JERUSALEM (AP) _ During the Holocaust, ultra-Orthodox American rabbis focused on saving several hundred Polish Talmudic scholars, ignoring the suffering of millions of other Jews who were eventually murdered by the Nazis, a new book charges.

The rabbis, organized as the Rescue Committee, feared that if the tiny group of scholars and their students were lost, the Jewish religion would vanish with them.

The group's narrow goal brought it into conflict with mainstream American Jewish groups working to rescue as many Jews as possible and to influence reluctant American politicians to take action, wrote Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff.

The book, ``The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust,'' is being released Tuesday to coincide with Israel's annual memorial day for the 6 million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

Rabbi Menahem Porush, chairman of the Israel branch of Agudat Israel, a worldwide ultra-Orthodox group, said it was only natural for the rabbis to try to rescue those close to them.

``No one has to teach us, who live according to the Torah, the meaning of `Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,''' he said.

Zuroff documents how the rabbis funneled scarce funds to scholars already safely in exile so they could maintain full-time Talmud studies, even as other Jews were being killed in death camps.

Menahem Brod of the ultra-Orthodox Habad movement said the refugees needed the money to survive.

According to Zuroff's book, the Rescue Committee extorted money from mainstream Jewish groups, employed shady practices to transfer funds to Europe and even violated the Jewish Sabbath for its cause.

The Rescue Committee threatened to mount a rival fund-raising drive unless local Jewish federations handed over cash. Some complied, Zuroff wrote, but others refused, arguing that the mainstream rescue campaign would include the scholars anyway.

Zuroff, who directs the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Israel, does not go so far as to blame the Rescue Committee for the deaths of Jews.

``What actually cost the lives of Jews was that Nazis and their collaborators murdered them,'' Zuroff said in an interview. But he said the Rescue Committee's ``tunnel vision'' hindered rescue efforts.

Zuroff noted that Rescue Committee rabbis were the only ones to march in Washington to protest the Nazi killings, but then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt refused to meet them.

Zuroff said Roosevelt's Jewish advisers counseled against a meeting, reflecting the divisions among Jewish leaders.

In the end, the Rescue Committee saved about 625 Polish rabbis and students who had escaped to Lithuania, and kept several hundred others alive in Central Asia and Shanghai through donations, Zuroff said.


On the Net: Simon Wiesenthal Center site,