Sunday 3 July 2022

389) Morality and the question of rabbis who fled the holocaust



This article is based extensively on the research by Isaac Hershkowitz which he conducted while preparing his PhD dissertation.[1] It deals with the morality of rabbis and Chassidic rebbes who left their communities and reached Budapest in 1943-4 just before the Nazi takeover and escaped the holocaust. Some used Aliyah certificates for Palestine despite their long-standing opposition to Zionism.

Extensive apologetic literature

In the years following the war, a “comprehensive apologetic literature” (Hershkowitz 2009:109) had been produced by the followers of these rabbis, justifying their actions. However, Hershkowitz writes that he:

“does not propose to prosecute or defend any particular Jewish leader of that time…it seems that such an approach would be neither appropriate nor fair…since the war has caused the surviving leaders immense suffering and left them grievously scarred for life (2009:110).

Extensive communal efforts to save the leaders

There were extensive communal efforts to save some of these leaders which included the Belzer Rebbe, R. Aharon Rokeach (1880-1957) who had one of the largest Chassidic courts in Europe with tens of thousands of followers; his brother R. Mordechai who led a Chassidic court in Bilgoraj, Poland; as well as the rebbes of Vizhnitz, Munkacs and Satmar.

Nomenclature of the escapes

In a fascinating sociological turn of events, as a rule, the ultra-Orthodox or Chareidim refer to these escapes as “the rescue miracle” as they viewed these rescues as an imperative. Spiritual leaders must be saved for the group to survive and be re-established elsewhere. Other camps, however, viewed this as a betrayal and had hoped instead to see their leaders stay and lead their people to the bitter end (Hershkowitz 2009:111).

The Stropkover Rebbitzin

The widow of the Stropkover Rebbe,[2] Rebbetzin Chaya Halberstam said the following (recorded by a Sonderkommando who subsequently was also killed):

"I see the end of Hungarian Jewry. The government had permitted large sections of the Jewish community to flee. The people asked the advice of the admorim [Chasidic leaders] and they always reassured them. The Belzer Rebbe said that Hungary would only endure anxiety…And now the bitter hour has come, when the Jews can no longer save themselves. Indeed, heaven concealed [this fate] from them, but they, themselves, fled at the last moment to the land of Israel. They saved their own lives but left the people as sheep for slaughter…In the last moments of my life I set my plea before You. That You pardon them for this great ‘חילול השם’ [desecration of G-d’s name].[3]"[4]

R. Nathan Ortner

R. Nathan Ortner, whose family was involved in the rescue of the Belzer Rebbe, takes the position that there was no ethical infringement whatsoever in facilitating the rebbe’s escape. In what Hershkowitz describes as a “dismissive” attitude, Ortner simply describes the opposition to the rebbe’s facilitated escape as localised if not petty disgruntlement and not evidence of widespread anger.

Eliezer Schweid

Eliezer Schweid, a professor of Jewish philosophy, has analysed the words of a sermon by the Belzer Rebbe’s brother, R. Mordechai of Bilgoraj, and suggests that he was guided by the “precepts of the Belz doctrine of redemption” (Hershkowitz 2009:113). This seems to elevate the escape from a selfish flee to a level of nobility.

Intra-rabbinical controversy

Hershkowitz, however, brings evidence of an intense intra-rabbinical controversy taking place in Budapest just before the Nazi invasion[5] and it concerned the ethics of the imminent departure of many in rabbinic leadership positions. It was based on halachic and talmudic sources. This research reveals that the opposition to the fleeing of the rabbis was far wider and more intense than is usually portrayed. Important rabbis like R. Moshe Sofer and R. Zvi Hirsch haKohen were mobilised to lend their support to the opposition who feared the:

“dangerous trend [of rabbis who were intent on][6] abandoning the Jewish flock by means of illegitimate manipulations” (Hershkowitz 2009:113).

We now turn to some examples of this little-known rabbinic opposition to the escaping rabbis.

Tel Talpiyot

In a special edition of the prestigious rabbinical journal Tel Talpiyot, published on February 27 1944,[7] an article entitled Vayhi binso’a haAron (when the Tabernacle travels) dealing with the crisis of the rabbis (who are compared to the Tabernacle) leaving and:

“criticizes the escape of the community’s spiritual leaders in pungent and acute terms” (Hershkowitz 2009:115).

