(1903–1944), Czech Zionist leader, known as the “Elder of the Jews” in Terezín (Theresienstadt). Jakob Edelstein was born in Gorodenka, Galicia. When the town was occupied by the Russian army during World War I, his family escaped to Brno (Brünn) in Moravia. After the war, Edelstein graduated from a business school in Brno and worked as a traveling salesman in Teplice (Teplitz), northern Bohemia.
In his youth, Edelstein was attracted to socialist ideas that he later applied to Zionism. He was active in Tekhelet Lavan, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, and other socialist Zionist organizations, and he did not consider their ideology incompatible with his traditional religious practices. In 1933, Edelstein was appointed director of the Palestinaamt (Palestine Office) in Prague, which was responsible for the distribution of British immigration certificates for Jews moving to Palestine. In this position, he assisted not only Czechoslovak Jews but also refugees from Germany.
Following the German occupation, Edelstein decided to stay in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He considered it the duty of Zionist leadership to take means to protect the Jewish population even if their actions involved cooperation with German authorities. Edelstein served as the deputy of František Weidmann, president of the Jewish Community in Prague, and was often called to the Nazi Central Office for Jewish Emigration. In October 1939, he was sent to Nisko, in occupied Poland, where the Nazis planned to establish a “Jewish reservation.” Following the failure of this experiment, Edelstein was allowed to return to Prague.
In 1941, Edelstein was appointed Judenälteste (Elder of the Jews), the head of the Jewish “self-administration” in Terezín. In this position, Edelstein had to report to camp commander Siegfried Seidl on a daily basis. He hoped that by building an economically productive ghetto he could save a significant number of prisoners from deportation to the east. However, his hope soon proved to be illusory: Edelstein and the Terezín Jewish Council were forced to select prisoners for deportations and to receive transports of elderly Jews from Germany and Austria into the ghetto, rendering the idea of a “productive ghetto” meaningless. In January 1943—allegedly as a result of tampering with the prisoners’ registry—Edelstein was replaced by Paul Eppstein, whose deputy he then became. In December of that year, Edelstein was deported to Auschwitz, where he was imprisoned in the main camp. On 20 June 1944 he was executed, along with his wife and son.
Ruth Bondy, “Elder of the Jews”: Jakob Edelstein of Theresienstadt (New York, 1989).