Yitzhak Hershkowitz believes that he is serving historical justice by publishing testimonies about the rabbis who left behind their followers in Europe during the Holocaust and fled to Palestine. There have been stormy arguments for the past 65 years over the rabbis' decision to escape, with the help of the Zionist movement. From testimonies gathered by Hershkowitz, it transpires that the rabbis - especially the fourth Belzer rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokach - incurred the wrath not only of ordinary folk, but also of Orthodox rabbis living then in Hungary.

Just how loaded a subject this is was evident when a spokesman for the Belz Hasidim wrote to Haaretz about the upcoming publication of Hershkowitz's research, saying: "It is extremely regretful that preachers of religious Zionism have joined the left-wing Holocaust deniers, who have diverted the blame from the Nazis and their collaborators to the tzaddikim [righteous men]."

Yitzhak Hershkowitz, 31, a rabbi and the son of Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, has written his doctoral thesis at Bar-Ilan University's philosophy department on the role of the rabbis during the Holocaust; Yad Vashem is printing an article by him on this in June.

"I am not trying to attack the Belz Hasidim," Hershkowitz explains. "But it is important to bring other voices from that period. The debate goes way back and is authentic, and it does not have to be painted in political hues as has happened in recent years."

The escape from World War II Europe of rabbinical figures led by the rebbes of the Belz, Satmar and Gur Hasidim, is still an unhealed wound. Researchers have found testimonies which, during the past two decades, have served as ammunition in arguments between the followers of these rabbis, and academics who claim the leaders should have remained behind instead of saving their own skins - with the aid of the Zionist movement they had opposed. One of the most prominent stories was that of the Satmar rebbe, a strong opponent of Zionism, who fled on the famous Kasztner train from Hungary. The story of the Belzer rebbe, on which Hershkowitz focuses - based on new evidence - has likewise provoked stormy arguments.

At the start of the war, the Belzer rebbe was sent by the Nazis with his followers to a forced labor camp in Poland; when the widespread expulsion of Jews began from there, his followers smuggled him into Hungary. From 1943, he remained in Budapest with his brother, Rabbi Mordechai Rokach. The two applied to the Zionist movement to get "certificates" to go to Palestine, even though the rebbe opposed Zionism. At the beginning of 1944, the two brothers escaped. Before leaving, Rabbi Mordechai Rokach delivered a sermon, in the name of his brother, urging those remaining behind to show courage. Two months later, the Nazis invaded; by July 1945, half a million Hungarian Jews had been murdered.

Some people have castigated the rabbis, others have defended them. One of the latter is ultra-Orthodox Holocaust researcher Dr. Esther Farbstein, who stresses that most of the Belz Hasidim had already been murdered by the time the rebbe fled, and that the Nazis were intent on persecuting rabbis in particular. She says that the Hasidim attached special importance to their rabbis' survival.

According to Hershkowitz, the escape of the rabbis from Hungary was described in leaflets printed there in 1943 and 1944. The most outspoken article he found appeared in a publication edited by Rabbi David Zvi Katzburg, a Zionist and supporter of the Mizrahi movement, who allowed his pamphlet to reflect anti-Zionist platform too. Rabbi Katzburg actually died before the Rokachs fled Hungary, but later his son, Rabbi Meshulam Zalman Katzburg, put out a special edition in memory of his father, including an article he had written about the escape.

Hershkowitz says the article "describes the moral corruption involved when the shepherd abandons his flock, and uses images of a captain and a sinking ship." Rabbi Katzburg stressed the gap between the aristocratic manners displayed in the Hasidic courts and the way in which their spiritual leaders behaved in times of distress. "Only when every one of our leaders knows that he has not yet fulfilled his duty to the People of Israel, and that his duty toward it is as important in times of trouble as in times of peace - only then will the People of Israel realize that its leaders have fulfilled their obligations," Katzburg wrote, adding: "How long will [the rabbis' followers] not see and not feel, or close their eyes and make their hearts too stupid to feel? ... For the spirit of every person among our brethren should be shaken by this great insult to the Torah."

In another publication appearing in Hungary at about the same time, another writer, Rabbi Shmuel Alter, writes: "There are those who remained with their brethren in trouble and together with them went up to Heaven. And there are those who fled and saved their souls without looking to see what the fate would be of their brethren, who stayed behind."

Hershkowitz believes that such strong criticism would not have been printed in mainstream publications "had the publishers and writers not felt their words would receive public support."

Hershkowitz concludes his own article with a confession by Rabbi Akiva Glasner of Hungary, an ardent Zionist who escaped the Holocaust on the Kasztner train, but was later gripped by guilt toward "the Israeli nation." He wondered "whether I may have been negligent and lazy in the holy work that was placed on my shoulders, whether I may not have fulfilled my task and not served as shepherd to my flock."

Did criticism of the rabbis who left stem from the fact that most of the critics were Zionist or opposed Hasidism?

Hershkowitz: "There were some politics in the background, but what we have here is an ethical discussion inside the rabbinical world that shows also that the public in Hungary was not apathetic. It is true there are two sides to the coin ... The attempt to describe this as a political argument between religious and non-religious is a great distortion of reality. Among those who admonished the rebbes were the greatest rabbis in Hungary, who felt an injustice was done ... There were rabbis who behaved in exactly the opposite way during the Holocaust, such as the rabbis from Sochaczew and Piaseczna. In my eyes, [the research helps serve] historical justice - to make it possible for rabbis whose voice was not heard until now to 'express' their own religious and halakhic (i.e., legal) criticism, which is also to a certain extent Zionistic."

Journalist Yisrael Eichler, a Belz Hasid, says that Hershkowitz's research "recycles Zionist circles' efforts to exploit the blood of Holocaust victims to settle political accounts with anti-Zionist opinions and points of view." He asserts that the Belzer rebbe was passive about obtaining the certificates to leave Hungary, and that Belz adherents sought to save him. Rabbi Mordechai Rokach "comforted and strengthened the spirit of those who remained behind and had no place to flee to," Eichler says.

Regardless of the new research and the ongoing discourse, the polemics over the the rabbinical leaders' escape from Nazi Europe will continue to reverberate as a very painful episode in the history of the Jewish communities of that era.