The article is of unknown authorship but Hershkowitz shows that it is likely to have been by R. Meshulam Zalman Katsburg, or his close associate. This is significant because his father, R. David Tzvi Katzburg, the editor of Tel Talpiyot, was severely censured for supporting religious Zionism (the Mizrachi movement) and opposing the powerful Hungarian ultra-Orthodox camp. This special edition of Tel Talpiyot also included previous writings of R. David Tzvi Katzburg.

Without directly mentioning their names, the article criticises the Belzer Rebbe and his brother for neglecting their people and for emigrating to Palestine even though they had been outspoken against the Zionist movement. It mentioned that “certain rabbis” (alluding to the Belzer brothers) had used “certificates” (immigration visas to British-ruled Palestine – this policy of selective Aliyah had been in practice during the 1930s) and these documents stated that they were “veteran Zionists.”

The article also objected to the very public spectacle of their leaving including the event of the final sermon of the Belzer Rebbe’s brother, R. Mordechai of Bilgoraj who claimed that for years he had dreamed of prostrating himself on the soil of the Holy Land.

Issues of morality

Of interest is the moral tenor of the article which cites two moral sources against leaders leaving their flock. The imagery of a shepherd abandoning the herd and a captain abandoning the ship is used to full force. Rabbinic sources are used to show how Moses was not permitted to enter the Holy Land because his contemporaries were not permitted to enter either. By leaving the people behind, a leader desecrates the holy concept of leadership.

The author, obviously fully aware of the hyper-veneration of Chassidim to their rebbes, contrasts that with the rebbes’ self-interests and self-centeredness:

“Why wont they notice the powerful demand that the nation’s leaders remain obliged to the public…Whenever any of our leaders fail to acknowledge this minimal obligation to the Jewish collective, he fails to do his duty…his duty to the people is at least as great in times of distress as in peacetime…”

Hershkowitz puts it eloquently:

“The author proposes that the people, those being led, serve as a collective judge that reviews its leaders’ actions. The author rebuts the assumption, which he pronounces characteristic of religious and Hasidic leaders, that they are not accountable to their rank and file and asserts that it is the leader’s obligation to pass the moral test in the eyes of his flock” (2009:118).

But the author of the article in Tel Talpiyot also attacks the public for being naïve and accepting of such behaviour from their leaders:

“How long will the innocent and loyal souls among us neither see nor feel, or close their eyes so they won’t see and confuse themselves so they can’t feel...who tolerate the offense being done to the Torah[?].”

Apparent origins of the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist stance

Once on the subject of the morality of leaders fleeing, the author raises further challenges to other issues of fundamental morality in general. Amazingly, all this discussion of morality and ideology was taking place whilst under the threat of imminent Nazi occupation.

The ultra-Orthodox Charieidi movement had started in Hungary in 1865 and flourished there ever since [Kotzk Blog: 041) The Reforms Of The Ultra-Orthodox - A Short History Of Haredim], and the author derides this group for their many pseudo-halachic stringencies. He writes about how Judaism managed to find ‘loopholes’ for so many inconvenient Torah prohibitions, which are accepted by all Jews today. Yet one concept escaped these indulgencies – Zionism; and the ultra-Orthodox, instead basked in all its associated stringencies:

“We found some way of undoing prohibitions that are clearly explained in our Holy Torah…if it had to do with some members of our people. For the injunction against interest, which our holy Torah handed down in eight negative commandments, we found the loophole of heter iska;[8] for the injunction against chametz,[9] which carries the penalty of karet,[10] there is the loophole of selling the chametz to a Gentile; even the injunction relating to Shabbat, the most severe of all…the holy gaon, the late sainted author of Divrei Hayyim, found a loophole in the form of the bill of sale,[11] with which the later authorities took issue. They did all of this so that our Jewish brethren might support themselves more easily wherever they lived.

For only one wretched matter were they unable to find a loophole: the forsaken Zion. Indeed, where most early authorities considered settlement in Eretz Israel a positive commandment of Torah origin even in our times, we strained and searched for some stringency or injunction that would rule it out.

I strove to find it and, indeed, we found it in a book of homiletics by a recent authority. Now, we do not adduce [Halakha] even from homiletics in the Talmud, as the halakhic authorities explain, and a fortiori we do not adduce from commentary in a book of homiletics about the Haftarah, a fundamental with which one may contradict a commandment of Torah origin and the assurance of the nation’s future.”

