Political and sports pundits in their acerbic commentaries often use the phrase “the age is not quite on his/her side” when it comes to prolonged careers of politicians and athletes. In politics and sports, age can rarely be ‘just a number’. However, for Eddie Jaku, the 103-year-old Holocaust survivor, age is certainly no bar. He tells his story after he turns 100 in The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Story of Auschwitz Survivor.
The subject of the book is Holocaust, yet Jaku narrates the story with a calming demeanour. As a storyteller, he takes his own time to process his heart-wrenching experiences. He survives the Holocaust to tell the tale. That is what the book is about. It is amazing how the narrator has remained composed while writing about the most horrific crimes committed against the human race in Nazi Germany. He does not appear to be shouting, his storytelling offers the same comfort that you may have experienced as a child while listening to the bedtime stories narrated by your grandparents.
Jaku’s account makes a point about why preserving the memory for posterity is essential. In this highly readable memoir, the Auschwitz survivor tells us everything. He shares stories of the dreadfulness of the death camps and the Nazi efforts to kill him. He articulates he would never be able to forgive Hitler as that would be unfair to himself and to the Jews who could not survive. At the same time, he makes a case that anger is not a solution. Anger will only result in hatred and reactionary violence.
The dreaded Nazi troops exterminated an estimated 6 million Jews during Holocaust under the supervision of the then-popular and elected German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
Jaku tells his story of survival without bitterness. Instead, the experienced survivor inspires readers to make life beautiful even under unfavourable situations. “I will tell you my story. It is sad one in parts, with great darkness and sorrow,” he writes, adding, “But it is a happy story in the end because happiness is something we can choose. It is up to you.” At the age of 100, he summoned the courage to write about his suffering and that of other Jews. Yet, he writes, “Through all of my years I have learned this: life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.”
In today’s fast-moving —post-truth— world, no one is naïve as to consider that sacrifices, slogans, speeches, or sentiments are enough to change the course of history. Perhaps, it is also unfashionable to believe in the adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ or that the pen has the power to shake the conscience of the world. Even books hardly evoke the same passion in the readers they once did. As a welcome departure, however, Jaku’s memoir forces us to reflect and gather the courage to not lose hope even in the most difficult times.
It is an unpalatable fact that in the real world, the powerful set the agenda, indulge in gate-keeping, and control the narratives in all spaces, but here is a book written by an old Jew that reminds us of hope, compassion, and kindness.
The book comprises 15 chapters, all written in lucid language and in a manner of conversation. Each chapter begins with a powerful quote. The author begins his story in Leipzig, a city in eastern Germany, where he was born in 1920. He talks about his family members for whom German identity mattered more than their Jewish identity. Yet that was not enough. “We considered ourselves Germans first, Germans second, and then Jewish,” writes Jaku.
Jaku informs us how The Third Reich was making preparations for Der totale Krieg — “total war against the world”. He recalls the torment of his father, mother, sisters, and aunt. Their family was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Their apartment was raided by the Belgian police. The police took his parents and sisters into custody. Like other family members, he too was captured and taken to the headquarters of the Gestapo in Brussels. He recollects his horrible experience at Auschwitz, a dreaded death camp. At one point in time, he almost loses faith in humanity. Remarkably for Jaku, life is all about “family first, family second, and family at the last”.
Jaku’s powerful narration offers hope. He telegraphs that survival is possible with hope. Hope is not a mere emotion. There are countless stories of Holocaust survivors. All of them are heart-breaking. Under no circumstances can the horrors of Nazi violence or its magnitude be undervalued or taken lightly. Viktor E. Frankl, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Heather Morris, Anne Frank, Eddie Jaku, and many others have narrated their stories. They have documented the ordeal in different ways. Anne Frank did not survive Holocaust, but other survivors ensured that stories of the persecuted Jews and also of survival were put on record.
Yet, in many ways, to be in a position to tell a story is also a matter of privilege. There are many poignant stories of people around the globe which remain untold. Some stories lay buried with people inside their hearts or end with them as their bodies are lowered into the graves. That said, Jaku’s book must be read by young readers to keep hope alive. In the end, hope makes one believe that every storm runs out of rain!
(Eddie Jaku’s ‘The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor’ was published by Macmillan.)