The Happiest Man on Earth – Eddie Jaku

This is the most important thing I have ever learned: the greatest thing you will ever do is be loved by another person.

No matter how many books I read by Holocaust survivors, I always manage to encounter horrors I’ve never heard of before and marvel anew at the capacity humans have to survive the unimaginable. In his first sentence Eddie Jaku introduces himself as your new friend and I found that so endearing. It got me immediately invested in his story and I would have thought it was a clever way to grab you emotionally from the get to if I didn’t believe he meant it wholeheartedly. But I did believe him.

Intermittently addressing you, his friend, throughout the book, Eddie tells you his story. From his school days to his experiences in multiple concentration camps and beyond, you can’t help but feel you’re sitting across from him as he regales you with his stories and the wisdom he’s accumulated along the way.

Kindness is the greatest wealth of all.

Despite taking you on a journey through the darkest humanity has to offer (the murder of his dog hit me particularly hard, probably in part because it was before Eddie stepped foot in a concentration camp so I wasn’t expecting the brutality of this), Eddie has managed to hold onto hope.

There are always miracles in the world, even when all seems hopeless. And when there are no miracles, you can make them happen. With a simple act of kindness, you can save another person from despair, and that might just save their life. And this is the greatest miracle of all.

This is a quick read, one that is undeniably heartbreaking at times. I felt like Eddie was probably holding back on describing some of the more difficult aspects of his story, but fair enough. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it was for him to write about any of his early life.

Ultimately, my experience of this book was one where I felt better after reading it than I felt before I began. I made a new friend, albeit one I’ll probably never meet. I was reminded that it is possible to be happy and live a fulfilled life, even when you’ve experienced pain that feels insurmountable. I was encouraged to inject some more kindness into the world.

It is never too late to be kind, polite, and a loving human being.

My only quibble, and this is simply because Eddie made me care deeply about them, is that I yearn to know what happened to Henni after she moved to Australia and to Kurt. I adored reading about Eddie and Kurt’s friendship and to leave Kurt’s story in 1946, without any information about their (I hope) continued friendship, hurt a little.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. It is up to you.

Eddie Jaku always considered himself a German first, a Jew second. He was proud of his country. But all of that changed in November 1938, when he was beaten, arrested and taken to a concentration camp.

Over the next seven years, Eddie faced unimaginable horrors every day, first in Buchenwald, then in Auschwitz, then on a Nazi death march. He lost family, friends, his country.

Because he survived, Eddie made the vow to smile every day. He pays tribute to those who were lost by telling his story, sharing his wisdom and living his best possible life. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’.

Published as Eddie turns 100, this is a powerful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful memoir of how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.

The Twins of Auschwitz – Eva Mozes Kor & Lisa Rojany Buccieri

Eva and Miriam Morez were only ten years old when their family was sent to Auschwitz from Romania. Their parents and two older sisters, Edit and Aliz, did not survive the selection line. Eva and Miriam, identical twins, were immediately selected for experimentation by Josef Mengele.

I concentrated all my being on one thing: how to survive one more day in this horrible place.

Although this was not planned, four of the last six books I’ve read were written by or about Holocaust survivors. While the first three either taught me so much that I didn’t already know or touched me so deeply that I know I will carry them in my heart going forward, I felt a disconnect with this book that surprised me.

Throughout the book it seemed like it had been written with a younger audience in mind. It was written quite simply, with explanations given for some words I expect most adults wouldn’t need. It was only at the very end of the book that I learned Eva wanted her book to be used in schools to teach about the Holocaust. What I read makes much more sense to me if I view it as an introduction to the Holocaust.

I also felt like I was a couple of steps removed from the story of Eva’s life. I understood the basics but the level of detail I’ve found in other books written by Holocaust survivors was missing, as was the depth of emotion I have read about and felt in other books. Although this was Eva’s story and she was interviewed extensively, I got the impression that she may not have actually participated in the writing.

Accompanying Eva’s story are photos and maps, which provide context.

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The children at the front are Eva (left) and Miriam (right)

This book was originally published in 2009 by Tanglewood Publishing as Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz.

