Rrp $12.99
Eddie Jaku OAM was a remarkable man. A survivor of several German concentration camps during World War II he wrote of his wartime experiences after emigrating to Australia. This memoir was published when he was 100 years old and became an immediate best seller.
Not since A Fortunate Life by A.B Facey have I read such an inspiring autobiography by a man, who for seven years from the time of his arrest in November, 1938, faced unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Nazis.
Raised in the beautiful city of Leipzig, in Germany, he grew up considering himself a German first, and a Jew second. He felt so proud of his country where he was born and where his ancestors are buried.
All this changed overnight when he was arrested during the infamous ‘Kristallnacht,’ when Nazi thugs looted and burnt synagogues, rounding up Jews, sending thousands of them over subsequent months to concentration camps in tightly packed cattle wagons. Eddie was beaten so badly that night that when he arrived in Buchenwald, the commander panicked and sent him to the nearest hospital for several days to recover.
History has recorded the horrors of the concentration camps of the Third Reich and the images of Jews starved, tortured and traumatised, which led to the eventual death of six million people. Today, I wonder if Eddie was still alive and watching the slaughter of innocent Palestinians women and children in Gaza, would he have thought, ‘not much of human behaviour has changed.’
What struck me about Eddie’s story was his ingenuity which enabled him to survive the horrors of both Buchenwald and Auschwitz, particularly his ability to remember details and events that saved his life from one day to the next.
He continued to struggle and ask himself why the German populace had turned against their fellow citizens. He couldn’t understand how people he had worked with, studied with, played sport with could allow Hitler to turn them into inhuman zombies filled with hate.
Eddie tells of the many little actions he often took on the spur of the moment. For instance, he started carrying the heavy wooden lid of a discarded barrel while on a march to work. He had no idea what he would use it for, until he realised it was protecting him from the bullets of the guards, when he dropped into a large drain to make an escape.
He failed in his attempt. The trouble was he’d forgotten he was wearing prison clothing. This meant he was shot in the leg and wounded by a farmer when he approached him for help.
Eddie’s quick thinking had him rejoin the work team marching back to camp because he knew he wouldn’t survive in the bitter cold. Luckily the guards were none the wiser and Eddie had the bullet dug out by a doctor prisoner using an ivory letter opener who advised him to use his spit as antiseptic.
Then there was the miracle which caused a guard to notice the tattoo number 172338 on Eddie’s arm and who shouted to another guard to extract him out of a line of prisoners shuffling towards the gas chambers.
The guard knew he was classified as an’ Economically Indispensable Jew’ of use to the Reich and profitable to the war effort. Eddie often experienced close shaves like these and worried each day would be his last.
He explains how he was grateful for the personal discipline and independence he learnt when his father sent him away from his family at age 13 to assume the identity of a gentile and study under a false name for 5 years in order to graduate as a highly skilled electrical and precision engineer. He remembers them as lonely years, for he was too scared to make friends and let down his guard.
He credits believes his friendship with Kurt, a skill craftsman and shoemaker, also helped him survive. Kurt worked indoors, while Eddie had to walk in rain and snow to labour long hours in a factory where the guards often forgot to give them lunch. Kurt shared his food with Eddie and made him stronger shoes and whenever Eddie said he’d had enough and was “going to the wire” to electrocute himself on the fencing, Kurt talked him out of such a plan.
Eddie maintains he was not religious, but he finally made a promise to God to try and live the best existence he could, or else his parents’ death and all the suffering would be for nothing.
Slowly he came to understand the Nazi regime; a German was not immediately an evil person, rather he was weak, easily manipulated and had lost all of his morals and then his humanity.
Obedience too, says Eddie, was built into the German character which meant these men followed orders blindly and changed to become men who could torture others, take babies from their mothers and bash their heads against the wall and still go home, kiss their wife and cuddle their children.
Hate, he believes is the beginning of a disease, like cancer. “It may kill your enemy, but it will destroy you in the process too if you let it,” he writes.
Eddie recounts how he barely survived the years of excruciating winter cold, lack of food, constant physical abuse before being rescued by Allied soldiers. He was sent to an American hospital for 5 weeks where doctors gave him a 35 percent chance of survival.
Eddie looks back and credits his stubborn survival with his upbring in a warm loving family, his father’s insistence he receive a good education, his supportive friendship with Kurt and his abiding belief that however awful the circumstances, “if you lose your morals, you lose yourself.”
After liberation, he met Flore Molho, the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family from Salonica, in Greece, fell in love and married her and together with their young son Michael immigrated as refugees to Australia in 1950. Eddie’s life here, he says has been wonderful, like heaven. “It has been one of happiness, hard work and family life.
I am the happiest man in the world.”
He and Flore spent 75 years together, raised two sons and had many grandchildren and great grandchildren. He also received an Order of Australia and has volunteered at the Sydney Jewish Museum since its inception in 1992 where, until his death in 2020 at age 100, he told countless visitors the story of the holocaust and of his survival.
Eddie never asked his fellow survivors if they ever forgave the German people. “I couldn’t forgive them, but I’ve had enough luck, love and friendship in my life, I’ve been able to let go of the anger I feel towards them.”
He writes that anger leads to fear, which leads to hate, which leads to death. His moral stance was his strength throughout his life.
I enjoyed reading his story. But the author’s photo of this warm hearted, exuberant, kind and thoughtful man, rather says it all.