EDELSTEIN, JACOB (d. 1944), Czech Zionist leader and head of the *Theresienstadt ghetto. Born in Horodenka, Galicia, Edelstein went to Bohemia as a refugee during World War I. He first joined the Social Democrat youth movement there, and then the Zionist movement. From the early 1930s he was one of the leaders of the Labor Zionist movement in Czechoslovakia, a member of the presidium of the nationwide Zionist Federation, and director of the Palestine Office of the Jewish Agency in Prague. After the invasion of Bohemia and Moravia by Nazi Germany in 1939, Edelstein became the central figure of the Zionist movement and of Jewish life in the Nazi Protectorate. In the autumn of 1939, he visited the group of Jewish deportees at Nisko, in the Lublin region, and reached the conclusion that in most cases deportation of Jews to the East meant their death. In order to avoid deportation of the Protectorate's Jews, he suggested establishing a labor camp for them within the Protectorate that would employ the Jews to further the economic needs of the occupying power.
The establishment of the ghetto in Theresienstadt (Terezin) was apparently due to Edelstein's initiative. He was appointed its first Judenaeltester (Jewish Elder), serving in this post from December 1941. His courageous stand on behalf of the ghetto inmates made him the object of hatred of several heads of the *Gestapo. His jurisdiction was restricted, and in November 1943 he was arrested for having falsified the lists in order to rescue several inmates. He was sent to *Auschwitz, where he was kept in a punishment cell and shot on June 20, 1944, after having been forced to witness the execution of his wife and young son. He went proudly to his death. Opinions are divided in the evaluation of his activities during the Holocaust. Some (such as H.G. Adler) contend that Edelstein misunderstood the situation and thus engaged in a measure of cooperation with the Nazis; others, particularly survivors from the Zionist pioneering movement, see in him a tragic martyr, who fought the enemy for the rescue of Jews until his defeat. The liberated inmates of Bergen-Belsen named their camp school for him.
Y. Ereẓ (ed.), Theresienstadt (Heb., 1947); H.G. Adler, Theresienstadt, 1941 – 45 (Ger., 1965); idem, Die verheimlichte Wahrheit (1958); Ch. Yahil, Devarim al ha-Ẓiyyonut ha-Czekhoslovakit (1967). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. Bondy, Edelstein neged ha-Zeman (1981).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.