Eddie Jaku: Holocaust survivor who preached a message of peace

·6-min read
Eddie Jaku, a Holocaust survivor who said: ‘I hate no one, not even Hitler’  (AP)
Eddie Jaku, a Holocaust survivor who said: ‘I hate no one, not even Hitler’ (AP)

Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku, who has died aged 101, endured the horrors of Auschwitz, where he was forced to sleep naked and taken to the gas chambers three times but given last-minute reprieves.

In later years, he advocated tolerance, if not forgiveness, for those responsible for the deaths of six million Jews and preached against hate. “I hate no one, not even Hitler,” he explained. “I do not forgive him.”

In February 1944, during a bitter Polish winter, Jaku and his parents and sister, Johanna (“Henni”), were among 1,500 Jews taken by train to the Nazi concentration camp. Each of the 100 carriages was supplied with just one 44-gallon drum of water to last the nine-day journey.

While up to 40 per cent of those in other cars died as the water ran out, only two in his succumbed, thanks to Jaku’s father, Isidore Jakubowicz, a Polish-born mechanical engineer who had settled in Germany and opened his own factory in Leipzig.

“From his pockets, he produced a little collapsible cup and a Swiss army knife,” recalled Jaku. “Using the knife, he cut up a sheet of paper into 150 little squares. He explained a system of rationing. Everybody in the car would have two cups of water — one in the morning and one at night.”

On arrival at Auschwitz, Dr Josef Mengele, the “angel of death” who performed experiments on prisoners, sent Jaku in one direction, to work, and his family in the other. Within days, he learned that his parents had been gassed but he was unsure about the fate of his sister.

Jaku’s daily life consisted of walking up to an hour and a half to places of labour, such as a factory or coal mine, with those who tripped and fell being shot and the same for those too weak to carry the bodies back. Prisoners were also beaten for sport by SS guards.

Although the average survival time of Auschwitz prisoners was merely months, Jaku endured almost a year. He put it down to using his skills to create items such as knives with polished timber handles to sell to other prisoners in exchange for food or soap.

He also struck up a friendship with another German Jew, Kurt. “We looked after each other,” he recalled. “When one of us was injured or too sick to work, the other would find food and help the other. We kept each other alive.”

Another factor was the Nazis recognising his engineering skills and labelling him an “economically indispensable Jew”. As a result, each time he was taken to the gas chambers, a guard spotted his name and number, 172338, and had him removed from the line.

One day at a factory, three months after his arrival at Auschwitz, he spotted his sister working as a machine operator cutting bullets for the German army, but they could not risk speaking to one another.

Then, in January 1945, with the Russians getting closer, Jaku and the other prisoners were sent on a “death march” through the snow to Germany in which 15,000 died of the cold in temperatures of -20C (-4F) or from being shot by Nazi officers if they fell.

After he was put to work at a camp in Sonnenburg, the Russians approached again, prisoners were evacuated and he managed to escape. Eventually, he was rescued by US soldiers as the war ended and he survived cholera and typhoid.

Jaku settled in Australia, working as a medical instrument maker and for a motor company before setting up his own garage, then a real estate firm, working into his nineties.

Having previously found his Holocaust experience too painful to talk about, he started sharing it publicly in the 1970s but still could not talk directly to his children on the subject.

I have seen the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life, and the lives of all people. But I now consider myself the happiest man on Earth

“When I try to talk to my son, I see my father in his face,” he explained. “It is just too hard.”

Jaku and others formed a group that in 1982 became the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants. Ten years later, they founded the Sydney Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, New South Wales, to tell their stories and he remained a volunteer there until his final days.

He reached his biggest audience in 2019 with a talk in front of 5,000 people in a hall and hundreds of thousands online worldwide.

A year later, his autobiography, The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor, was published. “I have lived for a century, and I know what it is to stare evil in the face,” he wrote.

“I have seen the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life, and the lives of all people. But I now consider myself the happiest man on Earth.”

He was born Abraham Salomon Jakubowicz in 1920 in Leipzig, Germany, where his father married his mother, Lina.

At Leibniz Gymnasium School, he was thrown out for being a Jew following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. With false papers and the name Walter Schleif, he studied at Jeter und Shearer, a mechanical engineering college in Tuttlingen, south of the city, while beginning an apprenticeship. In 1938, he sat his exams and was named the school’s apprentice of the year.

Jaku then took a job making precision medical instruments and, having spent five years away from his family, returned to Leipzig, finding his home abandoned. That night, which would become known as Kristallnacht, he was dragged from his bed by Nazis and beaten, the house was destroyed and the family dog bayoneted to death.

Sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, he was put to work as a toolmaker because of his training but he was able to escape. On being caught in Belgium, Jaku was put in a refugee camp there, then – following the German invasion of the country – moved to a concentration camp in France until escaping again and reuniting with his family in Brussels.

When they were arrested by Belgian police, the family were handed over to the Nazis to be transported to Auschwitz.

After the war, Jaku worked as a precision engineer and supervisor, making tools for the railway, at a factory in Brussels, where he and his friend Kurt shared a flat as they rebuilt their lives. Jaku was also reunited with his sister, who moved in with them.

Then, he met Flore Molho, a Greek-born Jew raised in Belgium who had found refuge in France during the war. They married in 1946 and, four years later, moved to Australia, where Jaku’s sister had settled.

In 2013, he was awarded the Order of Australia medal.

Jaku is survived by Flore, their sons, Michael and Andre, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Johanna predeceased him.

Eddie Jaku, Holocaust survivor, born 14 April 1920, died 12 October 2021

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