Content warnings include anti-Semitism, bullying and medical experimentation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Monoray, an imprint of Octopus Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

N.B. I do not allocate star ratings for memoirs or stories about people’s lives based on anything they have experienced; it’s not my place to rate a person’s life. My rating is based solely on my connection to the material presented.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The Nazis spared their lives because they were twins.

In the summer of 1944, Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived at Auschwitz.

Within thirty minutes, they were separated. Her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, while Eva and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man who became known as the Angel of Death: Dr. Josef Mengele. They were 10 years old.

While twins at Auschwitz were granted the ‘privileges’ of keeping their own clothes and hair, they were also subjected to Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. They were forced to fight daily for their own survival and many died as a result of the experiments, or from the disease and hunger rife in the concentration camp.

In a narrative told simply, with emotion and astonishing restraint, The Twins of Auschwitz shares the inspirational story of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.

Also included is an epilogue on Eva’s incredible recovery and her remarkable decision to publicly forgive the Nazis. Through her museum and her lectures, she dedicated her life to giving testimony on the Holocaust, providing a message of hope for people who have suffered, and worked toward goals of forgiveness, peace, and the elimination of hatred and prejudice in the world.

Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust – Rebecca Clifford

If you cannot recount the story of your own family, your home town, or your formative experiences, how do you make sense of your childhood and its impacts?

Most of us take our early childhood memories for granted. They form part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from. For so many children who survived the Holocaust, these memories are either entirely missing or exist only in fragments. There are often no surviving family members who can help them fill in the blanks.

The survivors whose stories are explored in this book were all born between 1935 and 1944. Previous books I’ve read about Holocaust survivors were written by people who were either teenagers or adults during the war. The oldest survivors mentioned here were only ten years old in 1945.

“For most survivors who are not young child survivors, there was a before, you see.”

From an interview with Zilla C., conducted by psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg in 1987

Even though I’ve now read the excerpts of their stories I’m still have trouble getting my head around what their lives have been like. For so many years they were not even counted as Holocaust survivors and were encouraged to simply move on with their lives and forget what memories they had of that time.

‘Just think it never happened,’ they urged, ‘and you will start a fresh new life.’

Paulette S., on how OSE staff tried to prepare her to move across the globe

In addition, there was a “disconnect between what children after the war felt and what their adult carers expected them to feel.”

The children’s wartime experiences consisted of at least one of the following:

survival in hiding, in flight to a neutral country or Allied territory, in ghettos and transit camps, and in concentration camps.

The ways these children coped with the trauma of the war and the subsequent traumas of being moved between institutional care, family members, and foster and adoptive homes is addressed. Some of the children lived in stable, loving homes during the war, albeit not with family members, only to be abruptly taken from them at the end of the war.

More often than not, they were moved to countries where they didn’t know the language. Many went to live with strangers and had to try to figure out who they were with little to no assistance.

Survivors has been extensively researched, with sources from “archival material, including care agency files, records from care homes, indemnity claims, psychiatric reports, letters, photographs, and unpublished memoirs, documents originating from nearly a dozen different countries”. The bibliography and detailed footnotes make up almost 15% of the book.

I had expected almost all of the book to consist of detailed stories of individual survivors. Snippets of interviews with survivors are included, as are overviews of the wartime experiences of a number of them. There is also a lot of information and commentary on changes that occurred throughout the decades that impacted on survivors. Some of these changes relate to what was happening in the world at the time and some examines the ways survivors have related to their stories as they grew older.

We should not be surprised to find that the way in which we tell the stories of our lives changes over time; this is true for child survivors as it is for all people.

I found it unusual that whenever survivors in general were discussed, most of the time they would be referred to as ‘she’ or ‘her’, even though interviews with male survivors are also included in the book. Some information was repeated in different chapters and I began to dread seeing the phrase ‘as we have seen’, but I came away with a much better understanding of both the short and long term impacts of the Holocaust on these young survivors.

I’m left wanting to know more about the individuals I was introduced to. Having said that, I agree with the author (an oral historian) that the level of detail I’m interested in would require many more volumes.

Content warnings include anti-Semitism, child abuse, death by suicide and attempted suicide, domestic violence, mental health, murder, sexual assault and trauma.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Yale University Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Told for the first time from their perspective, the story of children who survived the chaos and trauma of the Holocaust.

