Steve Wenick

‘The Happiest Man on Earth’ (review)

It was an ordinary day when Abraham Salomon Jakubowicz was summoned to the headmaster’s office of the prestigious Leibniz Gymnasium school. Despite the fact he was in the top tier of his class, he was unceremoniously expelled from the school for the crime of being Jewish. That occurred when his family, like many others, considered themselves Germans first, Germans second and by-the-way, Jewish. That was when he first realized that he was not considered a German, but a Jew.

In Jakubowicz’s book, THE HAPPIEST MAN ON EARTH, who now goes by the name Eddie Jaku, he tells the remarkable story of his one-hundred-year life. Eddie was a native of Leipzig and grew up there during the heady days of 1933 when Germany was at the acme of culture: literature, art, and music. Raised in that urbane and sophisticated environment, Eddie understood the importance of getting an education, so despite his expulsion from his school, he was determined to obtain a degree.

Eddie knew that to be accepted to a university in Germany, he would have to change his identity, and hide the fact that he was a Jew. So he forged papers, changed his name to a more acceptable Christian name, and was thus able to enroll in a mechanical engineering school far from home, in a town where he was not known. Upon graduating with honors, he was admitted to the Master of the Precision Engineering Union, one of the most highly respected unions in Germany. The next day he boarded a train and triumphantly returned home, with diploma in hand and union card in pocket, to share his success with his family. It was then that he discovered he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

His return home could not have come at a worse time because he arrived during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The darkness of that night shattered his dreams of a bright future. Madness had infected his neighbors; it led them to commit terrible atrocities and it was then he ceased being a proud German. It took the cruelty of neighbors to teach him that he was a Jew.

With the shards of glass still strewn throughout the streets of Germany, Eddie and his fellow Jews were loaded onto trucks like cattle and carted off to Buchenwald concentration camp, located in Weimar, Germany. How distressing it was that a country which prized itself adhering to the rule of law, where you could be fined 200 marks for tossing a cigarette butt out your car window, a Jew could be bludgeoned senseless for not having his shirt fully tucked into his trousers.

In time Eddie managed to escape from Germany and fled to Belgium but was captured by the Belgian authorities and sent back to Germany. The irony did not escape him that in Germany he was not considered a German but a Jew and in Belgium he was not considered a Jew but a German. In time he was transported from Germany to Auschwitz II- Birkenau where for the first time he saw the infamous Arbeit Mach Frei sign. It was also there that he faced the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele, administering his infamous selection procedures.

Eddie had been one of the ‘fortunate’ ones for he was selected to join a work group. But his mother and father here not so lucky. Although Eddie knew his parents were in the same camp, he had not seen them since their arrival. So he asked an SS officer if he knew where his parents were, to which the officer simply pointed to a rising column of smoke spewing ash from a smokestack and said, “there they are”.

Eddie learned firsthand that the objective of the Final Solution was to exterminate every Jew, either by outright murder, or by working them to death. And when it became apparent that their methods were too slow to suit their grizzly goal, they designed more efficient mechanisms of murder: gas chambers and crematoria. Eddie remarked that with heartless cruelty they were able to sap our strength, undermine our morale, take our lives, but never our morality and determination to survive.

And survive he did. After the war, Eddie made his way to Australia, married, had children and grandchildren. Each year he and his wife Flore celebrated their wedding anniversary on April 20th — Hitler’s birthday. But as Eddie put it, “that monster is down there and we are still here”.

In retrospect, he said he never dreamed that living in what was once a free country, would become his prison, and passport to death. He lamented that there are people who were liberated but never free from the torment and anguish of their memories. They managed to survive but have yet to learn how to live.

Although he rarely thought about his being a Jew until it became dangerous to be one, and by his own admission not a particularly religious one, he echoed the Kabbalists’ explanation as to why G-d created human beings, when he told his children, “I brought you into this world because I wanted to love you”.

Despite the immeasurable cruelty he experienced, Eddie remains a kind, polite and loving human being. He said that during the Holocaust there were no miracles, unless we made them happen, and that was accomplished by choosing to perform acts of loving-kindness, thus performing the greatest miracle of all –  dispelling the darkness with light. It was then he realized that being happy is the best revenge, and having achieved that, he was the luckiest person in the world and the happiest man on Earth.

About the Author
Since retiring from IBM Steve Wenick has served as a freelance book reviewer for HarperCollins Publishing and Simon & Schuster. His reviews and articles have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Algemeiner, Jerusalem Online, Philadelphia Inquirer, Attitudes Magazine, and The Jewish Voice of Southern New Jersey. Steve and his wife are residents of Voorhees, New Jersey.
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