I have read enough books about the Second World War to last me a lifetime, starting with William Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ (I remember embittered relatives cutting up the dust cover with its large swastika before allowing the book onto their shelves). I have seen many hours of footage on wartime Germany and the Holocaust, including Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing documentary film (‘Shoah’), recording in slow motion as it were, the grim recollections of survivors. Add to that several accounts of political and Jewish life in the century preceding the rise of the Nazis, biographies of Hitler and his henchmen, scholarly texts on antisemitism and papers on the psychological treatment of trauma and on the mentality of the perpetrators. Yet I still find myself unable to arrive at a coherent understanding of how the Holocaust came about. Perhaps I am asking for too much, but the question continues to nag at me. The Holocaust still casts its shadow over the world.
My latest read, giving me further cause for reflection on the subject, is a book by Eddie Jaku, an Auschwitz survivor, who died recently at the age of 101. The opening and closing chapters of his life were idyllic. He was raised in Germany by a loving Jewish family, who never dreamt of the sea change that would take place and what was in store for them. After the war he came to live in Australia where he rebuilt his life, surrounded by his new extended family. In his later years he devoted his energies to sharing his experiences and his optimistic philosophy of life with thousands of ready listeners, including schoolchildren, and he was instrumental in the establishment of a Jewish Museum in Sydney. He maintained an active working life into his last years and died, as his book’s title has it, ‘The Happiest Man on Earth’.
What has stayed with me, however, was the horrific suffering which he experienced from the time that the Nazis came to power until the end of the war. His narrative, simply told, is a chronicle of sheer bestiality. Although it reiterates much that was already familiar to me from other accounts, I was still left aghast by the sadistic and cold-blooded cruelty of the Nazi killing machine to which he was subjected.
One of the questions which springs to mind is how Jaku managed to survive. He has his own answers to this. He acknowledges the quirk of fate which endowed him with the skills deemed necessary by the Nazis (he had been expertly trained in engineering and the repair of machinery) but he also cites his philosophy of holding onto hope at all times, his determination to preserve his morals at all costs (never to steal food from others, for instance, and willingness to share his scraps with other souls more wretched than him). He was also extremely resourceful and physically resilient, and luck played its part too, despite the fact that he was brought to the verge of death on many occasions.
Jaku’s self-definition as ‘the happiest man on earth’ is all too often contradicted by the pain, grief and tragedy woven into his narrative. He lost his much loved family and many friends and was scarred both in body and mind by his experiences. Yet he claims to feel no hatred for his persecutors, only sadness and a determination not to forgive. Like so many survivors, he dedicated himself to doing his bit by talking about his experiences as one way of ensuring that such things would never happen again.
Eddie Jaku does not venture into political or theological terrain. His language is simple but powerful, his message a testimony to his deep humanity. The questions implied by his experiences remain unanswered, but the man himself symbolises the triumph of love over hate and he takes us a step closer to an understanding of what might be needed for us to immunise ourselves against a recurrence of that monstrous episode in the history of mankind.