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172338. A number not just tattooed on the skin of a human being, but a travesty indelibly seared in living memory. Abraham Salomon Jakubowicz a.k.an Eddie Jaku, was prisoner No. 172338 in the now infamous Auschwitz concentration camp which was established by Hitler’s Nazis to first strip a teeming mass of humanity of its dignity, esteem and self-respect, before literally incinerating them in one of its multiple gas chambers. Eddie Jaku not just resisted being divested of his dignity but also overcame every insurmountable curveball to lead a life characterised by contentment and marked by a sense of purpose. When the allied liberated the desolate prisoners from the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, Dachau etc. Eddie Jaku was one of the prisoners to be accorded his freedom. But weighing a paltry 28 kilograms, doctors gave him a 35% chance of survival. Not only did he go on to give death a royal deferral, but he also turned out to be a human being extraordinaire rising to perform admirable civic deeds that invested him with an equivalent of a knighthood in Australia, his adopted home.
Before Hitler’s insidious propaganda plunged the entire humanity into an existential crisis, Eddie lived an uneventfully satisfactory life. Pre-empting the horrors that would befall the Jewish community, Jaku’s father managed to smuggle Jaku away under an alias to an engineering college far away from his domicile of Leipzig. However, when an unsuspecting Eddie Jaku came home unannounced to surprise his parents on their anniversary in 1938, little did he realise that he had unwittingly chosen the night of the antisemitic pogrom, Kristallnacht. Assaulted by Hitler’s stormtroopers, he was ferreted to a concentration camp in Buchenwald. Fortunately, a former classmate recognised him and recommended him as a skilled tool maker. He was released to go and work in a factory, but his father managed to intercept him, and they escaped as refugees to Belgium.
Jaku escaped the clutches of the Nazis innumerable times only to get caught in the most bizarre of circumstances before finally landing at Auschwitz. Losing his entire family, with the exception of his sister, who incidentally was also an occupant of Auschwitz, Jaku bore the brunt of Nazi sadism and savagery. Catching a bullet in his leg and having the skin peeled of his back, courtesy an indiscriminate bout of lashing was some of the horrific consequences that he had to face as a prisoner.
However, as he writes in his admirable memoir, a positive outlook combined with the presence of a true friend, was all it took for Jaku to stare adversity in its face. His closest friend Kurt who coincidentally also happened to be at the same concentration camp as Jaku, ensured that he always had his back. Jaku did the same for Kurt. Whether it be smuggling an extra piece of bread to be shared in secrecy (a lapse befitting the death penalty) or looking after one another in times of physical and mental indisposition, Jaku and Kurt always lived each day as it came without bothering about either the past or the future.
Jaku also put his engineering skills to the most opportune use. The one point which he stresses in his book is the need for obtaining a proper education. Exhorting his readers never to sacrifice or compromise on their learning, he emphasises the contribution and the stellar role played by education in saving his life. His appreciable skills as a till maker enabled him to be of utility value to the German industry and as an invaluable worker, he was ensured that the path to the gas chambers remained close to him so long as he could make some of the machine’s work. This also meant an additional portion of meals (a valuable resource could not be wasted and sacrificed to the Gods of starvation) which in the concentration camp meant gold dust! Jaku secretly smuggled this extra portion of food to be shared with the neediest and the infirm. Jaku was put in charge of 200 machines and wrote that he was made to wear a sign around his neck that said if any of them broke down – he was to be hanged. An impossible task, so Jaku said he made 200 whistles and gave one to each prisoner working the machines, to alert him to any issues.
“I do not hate anyone. Hate is a disease which may destroy your enemy, but will also destroy you,” says the man who was almost destroyed by burning hate. “I have lived for a century, and I know what it is to stare evil in the face.” Jaku was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the Jewish community, in 2013. He also gave a moving TED talk in Sydney in 2019, after which almost 6000 people stood in unison to applaud him. The link to this exemplary, goose bumps inducing speech:
On 12 October 2021, Jaku died in a care home in Sydney. He was 101.
A big shout out to my dearest friend You Zhi-Qin for ‘introducing’ Eddie Jaku to me via this marvelous book!
“The Happiest Man on Earth” – culmination of a man’s search for meaning.