December 19, 1880, is the birthday of Aharon Rokeach, the fourth rebbe of the Belz Hasidic community. It was under his leadership that most of the Belzers, a movement born in early-19th century Poland, were murdered in Nazi-occupied Europe, but also began to rebuild themselves in Israel. By 2011, the Belz Hasidim numbered an estimated 7,000 families around the world.
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The first man dubbed the Belzer rebbe was Sholom Rokeach (1779-1855), whose pedigree derived from having been the right-hand man of Dov Ber of Mezeritch, the leading disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rokeach was succeeded by his youngest son, Yehoshua (1825-1894), who in turn was followed by his son Yissachar Dov (1854-1926). Aharon Rokeach was the first child of Yissachar Dov and his wife, Basha Ruchamaa Twersky.
From early on, Aharon Rokeach was ascetic — spare of words, sleeping and eating little and ensconced in study. He married young, to his first cousin, Malka. They had nine children.
At the time of Aharon’s succession, the community, according to scholar Esther Farbstein, had tens of thousands of followers, the majority in Galicia and central Poland.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland, on September 1, 1939, Belz swung between German and Soviet control, until finally being occupied by Germany. At that point, the rebbe’s followers arranged for him to be brought to relative safety in Sokal, on the Russian side of the Bug River.
That began a harrowing odyssey for Rokeach that ended only with his safe arrival in Palestine, in 1944.
How he was saved
To this day, Aharon’s survival in the Holocaust remains a source of controversy among historians and commentators, less over the details of his escape than over the very fact that he was saved while nearly all of his followers were murdered by the Germans.
Much energy and capital was expended on creating false identities for the rebbe and moving him around — from Sokal to Krakow to the Bochnia labor camp, until, finally, in the summer of 1943, he and his half-brother Mordechai, shorn of both beards and sidelocks, were spirited into Hungary.
Farbstein, whose 2008 book, “Hidden in Thunder,” describes rabbinic leadership during the Holocaust, says that during his eight months in Hungary, Aharon publicized what he learned about the occupation, including reporting that the Germans were gassing Jews. (He himself lost five children and all his grandchildren to the Nazis.) She also says he distributed supplies to the many Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia who fled to Hungary.
Yet it is also true that the followers of the rebbe went to unusual lengths to procure the Jewish Agency certificates that enabled only he and his brother to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Most disturbing are the details of the address Mordechai Rokeach delivered on Aharon’s behalf January 16, 1944 to an audience of thousands in Budapest.
In his speech Mordechai addressed the charge that Hasidic rabbis, in their virulent opposition to Zionism, had prevented their followers from seeking refuge in Palestine while it was still possible. He tried to ease the minds of listeners who may have feared that Hungary’s Jews would end up like their brethren already murdered in other occupied lands.
He was aware, he said, that people were saying “that perhaps, heaven forbid, some danger is hanging over the land,” and that that was why his brother Aharon was leaving for Israel. The rebbe, Mordechai insisted, “is not going in flight or running away in haste, as if he wished to flee from here.” On the contrary, he explained, “the Tzadik [righteous one] sees that good, and all good, and only good and grace will befall our Jewish brethren, the inhabitants of this land,” referring to Hungary.”
Two months later, the Germans occupied Hungary. By war’s end, two-thirds of Hungary’s 825,000 Jews were dead.
In Israel, Aharon reestablished his community in what is today called Kiryat Belz, in northern Jerusalem. He died on August 18, 1957 and was succeeded in 1966 as the fifth rebbe by his nephew Yissachar Dov, son of his half-brother Mordechai.