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Eddie Jaku, Holocaust survivor and self-proclaimed happiest man on Earth, dies at 101

Eddie Jaku pictured just after his 100th birthday, on July 2, 2020. The Holocaust survivor and self-proclaimed "happiest man on Earth" died in Sydney this week.
Louise Kennerley/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images
Eddie Jaku pictured just after his 100th birthday, on July 2, 2020. The Holocaust survivor and self-proclaimed "happiest man on Earth" died in Sydney this week.

Eddie Jaku, who survived the Holocaust and dedicated the rest of his life to promoting kindness, tolerance and resilience, has died in Sydney at age 101.

The self-proclaimed "happiest man on Earth" shared his story with the world in a popular TED Talk, a best-selling memoir and as a volunteer at the Sydney Jewish Museum, which he helped create.

"Eddie Jaku was a beacon of light and hope for not only our community, but the world," said the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, which announced his passing. "He will always be remembered for the joy that followed him, and his constant resilience in the face of adversity."

After the Holocaust he remained unhappy — until his son was born

Jaku was born Abraham Jakubowicz in Leipzig, Germany, in 1920, to a family that considered themselves "German first, Jewish second." He was kicked out of school as a teenager because he was Jewish, and completed his high school education in another city under an alias.

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 laborer. 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 out in a forest alone for months, he said, subsisting off slugs and snails, until he was rescued by the American Army.

Later that year he returned to Belgium, where he met and married his wife of 75 years, Flore. They moved to Australia in 1950. Jaku worked in a Sydney garage and Flore was a dressmaker before the couple went into real estate together.

Still, 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 returned in abundance," he explained. "I made the promise that from that day until the end of my life, I promised to be happy, smile, be polite, helpful, and kind. I also promised to never put my foot on German soil again. Today, I stand in front of you, a man who has kept all those promises."

Jaku said his greatest happiness came from his family. He is survived by Flore, his two sons, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

He refused to let loss or hate consume him

Jaku vowed to teach and share happiness with everyone he met, as he explained in his TED Talk — appropriately titled "A Holocaust survivor's blueprint for happiness."

"When I remember that I should have died a miserable death, but instead I'm alive, so I aim to help people who are down," he said. "I was at the bottom of the pit. So if I can make one miserable person smile, I'm happy."

In his speech, he offered some simple but sage pieces of advice for slowing down and savoring each day: invite a loved one for a meal, go for a walk, lean on friends in both good times and bad.

Jaku also urged listeners to do their best to make the world a better place for others, and to ensure that the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust will never happen again or ever be forgotten.

Despite his experiences, he refused to let loss or hate consume him.

"I do not hate anyone," Jaku said. "Hate is a disease which may destroy your enemy but will also destroy you in the process."

Choosing kindness and tolerance was also the premise of Jaku's memoir, The Happiest Man on Earth, which he published last year at age 100.

Jaku was also part of the group of survivors that co-founded the Sydney Jewish Museum in 1992, and volunteered there for the past three decades, according to a remembrance from Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Jaku would take school groups on tours of the museum's Holocaust exhibitions, Frydenburg wrote, "bringing the grainy, faded, black and white images to life for thousands of young students" and urging them to never forget. He wrote that Jaku would recall his own experiences and then point to 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 Jaku's memory and legacy will live on:

"It is our duty to see that his story is known by generations to come, for he experienced the very worst, but saw the very best in mankind."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.