I’d heard so much about this book before I read it, how it was life-changing and joyous for so many readers. When a friend bought it for me for Christmas, I was delighted. At last, not only would I get to experience this amazing book, but after a very ordinary year, lose myself in some happy and wise recollections…
Now, I know this might come across as foolish and/or naive, but what I didn’t expect when I started The Happiest Man on Earth was a memoir of a Holocaust survivor. Don’t get me wrong. I knew Eddie had endured and survived Nazi atrocities – I just didn’t realise this book was mostly about his shocking experiences. If I’d known that at the start, I never would have read it and, I tell you now, I would be so much poorer for not having had the experience.
My reasons for not wanting to read Holocaust stories is deeply personal. Please, bear with me while I explain. Over the years, I’ve read so many accounts, so many histories of Nazi barbarism; I studied, with desperate passion the history and literature of the era, watched endless documentaries (remember the gut-wrenching World at War series popular in high schools in the 1970s?) in an effort to understand how and why the attempted genocide of Jewish people (and homosexuals, gypsies and so many others) happened, it almost broke me. You see, I lost so many of my family during the Holocaust. In fact, my great-grandfather and great-uncle were interned in Buchenwald (and, I believe, pretty much when Eddie was there) and, later, my great-grandmother and great- grandfather died, a year apart (suicided) in Theresienstadt. So did numerous cousins and other family members and their friends, neighbours and so forth. But, those who survived, my grandmother, grandfather and my great-uncle and some of their friends and distant relatives – some coming to Australia, others to Israel or the USA – never, ever spoke about what happened. It was there, in the depths of their eyes, the silences that came upon them and even the numbers tattooed on their forearms. Nor did their children speak; my mother and aunt neither. And, until very much later in my life, I never asked. It was like I knew not to be inquisitive, not to venture there and, if I did, I would not be told anything anyway. Instead, I read and read, watched documentaries and films, sought understanding elsewhere in an effort to find answer to questions I didn’t even know I had… until I couldn’t any longer. I reached saturation point and a great heavy sadness came to reside within me. Then came Eddie’s book…
Eddie takes the reader with him from his childhood (so resembling my family’s) to his awakening as a young adult to how he was perceived by a radically altered Germany. Forced to change his identity to get an education, deny his family and origins and so much more, Eddie stumbles into terror. He unapologetically describes his treatment at the hands of the Nazis, the sacrifices, the brutality, deprivation, desperation as well as the emotional and psychological torture he and others were forced to endure, all because they were Jewish and/or outsiders. He became viewed as an un-person, not human; his past, present-and thus future erased. His story is heart-aching and terrible. I had to stop often, take deep breaths, allow tears. But I also had to keep reading. Eddie’s story isn’t just a Jewish man’s, or my family’s or anyone else specifically. There is a sense in which it is everyone’s story. I don’t think Eddie did this deliberately, but this is the message I took (and no doubt others) from his incredible life. Just when I was floundering and thinking I couldn’t read anymore, I read this: Eddie writes how important it is not only for him and any remaining survivors to tell their story – something his generation (including my grandmother, uncles etc did not.). He says that by staying silent (because how do you speak to those horrors?) a whole generation grew up not knowing what their parents and others survived. This, Eddie tells us, was and is a mistake, for in the silence, the huge gap, deniers rose, more haters to take the place of the old ones. We’re bearing witness to this in so many ways today.
I’d never thought of it that way before. I understood the need to preserve the self, what dignity remained, to try and wipe the shocking memories from the mind, from culture from history. But this is wrong. This is why, as Eddie says, we cannot stay silent, cannot forget-why survivors of any horror really, must tell their stories and be heard. We owe it to them to remember by sharing these stories. Eddie thus acknowledges the power of not only the past and human strength and goodness, but the power of story.
Not only to prevent the spread of invidious doubt and hate but to learn what ultimately defeats hate and its correlates (or cause): fear, cowardice, bigotry and every kind of ism. Eddie makes that clear. What defeats all of these is love. Not necessarily romantic love (though it does too), but love for our fellow humans, friendship, kindness, selflessness and hope. They cost nothing and yet are priceless and ultimately save us from our worst nature. From others’ worst nature.
Eddie’s book is beautiful. For all its heart-ache, sorrow, stomach-churning descriptions of savage and shameful acts, it is uplifting. Eddie’s lessons – those his appalling experiences have taught him, and those being part of a loving family and community and world, he shares with us all. The tears I initially shed in sorrow became ones of happiness. Thank you, Eddie.
A wonderful, emotional start to a New and hopefully, better year.