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Eddie, The 'Happiest Man On Earth', Warns 'We're Going Backwards'

When Eddie Jaku awoke from a coma in a German hospital, a nurse whispered in his ear he was 65 percent dead and 35 percent alive. 

It was June 1945, and he had spent two months hiding in a cave surviving on slugs and snails after escaping a 'death march' from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"I was so sick,  I couldn't stand up anymore but I told myself I had to get out," he told 10 daily.

Eddie crawled 80 metres to a nearby highway -- and then some -- before pulling himself up to find he was in front of an American tank.

He woke up in hospital one week later. At the young age of 25, and weighing just 28 kilograms, he made two vows: to never again step on German soil, and to be the happiest man alive.

"You can create happiness, and if everyone does this, the world can be a better place for everybody."

Decades later, this now 99 year old -- with an infectious smile, a cheeky laugh and a strong political bent -- has stuck to his word.

Eddie Jaku is probably the happiest man you'll ever meet. Image: Supplied

Every morning he sings in the shower. Every week, he shares his story with school children across the country, interspersed with visits to nursing homes where he brings residents one small flower, one cake and a piece of chocolate. As Eddie puts it, "I am their best friend".

"I feel good that I give to society what I believe society has given to me now," he said.

Eddie's legacy for surviving the horrors of the Holocaust is to live and enjoy life.

"If I can do it, everybody can," he said.

But this wasn't always the case.

'I Lost 150 Of My Family'

Eddie Jaku was born Abraham Jakubowicz in Germany in 1920. His family -- his mother one of 13 children, his father one of 10 -- considered themselves German first, and Jewish second.

On November 9, 1938, the night known as Kristallnacht, Eddie returned home from boarding school to an empty house. At dawn, he was beaten by Nazi soldiers and taken to Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps established within the old German borders of 1937.

He was later released and managed to escape to Belgium, and then France, with his father before he was recaptured and sent to Auschwitz.

"When you arrive in Auschwitz and they shave you, they take everything from you. Only your belt. From one camp to another," he recalls.

"No.7. Eddie Jaku"

Managing to escape again, Eddie lived in hiding with his parents and sister before they were arrested again in October 1943 and sent back to what became one of the most infamous camps of the Holocaust.

Here, both of his parents were murdered.

A red rose lies on a slab of the Holocaust Memorial to commemorate the victims of the Nazis in Berlin. Image: AAP

"I lost 150 family members in the Holocaust. After the war, I had only two left," Eddie said.

"While I am alive, I will remind young people every time I speak of the price we paid for freedom. Six million people died ... why? Because we are born Jewish?"

"If this can happen in Germany, it can happen anywhere. This is why it is so important that you listen to me -- more today than ever before."

As Australia grapples with neo-Nazi and far-right sentiments brewing online --and spilling onto the streets -- and Jewish leaders claim the ugly clouds of anti-Semitism are a mounting concern, Eddie's wider message of tolerance is perhaps more important than ever.

"If you are tolerant, you accept people who you wouldn't associate with. But people have to behave like humans -- and they often don't," he said.

"A normal person doesn't hurt another person. Even if we don't agree, you're still my friend. That's why I have so many friends!"

The Holocaust survivor describes hatred as a "disease" that "first kills your enemy, then kills you".

"You can say you don't like a person, but I teach you, don't hate."

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'We're Going Backwards'

Last weekend, Eddie turned 99 and celebrated with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

His "greatest gift" was from his wife, Flore, of 73 years.

"My wife made me a beautiful breakfast and promised me she would look after me, like I have looked after her," he said.

"I got plenty of presents! But this was the best."

Eddie will be speaking at TedX Sydney next month. Image: Supplied

Eddie says he owes a lot to his family and life in Australia, but warns too much freedom "is a curse". Speaking about progress, he is more interested in Alzheimer's research than he is about reaching the moon, and calls mobile phones a "killer"-- particularly in the hands of young children who "are not listening". 

And he's worried it's sending the world backwards.

"We have everything and yet people don't know what they want," he said. 

"Is progress really helping us? I don't think so. We are going the wrong way."

'I'm Hopeful'

Despite his worries, Eddie remains an optimistic 99 year old.

"I'm hopeful that somebody comes along and changes the direction. I can only do so much ... but I will help that person," he said. 

"Tomorrow will come but first enjoy today. You don't know what will happen." 

Eddie Jaku will be speaking at TEDxSydney 2019, hosted at ICC Sydney on Friday 24 May 2019.  Tickets are on sale now via the TEDxSydney website.

Featured image: Sydney Jewish Museum

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au