How can we make sense of our lives when we do not know where we come from? This was a pressing question for the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, whose prewar memories were vague or nonexistent. In this beautifully written account, Rebecca Clifford follows the lives of one hundred Jewish children out of the ruins of conflict through their adulthood and into old age.

Drawing on archives and interviews, Clifford charts the experiences of these child survivors and those who cared for them – as well as those who studied them, such as Anna Freud. Survivors explores the aftermath of the Holocaust in the long term, and reveals how these children – often branded “the lucky ones” – had to struggle to be able to call themselves “survivors” at all. Challenging our assumptions about trauma, Clifford’s powerful and surprising narrative helps us understand what it was like living after, and living with, childhoods marked by rupture and loss.

The Gift – Edith Eger

Hope. It’s what lit the fire within my soul when I read The Choice and it’s what made its flame shine even brighter as I made my way through The Gift. Hope that I can do the work that I know I need to do in order to address the pain and trauma I’ve experienced. Hope, because if Edith Eger can do it then so can I. Hope, which Dr Eger defines as “the awareness that suffering, however terrible, is temporary; and the curiosity to discover what happens next.”

One of my takeaways from The Choice was a desire to have the opportunity to be counselled by Dr Eger, a survivor whose experiences, compassion and insight combine to allow her to get to the root of a problem before she lovingly guides you towards the you that you’ve been stifling under layers of pain, anger, [insert relevant adjective/s here], and paralysing what if’s. You may never have the honour of sitting across from Dr Eger in her office but this book is the next best thing.

All therapy is grief work. A process of confronting a life where you expect one thing and get another, a life that brings you the unexpected and unanticipated.

If you’ve already read The Choice then you’ll be familiar with some of the stories of Dr Eger’s life and those of her patients that are included in this book. You’ll also find stories that will be new to you, which help illustrate the points Dr Eger makes as she hands you the keys that will help you unlock the prison of your mind.

To heal doesn’t mean to get over it, but it does mean that we are able to be wounded and whole, to find happiness and fulfillment in our lives despite our loss.

Twelve keys are presented in this book. Dr Eger addresses the prisons of victimhood, avoidance, self-neglect, secrets, guilt and shame, unresolved grief, rigidity, resentment, paralysing fear, judgement, hopelessness, and not forgiving.

At the end of each chapter you’ll find ‘Keys to Free Yourself’. These consolidate what you’ve learned in the chapter and can be used to facilitate your own healing. Some require you to use your imagination. Others provide prompts that you can use in journalling. Then there are some that would be ideal to work through with a therapist.

I like to remind my patients: the opposite of depression is expression.

What comes out of you doesn’t make you sick; what stays in there does.

This is one of those books where it would have been much easier to have highlighted the passages that didn’t speak directly to me. While I discovered the gems in this book in the order Dr Eger has presented them, you don’t need to do this. Each chapter is its own lesson, so you can take what you need when you need it. I know I will be rereading this book from cover to cover in the not too distant future but I also anticipate I’ll be spending more time on specific chapters over time.

Although healing from pain and trauma is serious work, that doesn’t mean there aren’t smiles to be had as you make your way through this book. Currently, my favourite smile-inducing quote is about taking charge:

Don’t be Cinderella, sitting in the kitchen waiting for a guy with a foot fetish.

You could dive into this book without having experienced The Choice but I would recommend reading them in the order of publication. While you can apply the lessons to your life without knowing Dr Eger’s own story, they’re enriched by this knowledge.

Because I know what Dr Eger chose to share in The Choice, I trust her when she outlines what she found helpful. I also can’t give myself an out, claiming something is too difficult, when I have witnessed someone I now have such admiration for working through unimaginable pain and trauma to find freedom.

I now recognize that the most damaging prison is in our mind, and the key is in our pocket. No matter how great our suffering or how strong the bars, it’s possible to break free from whatever’s holding us back.

It is not easy. But it is so worth it.

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, domestic violence, eating disorders, grief, gun violence, murder, racism, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and torture.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Rider, an imprint of Ebury Press, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

This practical and inspirational guide to healing from the bestselling author of The Choice shows us how to release your self-limiting beliefs and embrace your potential.

