President of the Sydney Jewish Museum pays tribute to Eddie Jaku

October 13, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The president of the Sydney Jewish Museum Gus Lehrer makes a personal tribute to the late Eddie Jaku, a survivor of Auschwitz who called himself the happiest man on earth…and there are others who want to pay their respects.

Eddie tells visitors to the Sydney Museum stories about the Holocaust

Gus Lehrer told J-Wire: “For almost 30 years, Eddie Jaku has been inspiring students and adults who visit the Sydney Jewish Museum. Given his life trajectory as a Holocaust Survivor, Eddie could have been forgiven for carrying some bitterness, but there was not a trace of that in his character. The students who listened to him had an immediate connection to him, because of his zest for living, and his ability to explain subtle distinctions with grace, charm and clarity: he did not hate his persecutors, but he would not forgive them. There was a warmth about him, which made it possible for him to say things that others could not say. He could speak to princes and paupers with equal facility.

For many years, Eddie was the private jewel of the Sydney Jewish Museum, but when his international bestseller “The happiest man on Earth” came out a short time ago, he was catapulted into being an international celebrity. His 101st birthday was celebrated “in the flesh” at the Museum, and he made a brilliant speech, without notes. He also gave a donation of $101,000 there to the Museum. At that party, he told me that his book had caused many people to write to him asking for advice. One such letter came from a woman in Queensland, who had problems with her health, her son and her husband. Eddie bluntly told her to stop taking drugs, which she did, with miraculous results. That is the sort of person he was.

He will be missed by the whole world, but particularly by the people at the Museum, where his exceptional character was first discovered. But his memory, homilies and teachings remain, and will not be forgotten.

Academic and historian Professor Suzanne Rutland has fond memories of Eddie Jaku.

She said: “The passing of Eddie Jaku is a great loss to the community and particularly to the school children of New South Wales. Having taken my students to visit the Sydney Jewish Museum, when Eddie was the survivor guide, I saw personally how his message touched and moved every participant in his group.

Over the many years of his guiding at the museum, he moved thousands of school children, and as such transformed lives.

At the personal level, I shall miss his smile and warm hugs every time I visited the museum. All of us who knew him personally were very privileged.

May we all have the strength to carry on his message against hate and prejudice – his memory will indeed be for a blessing.”


Watch Eddie Jaku enthral his audience as he addresses an audience at The Sydney Museum

Once again, the NSW State Parliament heard a tribute this time from Labor politician Walt Secord.

He told the parliament yesterday evening: “As the Deputy Chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel and the Labor Israel Action Committee NSW patron, it is with great sadness that I rise tonight to join the thousands of people who are mourning the loss of, and paying tribute to, the late-Mr Eddie Jaku.

We have lost a national treasure, one of Australia’s most well-known and beloved Shoah survivors, and a truly remarkable individual.

Surviving the horrors of Auschwitz, Mr Jaku said he never expected to live to live a long life. And yet he passed away last night at the age of 101.

I know that the Premier Dominic Perrottet and NSW Labor Opposition leader Chris Minns both earlier today paid tribute to Mr Jaku in the NSW Parliament.  I also note that the Prime Minister and the Federal Treasurer have also issued public tributes to him.  Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said: “Scarred by the past, he only looked forward. May his story be told for generations to come”.

As to my small personal connection, I was fortunate to have first met Mr Jaku more than 33 years ago.  In fact, I first met him when I was a junior journalist at the Australian Jewish News – just after migrating to Australia.

Most recently, he conducted a zoom session on the Shoah to my Judaism class for the Emanuel Synagogue on December 6, 2020 at the Sydney Jewish Museum.  I note that this class was conducted with Mr Jaku in an adjoining room; to protect him from COVID.  But I also note that after the session, he strolled into the room anyway on the arm of Aviva Wolff, the Sydney Jewish Museum’s chief operating officer because he wanted to meet the students. Despite his excitement, we did all keep our social distance to protect him.

Mr Jaku was active in the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants – and he had been a guide for more than 30 years at the Sydney Jewish Museum – but most importantly, he was a wonderful human being who touched lives.

In fact, when I told my staffer Sachin Saxena that Mr Jaku had passed away, he chimed in that Mr Jaku took his Girraween High School history class in Sydney’s west on a tour of the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2006-2007.  The students were taken to the museum by the school’s history teacher Mr Benny Kaplinski. I know him as a cantor, but Sachin knows him as a dedicated educator.

Mr Jaku was born in 1920 in Leipzig, Germany.  He was deported to Buchenwald in 1938; and escaped only to be jailed in camps in Belgium and France between 1939 and 1941.   In 1943, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. He never saw his parents again.  After being liberated in 1945, weighing just 28 kilograms, Mr Jaku vowed never to return to Germany.  In 1950, he and his wife, Flore migrated to Sydney, Australia. They were married for more than 75 years and she is 98 years old and she is still with us.

Following a long and successful career, Mr Jaku began sharing his survival story publically. Then in 2019, at the age of 99, he shot to international attention after giving a TED talk to a 6000-plus crowd at Sydney’s International Convention Centre.

At the age of 100, he became an author. His autobiography The Happiest Man on Earth won last year’s Biography Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards.

As Chris Minns said in the other chamber, “Mr Jaku was an intelligent, gentle and warm human being whose smile and manner put everyone at ease; from the highest leaders in the land to school students struggling to comprehend the horrors of the Shoah”.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Darren Bark said that Mr Jaku was a “beacon of light and hope” for the world and he would be remembered for his resilience and joy.

Finally I note that despite the hate shown to him in his early life and the darkness of the death camps, Mr Jaku’s legacy is that his strength of character was never extinguished. Mr Jaku made a vow to smile every day.

Mr Jaku is survived by his wife, their two sons – Michael and Andre as well as his grand and great-grandchildren.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to his family.  May Eddie Jaku’s memory be a blessing. I thank the House for its consideration.

From Masada College comes this tribute:

Eddie Jaku at Masada College

When a family member passes, there is intense personal sorrow. When a community stalwart and Shoah survivor’s life comes to an end, there is indeed intense community sorrow. Such is the sadness across Sydney and its entire Jewish community this week as we process and mourn the passing of Eddie Jaku on October 12th, the sixth day of Cheshvan. Eddie was a huge personality and a great friend of Masada College over-25 years.

For past Masada students and the parent body, Eddie was ageless, ever elegant and always generous with his time and spirit as he crossed the bridge countless times to transmit his experiences and to give of himself and his wisdom. No Masada student will ever forget the positive aura that surrounded him as he delved into awful times and unspeakable places, through which he emerged to ensure his future life had meaning.

Eddie spoke of reconciliation, positivity and an absence of hatred for the perpetrators. He taught our students the value of living a meaningful life, walking beside one’s friends, always encouraging them, giving a hand up and a warm smile.

What a lifelong Mensch you were, Eddie and we at Masada feel privileged to have had your company and wise words at the College for so many years. May we always honour your memory.

The Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese posted on Facebook:  “Australia has lost a true hero in 101-year-old Eddie Jaku – Holocaust survivor and a symbol of international peace, forgiveness and unity.”

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