On March 15, 1939, when the Nazis marched into Prague, Jacob Edelstein and his fellow Zionist leaders had the opportunity to flee. But they chose to remain in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and work to support the remaining Jewish population.
On December 18, 1943 Edelstein was incarcerated in the Birkenau Concentration Camp where he survived for six months.
On a Monday morning in June 1944 SS Lieutenant Franz Hoessler stormed into Edestein’s barrack in Birkenau to take him to his execution. Yossl Rosensaft was present in the barracks that day and was an eye-witness to Edelstein’s last moments on earth. A year later Rosensaft described Jacob Edelstein’s remvoal from the barracks.
Jacob was in the same barracks as I was – number 13 – on that Monday morning. It was about nine a.m. and he was saying his morning prayers, wrapped in his prayer shawl. Suddenly the door burst open and Hoessler strutted in, accompanied by three SS men. He called out Jacob’s name. Jacob did not move. Hoessler screamed: ‘I am waiting for you, hurry up.’
Jacob turned round very slowly, faced Hoessler and said quietly: ‘Of the last moments on this earth, allotted to me by the Almighty, I am the master, not you.’ Whereupon he turned back to face the wall and finished his prayers. He then folded his prayer shawl unhurriedly, handed it to one of the inmates and said to Hoessler: ‘I am now ready.’
Hoessler stood there all the while without uttering a word, and marched out when Edelstein was ready. Edelstein followed him and the three SS men made up the rear. We have never seen Jacob Edelstein again. (Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust, p. 690)
Jacob Edelstein offers a vision of the ultimate dignity and freedom that are the fruit of long years of patient spiritual practice.
He was able to refuse to be controlled by any external circumstances in his life. SS Lieutenant Hoessler may have appeared to be the one in power in this story. But Hoessler’s power was an illusion. He was using the pitiful weakness of brute force. Edelstein was exercising the power of the human spirit. He was living from within a space that Hoessler could never touch. Edelstein had found that deep inner freedom that transcends violence and is impervious to external force.
The only power Hoessler exercised was the power to kill. Edelstein had the power to choose life, even in the violent and restricted circumstances of a Nazi death camp. He had the power to affirm his faith and his trust in the beauty and truth of God’s presence in his life and in the world even when confronted by the most desperate horror on earth.
Spiritual discipline exists to put us in touch with this deep reality within ourselves and to allow us to live from that place of true freedom and luminous strength.
Edelstein’s faith did not reduce him to being a passive victim of violence. It enabled him to work tirelessly, during his time as a Zionist activist in Prague and later as a leader among his people in Theresienstadt and then in Birkenau.
No barbed wire could contain Edelstein’s spirit. No human violence could destroy his ability to live by that faith which inspired him and challenged him to live a life of selfless care among his people.
Edelstein’s death stands as a challenge to us to find the power within that enables us to transcend our circumstances and to affirm that there is no force on this earth powerful enough to deprive us of the ability to choose to live in freedom and beauty.