real life

Eddie spent more than a year as a prisoner in Auschwitz. This is his survival story.

In the early hours of the morning, Eddie Jaku would make his way home from his shift at a Brussels cigarette factory; an hour-long walk through the pitch-black streets, otherwise empty due to the wartime curfew. As a Jewish man in Nazi-occupied Belgium, it was a job Eddie could only hold in secret, shielded by the cover of night, one given to him – at great risk – by the factory’s compassionate owner, a Christian by the name of Tannenbaum.

Each night Eddie would make this trip, back to the small house in which his family lived, hidden. They’d rented the attic from the owner; another act of compassion from a stranger, another stroke of luck.

But on the morning of October 17, 1942, their luck ran out.

“Somebody denounced us,” the now 98-year-old told Mamamia‘s No Filter podcast. “I come back at ten-past-three in the morning. No lights. I thought everybody’s asleep. [But] My parents, my sister were taken already; they’re waiting for me. And this time it is to Auschwitz.”

More than seven decades on, Eddie Jaku bears the tattoo of an Auschwitz prisoner, a serial number etched into his forearm – 1 7 2 3 3 8 – blurred ink that now serves as a reminder of the horrors he witnessed during his 15 months at the notorious death camp and of the loss of his parents.

“When we arrived, we met the biggest butcher who ever lived. His name was Dr Josef Mengele. He says to my father ‘this way’, to me ‘that way’, and I saw my father going on a truck. So I went behind him, I bent down, and I was nearly at the truck when one good man, one good soldier, says, ‘Hey, you! Didn’t he tell you to go this side?’ So he said to me, ‘Your father goes into the truck and you walk into the camp.’ I never saw my father again. My father, 52, and my mum, 43, died that night in a gas chamber. It was 20 minutes before they suffocated.”

Eddie, an engineering student before the war, survived by virtue of his skills. He was made a workshop manager in charge of keeping 200 machines in operation, and was for two months sent to work directly for Mengele, who tasked him with making a small operating table. Mengele would later become known as The Angel of Death, due to the horrific medical experiments he performed on Jewish prisoners during the war.

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For more of Eddie’s incredible survival story, listen to No Filter below or subscribe in your preferred podcast app.

Each night after his forced labour, Eddie would return to the block he shared with 400 other prisoners.

“We’d sleep on four layers of timber, ten between columns, like herrings. Nobody can turn; if one wants to turn all have to turn, we’re so close. We sleep all in our shirt or naked, and it’s a cold. It can be eight below zero. If one of the ten goes to the toilet, when he comes back he has to shake number one and number 10 [the people on the outside of the row]. They get up and crawl into the middle,” he said. “If they didn’t shake, [those two would be] dead the morning. Frozen to death.

“We’d have 15 to 20 people every night dead from cold. Not from hunger, not from sickness – from cold. Why? Because people came back from the toilet and didn’t know their duty to shake. Or they didn’t care. People don’t care.”

That’s why Eddie shares his story every week at the Sydney Jewish Museum. He hopes that by showing people – especially young people – the power of compassion and empathy, that we might avoid atrocities like those endured during the Holocaust.

“I tell you, if the six million Jews were not killed – and this is my honest belief – we wouldn’t have today breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease. These were men and women that never will be replaced,” he said.

“But I [will be] happy until I drop dead. I will teach children how to be happy, and make this world a better place for everyone.”

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