Leopold Silberstein was born in 1900 in Berlin. He studied philosophy and Slavic studies at the University of Berlin, and received his doctorate in 1922. Leopold married Jenny Herrmann, whom he met at university, and their daughter Cäcilie was born in Berlin in 1932. After the Nazi's rise to power, Leopold and his family left Berlin for Prague. Their son Thomas was born in Prague in 1935. Leopold received a stipend from the Czech government for his research on Czech history, language and literature. In the course of his work, he used to give lectures outside of Czechoslovakia too, travelling as far as Estonia and Finland. In 1939, Czechoslovakia was dismembered and Leopold was forced to leave. He relocated to the renowned Tartu University in Estonia, where he was appointed lecturer in Slavic languages and literature. Jenny and the children remained in Prague.
Leopold and Jenny got divorced in 1939. Jenny reverted to her maiden name, Herrmann, and her children took on her name, and were thus protected as half-Jews. In 1940, Leopold married Dr. Malka Schlifstein, a lawyer from Vilna who studied law at Tartu University and graduated with honors. Malka was one of the first women to practice law in Estonia, and worked with other lawyers to abolish the death penalty in Estonia. As a result of childhood illness, Malka walked with crutches and got around with the help of a wheelchair. During his time in Estonia, Leopold wrote letters to Jenny and his children in Prague, in which he expressed his love, concern and yearning for them. On 22 July 1939, he wrote to his son Thomas:
My beloved little Tommy,
I'm sending you warm wishes on the occasion of your fourth birthday, and kiss you with all my heart. I hope you got the elephant, the picture book and the chocolate car that I sent you. I want so much to spend time with you today. Be nice to Mummy and to your sister. Learn hard and be a good person. Think sometimes about your father, who loves you so much.
Konrad Herrmann, Leopold Silberstein: Slawist und Philosoph, p. 335
In mid-June, Soviet forces took over Estonia. At that time, some 800 Jews lived in Tartu. Malka was working as a lawyer at the offices of the NKVD (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Leopold was banned from teaching Czech literature and language, and started teaching Russian. On 6 May 1941, Leopold wrote to his daughter Cäcilie:
My beloved Cili!
The day before yesterday, I sent your Mummy a package with all sorts of things (butter, cheese, two soaps in the shape of chicks, and some bitter chocolate) for my sweet children Cili and Thomas. I hope it arrives soon and that everything is delicious. I recently saw the steamboat "Kongale", which has just been given a fresh coat of paint. She looks wonderful, and I thought longingly of the game I played with you, sweet Cili, on deck three years ago. Do you remember the buildings here, or have you forgotten Tartu in the three years that have passed? Write me a nice letter soon. Kisses.
Konrad Herrmann, pp. 337-338
On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Shortly before the Red Army's retreat from Tartu, an evacuation of its citizens was carried out. Most of the Jewish residents of Tartu were evacuated deeper into the Soviet Union. A few dozen Jews remained in Tartu, mainly the elderly, disabled and sick, and others who refused to leave. Leopold and Malka were amongst those who remained. Around 8 July 1941, Malka gave birth to a baby boy, whose name is unknown.
On 10 July 1941, southern Tartu was occupied, and on 25 July, northern Tartu was also taken over. On that date, Einsatzkommando 1A entered Tartu, and, assisted by members of the Omkaitse (The Home Guard Militia), rounded up all the remaining Jews and gathered them in the synagogue, the Jewish school building, and in one of the houses. From there, they brought them to a concentration camp that had been established in the city's exhibitions pavilion. The Jews were then taken in small groups on trucks to the Tartu-Riga road, where anti-tank ditches had recently been dug in defense against German armored vehicles. There, the Jews were forced to undress, and were shot to death. Whoever refused to obey orders was brutally beaten. The corpses were covered in sand. In the course of July and August 1941, all the Jews living in Tartu at the time were murdered in this manner, except for one man, who found refuge with the help of Dr. Oko Messing, a scientist at Tartu University later recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Jews from the surrounding areas, Estonian communists, Roma and Russian POWs were also murdered in the killing pits outside Tartu.
Leopold was caught when he tried to leave the city, and was brought to the Estonian SS offices in Tartu for interrogation. He was charged with being a communist. According to his interrogation report, the questioning began on 22 July 1941 and ended the next day. Leopold was in one of the groups taken from Tartu for execution. Malka managed to escape from Tartu, and reached Tallinn with her baby. Later on, she was also caught, and murdered with her baby boy. The circumstances of their deaths is unclear. Cäcilie and Thomas survived in Prague with their mother.
In 1991, Thomas Silberstein submitted a Page of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his father Leopold.
Leopold Siberstein authored some 100 publications: books, articles and papers on Slavic history and literature. He also wrote dozens of articles for the newspaper "Prager Presse" on scientific life in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. In 2015, the German biography, Leopold Silberstein - Slawist und Philosoph , by Konrad Herrmann, was published.