The prison is in your mind. The key is in your pocket.

In the end, it’s not what happens to us that matters most – it’s what we choose to do with it. We all face suffering – sadness, loss, despair, fear, anxiety, failure. But we also have a choice; to give in and give up in the face of trauma or difficulties, or to live every moment as a gift.

Celebrated therapist and Holocaust survivor, Dr Edith Eger, provides a hands-on guide that gently encourages us to change the imprisoning thoughts and destructive behaviours that may be holding us back. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients her empowering lessons help you to see your darkest moments as your greatest teachers and find freedom through the strength that lies within.

The Choice – Edith Eger

“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

Sometimes a book will find you at the very moment you need it. This is one of those books. I’ve previously marvelled at the resilience of some other remarkable human beings who survived the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel. Viktor Frankl.

Joining them is Edith Eger. A survivor whose courage both astounds me and gives me hope. A woman who will be occupying the space in my heart that she has made bigger with her compassion. A touchstone for the times I feel like I don’t have the strength to survive my own pain.

What follows is the story of the choices, big and small, that can lead us from trauma to triumph, from darkness to light, from imprisonment to freedom.

It would be so easy to hear even part of Edith’s story and say to yourself that your pain is insignificant compared to what she has experienced but after reading this book I realise that would be a disservice to her. Edith doesn’t rank pain and would prefer your response to be one of, “If she can do it, then so can I!” For someone whose power was taken away in such a brutal way at such a young age, Edith’s message is that much more empowering and impactful.

I can’t begin to imagine how I would have fared if I had been in Edith’s place. What I do know is, like everyone, I have experienced pain and trauma. Through Edith’s story and those of the people she’s counselled, I gained insights into my own life. Light made its way into dark corners that are painful to look at and while there’s still plenty of work to be done, it no longer feels impossible. Now I just need to make a counselling appointment with Edith. 😊

I expected to ugly cry my way through this book and surprised myself when I didn’t. The tears came unexpectedly, when I started rambling about how extraordinary Edith’s story is to someone. I was doing fine, right up until I began to explain that Edith would not have survived had it not been for a loaf of bread. Then I lost it.

Any story that even lightly touches on the Holocaust is bound to include the depravity that humans inflict on other humans. What touched me so much about that part of Edith’s story was it showed me the beauty that can still live within people, despite the ugliness that surrounds them.

I loved the way this book was written. I often felt like I was in conversation with Edith, that I was sitting across from her in a comfy chair in a room with a fireplace warming us as she was telling me a specific part of her story. I ran the gamut of emotions as I was reading but the style itself felt very down to earth.

No one heals in a straight line.

One of my favourite takeaways is the way Edith explains trauma. She doesn’t shy away from talking about the long term impacts she has lived with and that alone endeared her to me. So often the message seems to be that once you have survived the experience it’s all sunshine and roses from that day forward. No, pain hurts and surviving the aftermath of pain hurts too.

Edith’s authenticity when she talked about experiencing flashbacks and nightmares decades after her initial survival spoke to parts of me I can’t even verbalise yet, but I know some of what I felt as I read those parts was a bubbling hope rising up within me. When I read her take on PTSD I actually stopped reading to cheer; what I have long believed was actually being said by someone else.

This is why I now object to pathologizing post-traumatic stress by calling it a disorder. It’s not a disordered reaction to trauma – it’s a common and natural one.

I can already see a time in the near future where I’m going to need to reread this book. Different things are going to speak to me at different parts of my life; I can feel it in my bones.

What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed. But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past.

It’s not unusual for me to finish a book and be overcome by the need to book evangelise. Oftentimes it’s a wanting to shout from the rooftops, ‘Hey, you! Read this book! Then let’s talk about how much we both loved it.’ I also want to book evangelise The Choice but it’s coming more from a quiet knowing that this book can change lives. It’s a desire for people to get an infusion of compassion and empathy, to see in black and white what can happen when we don’t treat other humans like humans, and to make sure this never happens again.

We can choose what the horror teaches us. To become bitter in our grief and fear. Hostile. Paralyzed. Or to hold on to the childlike part of us, the lively and curious part, the part that is innocent.

