The self-declared “happiest man on earth”, Holocaust survivor and peace advocate Eddie Jaku, has died in Sydney aged 101.
Jaku was a “beacon of light and hope”, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies said, a man who would be remembered for his resilience in the face of adversity and “for the joy that followed him”.
“The world is a little less bright without him in it, and we will always treasure the memories and stories we were privileged to have heard. We wish the entire Jaku family a long life. May his memory be a blessing.”
The life of Eddie Jaku, born Abraham Jakubowicz in Leipzig, Germany, in 1920, was changed irreparably when Hitler came to power in 1933. He was savagely beaten by Nazis on Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – in November 1938 and transported to Buchenwald concentration camp. He later escaped to Belgium and France before being recaptured and sent to Auschwitz.
At the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, his left forearm was crudely tattooed with the number 72338. Both of his parents were murdered there.
Forced on a brutal death march from the camp in 1945, he managed a daring escape, sheltering in a freezing drain. Afterwards he attempted to scratch the tattooed number from his forearm with a rock.
After days in hiding, he was ultimately rescued by advancing American troops.
In the months after peace came to Europe, Jaku would meet and marry his wife, Flore, in Belgium. They migrated to Australia in 1950. The couple had two sons, and are also survived by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Jaku built a varied career in his new home, including running a service station in Mascot and a real estate agency in Bondi.
But it was as an advocate for peace, tolerance and forgiveness that he found his lifelong calling. A founder and tireless volunteer at the Sydney Jewish Museum since its inception in 1992, he spoke to thousands of museum visitors, schoolchildren, historians and members of the public, his message spread even further by an enduringly popular Ted Talk.
“Life can be beautiful, if you make it beautiful,” he wrote in his book, The Happiest Man on Earth. “It is up to you.”
The autobiography was published in 2020, when Jaku was 100 years old.
“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.”
Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, paid tribute on Tuesday to Jaku’s resolute message of peace.
“Having survived the Holocaust, Eddie chose to make his life a testimony of how hope and love can triumph over despair and hate,” Morrison said.
“He will be sadly missed, especially by our Jewish community. He was an inspiration and a joy. Shalom, Eddie, and thank you for your great gift to us all, and our sincere condolences to all your loving family and friends.”