Louise Kennerley / The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images
Eddie Jaku, who survived the Holocaust and devoted the rest of his life to promoting kindness, tolerance and resilience, has died in Sydney at the age of 101.
The self-proclaimed “happiest man on earth” shared his story with the world in a popular TED talk, a bestselling memoir and as a volunteer at the Sydney Jewish Museum, which he helped create.
“Eddie Jaku was a beacon of light and hope not only for our community, but for the world,” said the Council of Jewish Members of New South Wales, who announced his death. “He will always be remembered for the joy that followed and his steadfast resilience in the face of adversity.”
After the Holocaust, he remained miserable – until the birth of his son
Jaku was born Abraham Jakubowicz in Leipzig, Germany, in 1920, to a family that saw themselves as “Germans first, then Jews”. He was kicked out of school as a teenager because he was Jewish and graduated from high school in another city under a pseudonym.
Beginning in 1938, Jaku and his family were sent to several concentration camps, including Buchenwald, Gurs and eventually Auschwitz, which he later described as “hell on Earth”.
Because Jaku had studied engineering, he was spared the gas chamber and instead worked as a slave. His parents and other family members did not survive the war.
Jaku himself was sent on a “death march” during the evacuation of Auschwitz in 1945, but managed to break free. He hid in a forest for months, he said, feeding on slugs and snails, until he was rescued by the US military.
Later that year he returned to Belgium, where he met and married his 75-year-old wife, Flore. They moved to Australia in 1950. Jaku worked in a Sydney garage and Flore was a seamstress before the couple got into real estate together.
Yet, as Jaku recalled in his 2019 TED Talk, he was “not a happy man” immediately after the war – but his outlook changed when the couple’s first son was born.
“At that time, my heart was healed and my happiness was returning in abundance,” he explained. “I made a promise that from that day on and until the end of my life, I promised to be happy, smiling, polite, helpful and kind. I also promised never to ever again set foot on German soil. Today I stand before you, a man who has kept all of those promises. ”
Jaku said his greatest happiness came from his family. He is survived by Flore, her two sons, four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
He refused to let loss or hate consume him
Jaku is committed to teaching and sharing happiness with everyone he met, as he explained in his TED Talk – aptly titled “A Plan for Holocaust Survivor Happiness” “.
“When I remember I should have died a miserable death, but instead I’m alive, so I aim to help people who are depressed,” he said. “I was at the bottom of the abyss. So if I can make a miserable person smile, I’m happy.”
In his speech, he gave some simple but wise tips for slowing down and savoring each day: invite a loved one to eat, go for a walk, rely on friends in good times and in bad times.
Jaku also urged listeners to do their best to make the world a better place for others and to ensure that the terrible Holocaust tragedy does not happen again or be forgotten.
Despite his experiences, he refused to let loss or hatred consume him.
“I don’t hate anyone,” Jaku said. “Hatred is a disease which can destroy your enemy but which will destroy you in the process as well.”
Choosing kindness and tolerance was also the premise of Jaku’s memoirs, Happiest man on earth, which he released last year at the age of 100.
Jaku was also part of the group of survivors that co-founded the Sydney Jewish Museum in 1992 and has volunteered there for the past three decades, according to a memory by Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
Jaku would take school groups to tour the museum’s Holocaust exhibits, Frydenburg wrote, “brings grainy, faded, black-and-white images to life for thousands of young students” and urges them never to be forgotten. He wrote that Jaku would remember his own experiences and then show a leather belt – his only personal item that survived the camps.
The museum wrote in a tweet that Jaku’s impact will be felt “for generations to come”. Frydenberg – whose Hungarian mother arrived in Australia as a child in 1950 after surviving the Holocaust – also said that Jaku’s memory and legacy will live on:
“It is our duty to ensure that his story is known for generations to come, for he has seen the worst, but has seen the best of mankind.”