The book of homiletics about the Haftarah, is most likely a reference to the work by R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz (1690-1764) in his commentary on the Pentateuch, Haftarah of Nachamu, where he writes:

“If everyone has come together to go to Jerusalem and the entire nation gives its consent, even so…Heaven forbid that we should go there, because the outcome is unknown and it may not be the right time…and today or tomorrow [the Jews] will sin and have to return to exile…”

This obscure source was, according to the author, the origins of the anti-Zionist sentiment which turned into an anti-Zionist movement. Hershkowitz sees these references as pointing without a doubt to R. Meshulam Zalman Katzburg as the author of this article. It seems to have been a response to the persecution of his father, R. David Zvi Katzburg for his pro-Isreal stance.


The Belzer Rebbe was:

“one of the greatest and most important Hasidic leaders…- as indicated by the far-reaching mediation efforts that were made in order to effect his release” (Hershkowitz 2009:124).  

Although he escaped on the Zionist ticket, and after finding safe refuge in the Holy Land, he chose not to join Agudat Yisrael which was an organization specifically for the non-Zionists and ultra-Orthodox to still participate in building the land under their frameworks. These facts and details make one question the basic and simple morality of those rabbis who fled the holocaust and found a safe haven in a land with a system that they had openly despised, all this, while leaving their devoted followers behind.

According to the research conducted by Dr Avi Harel, in many Polish Jewish communities, just before the Holocaust, the rabbis who could leave, did leave. Although it is difficult to ascribe exact percentages, the estimates are quite high. For a fascinating debate (in Hebrew) on the ultra-Orthodox (Chareidi) theology on the Holocaust, see אבי הראל: המחלוקת התאולוגית בעולם החרדי אודות השואה - ייצור ידע (


I cannot comment on the unthinkable events of the Holocaust let alone issues of morality relating to it, but I can comment on the apparent source of religious anti-Zionism.

If the author of the article Vayhi binso’a haAron is correct that the modern religious anti-Zionist movement used a homiletic interpretation by R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz on a Haftarah, it is astounding, based on such a source, that the movement gained such momentum. What is even more astounding is the fact that R. Eibeschuetz was suspected of being a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi [see Kotzk Blog: 272) THE DISCOVERY OF NOTARIZED AMULETS OF R. YONATAN EIBESCHUETZ INTENDED TO BE USED IN A CIVIL CASE AGAINST HIM:] Furthermore it seems he had aspirations for his son, Wolf Binyamin to succeed Shabbatai Tzvi [see Kotzk Blog: 315) A GLIMPSE INTO THE 18th CENTURY WORLD OF SEGULOT AND ‘COUNTER SEGULOT’:]. Additionally R. Eibeschuetz is accused of some very strange writings that border on the unimaginable [see Kotzk Blog: 298) UNIMAGINABLE WRITINGS OF R. YONATAN EIBESCHUETZ :]. And, strangest of all, according to Yehuda Liebes, R. Eibeschuetz was regarded by a secret group of Jewish-Christians as being a secret Christian:

לפי ההשקפה המובעת במכתבי הכת, לא היה ר׳ יהונתן שבתאי אלא נוצרי נסתר[12]

“According to the group, R. Eibeschuetz was not just considered a secret Sabbatian but a secret Christian.”

Considering that R. Eibeschuetz’s descendants converted to Catholicism, these allegations might not be so outrageous. All these reflections compound the efficacy of using his Haftarah commentary as a source for the religious anti-Zionist sentiment.

[1] Hershkowitz, I., 2009, ‘"This Enormous Offense to the Torah": New Discoveries About the Controversy over the Escape of the Rabbis from Budapest, 1943-1944’, Yad Vashem Studies, vol.37:1, Edited by David Silberklang, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 109-136.

[2] R. Avraham Halberstam.

[3] Parentheses are mine.

[5] The German occupation of Hungary took place in March 1944.

[6] Parenthesis is mine.

[7] The journal had over 700 Hungarian rabbis as contributors. Tel Talpiyot had not been published since the late 1930s.

[8] This is where the borrower and the lender enter into a ‘partnership’ where one invests money and the other contributes his skill and knowledge.

[9] Leaven on Passover.

[10] To be no longer considered to be part of the Jewish people.

[11] This refers to the very lenient ruling by R. Hayyim of Sanz, “to sell to a Gentile an income-producing property on Shabbat, thus benefiting from its income.” (See Divrei Hayyim, Responsa, Orach Hayyim, 7 (Bardejov: Y.M. Bleier Press, 1901).

[12] Yehudah Liebes, ‘Nevuato shel Hashabatai R Heshil Tzoref’, 12.

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