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Terezin - Judenältesten


A Dutch girl arrives in the Ghetto of Terezin.

       The Terezin ghetto was guarded by Czech gendarmes who were loyal to the Nazi regime. The internal affairs of the camp was run by the Ältestenrat - Council of Elders composed of Jewish leaders, a similar principle as was used in camp Westerbork in the Netherlands. The only real difference was that Theresienstadt was a ghetto as well as a transit camp while Westerbork, strictly speaking, was a transit camp. The Council of Judenältesten - Council of Jewish Elders for Theresienstadt was first headed by the Judenälteste -Jewish Elder Jacob Edelstein. Edelstein, and subsequently Eppstein and Murmelstein were directly appointed by Adolf Eichmann.

       Jacob Edelstein, a Zionist official, was the first Judenälteste so appointed by Adolf Eichmann. Edelstein believed that Terezin (Theresienstadt) could be used as a kind of Hachshara - preparation for young Jews to make Aliyah - moving to Israel after the war. He held that position from 4 December 1941 until January 1943. Eichmann replaced him with Paul Eppstein because Edelstein was accused of having corrupted transportation lists. However, Edelstein remained on as first deputy and Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein as second deputy to Eppstein. Then, Edelstein finally was arrested by the Gestapo in November 1943 accused of having falsified deportation lists in order to rescue several fellow Jewish inmates from deportation. Edelstein was sent to Auschwitz where he was locked away in a punishment cell. Finally, on 20 June 1944, he was shot to death. But first he was forced to witness the execution of his wife and young son before he himself was executed.

       His successor was Paul Eppstein. As Judenälteste he took charge in January 1943 and remained in that position until 27 September 1944 when he too was arrested by the Gestapo. They accused him of allowing the organization of self-defense units among the inmates. The truth was that Eppstein was far removed from any such involvement, regardless the fact that such action would of course have been illegal. Another probable reason for his arrest and death may well have been his involvement in arguments between SS officers Moehs, Burger, and Rahm. He was shot and killed on Yom Kippur 1944. It should be noted that Jews had no right to live and therefore trials were not deemed necessary.

       Officially, Murmelstein's appointment started on 5 December 1944. Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein of Vienna became the third and last Judenälteste of Theresienstadt. He held that position until 5 May 1945 when officially the command over the ghetto was turned over to the International Red Cross delegate Paul Dunant. Rahm, together with another SS man, left on 5 May 1945 still wearing his uniform and holding on to his weapons. Two days later the ghetto was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. Rabbi Murmelstein, who was the last of the Judenältesten, resigned his position that same day. The next day Murmelstein received a letter from Rabbi Leo Baeck, who had been a fellow inmate, thanking him for way he had performed his task. Always under constant pressure and with great difficulty, Rabbi Murmelstein had shown himself to be a great champion of the people. Especially the elderly and orphans had benefited from his ardent labors. Rabbi Murmelstein and Rabbi Baeck both survived the war. Rabbi Murmelstein went to live with his family in Italy while Rabbi Baeck moved via England to the United States.

 

Jacob Edelstein

Paul Eppstein

Rabbi Murmelstein


       That almost 3,000 could survive must be contributed to the hard work and diligent leadership of Rabbi Murmelstein, the last Judenälteste - head of the Jewish Council before Paul Dunant of the Red Cross had taken Terezin under its protection. When delegates of the International Red Cross of Geneva, Switzerland, visited Theresienstadt on 6 April 1945 Rabbi Murmelstein, at great personal risk, managed to sound the alarm by twice saying in his address to the visitors, Das Schiksal Theresienstadts bereitet mir Sorgen - The future fate of Terezin causes me great concern. The Red Cross delegates understood the massage. That same day they took action. They approached SS General Karl Hermann Frank, German minister of state for the Protectorate (of) Bohemia and Moravia and obtained his promise that no further deportation of inmates would take place. Furthermore, Murmelstein prevented riots among the remaining inmates, which, had they taken place, would have given the SS reason to act harshly. The SS were looking for any excuse to liquidate the camp. Rabbi Murmelstein prevented that.