I’m in awe of Edith surviving Auschwitz at all. To see what she has done since, both in working towards her own healing and facilitating the healing of countless others? I don’t know enough words to be able to adequately convey the way that makes me feel. This is truly a remarkable woman and if you haven’t already, you really need to read this book.

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, eating disorders, grief, mental health, murder, racism, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and torture.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Rider, an imprint of Ebury Press, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1944, sixteen-year-old Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz. There she endured unimaginable experiences, including being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. Over the coming months, Edith’s bravery helped her sister to survive, and led to her bunkmates rescuing her during a death march. When their camp was finally liberated, Edith was pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.

In The Choice, Dr Edith Eger shares her experience of the Holocaust and the remarkable stories of those she has helped ever since. Today, she is an internationally acclaimed psychologist whose patients include survivors of abuse and soldiers suffering from PTSD. She explains how many of us live within a mind that has become a prison, and shows how freedom becomes possible once we confront our suffering.

Like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, but exceptional in its own right, The Choice is life changing. Warm, compassionate and infinitely wise, it is a profound examination of the human spirit, and our capacity to heal.

Yes to Life in Spite of Everything – Viktor E. Frankl

Viktor Frankl, like anyone who endured the atrocities of the Holocaust, is someone I don’t have the vocabulary to describe. I’m in awe of the resilience and oftentimes almost unfathomable positivity of anyone who has lived through experiences I can’t even imagine.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the lectures Frankl gave, which are the basis of this book, were presented only nine months after his liberation from his final concentration camp.

With an introduction by Daniel Goleman and afterward by Franz Vesely, Viktor’s son-in-law, this book comprises three of Frankl’s lectures:

  • On the Meaning and Value of Life
  • On the Meaning and Value of Life II
  • Experimentum Crucis.

These lectures focus on suicide, forced annihilation and concentration camps respectively. With such difficult content I had expected this read to be quite depressing, but there’s hope running through even the darkest of themes. Given the author’s belief that we can find meaning regardless of our circumstances, this hope felt particularly appropriate.

This meaning, Frankl asserts, can come through “our actions, through loving, and through suffering.” Meaning doesn’t only come from work. Illness, physical or mental, doesn’t necessarily equal loss of meaning. Suffering can be either meaningful or meaningless.

Some of the early text read the way some university philosophy lectures I’ve attended felt, where I was anxious for the lecturer to get to the point, but these sections were the groundwork for what was to come. Frankl gives examples of patients he treated and people he encountered in concentration camps, and these provided the answers to ‘how does this theory apply to real life?’, which is something I always seek.

The third lecture was the one that I found most insightful. Building on the two previous lectures, Frankl discusses his thoughts on the “psychological reactions of the camp prisoners to life in the camp.” Learning how this lecture specifically related to his own ability to find meaning was inspirational.

It can be tempting, when someone talks about the importance of your attitude or finding meaning in suffering, to get into ‘yeah, but’. Yeah, but how would they feel if they were in my situation? Yeah, but what qualifies them to speak to me about suffering? It’s hard to ‘yeah, but’ when the person you’re hearing it from is Viktor Frankl.

While Frankl specifically says that no one’s suffering can be compared to anyone else’s I still find it difficult to think of any of my experiences, not matter how painful they are for me, to be comparable to those who have been subjected to concentration camps. After reading this book part of me wants to admonish myself for having a whinge about any problem I face. However, the overwhelming takeaway for me is if people like Viktor experienced what they did and still managed to find hope and meaning, then it is always possible for me, no matter what comes my way, to change my perspective.

To say yes to life is not only meaningful under all circumstances – because life itself is – but it is also possible under all circumstances.

Content warnings include death by suicide, descriptions of concentration camp experiences, euthanasia, mental illness and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Rider, an imprint of Ebury Press, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Just months after his liberation from Auschwitz renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl delivered a series of talks revealing the foundations of his life-affirming philosophy for which he would become world famous.

Despite the unspeakable horrors in the camp, Frankl learnt from his fellow inmates that it is always possible to say ‘yes to life’. This profound and timeless lesson is amongst many in this remarkable collection now publishing in English for the very first time.