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Survivors say Mormons reneging on 1995 baptism pledge

Ernest Michel, left, has accused Mormon leaders of failing to live up to their pledge to stop posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims. (Diane Bondareff)

Ernest Michel, left, has accused Mormon leaders of failing to live up to their pledge to stop posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims. (Diane Bondareff)

NEW YORK (JTA) — A Holocaust survivor organization has broken off negotiations with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over its practice of posthumously baptizing Jewish victims of the Nazis.

At a news conference Monday, leaders of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, seated in front of panels listing names of Holocaust victims they say were baptized by the Mormons, said that 14 years of quiet negotiations have proven fruitless.

“We felt we had come to the end of the line,” Ernest Michel, the honorary chairman of the American Gathering, told JTA. “There is no further point in meeting with them.”

Mormon leaders reacted with surprise to news of the American Gathering’s decision. In a statement, the church said it stood by its 1995 commitment to stop baptizing Holocaust victims and remove their names from the database if they become known — the only remaining question was how best to do so. As recently as Nov. 6, the church wrote to Michel to describe further steps to allay the concerns of survivors.

“We empathize with the depth of feeling of all Jews regarding the Holocaust,” the church said in the statement. “It is our regard and empathy that have kept us talking for so many years.”

The concern of Holocaust survivors stems from the Mormon belief that individuals retain the opportunity to accept or reject church sacraments, including baptism, even after death. Under church policy, members are supposed to submit names only of their relatives. The church has become a global leader in genealogical research to facilitate the research of family histories.

In 1995, the church agreed to remove the names of Holocaust victims from its database, known as the International Genealogical Index, or IGI — a rare suspension of church practice, the church says, done because of the singular nature of the Holocaust and the sensitivities of survivors.

Michel claims, however, that new baptisms continue to be performed and new names submitted to the database, though he acknowledges the complexity of preventing new submissions. Millions of church members submit 30,000 new names a day, the church says, and improper submissions are always expected. A new system under development would make it easier to flag submissions as Holocaust victims for whom temple ordinances should not be performed.

“That’s their problem, it’s not my problem,” Michel said. “They put them in, they got to take them out. That’s the bottom line.”

Jewish communal leaders have been reluctant to back Michel’s campaign, saying that at a time of mounting challenges on several fronts, the internal practices of another religious group — offensive as they may be — should not be a top Jewish agenda item.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says Michel expressed interest in discussing the matter with him. But the Reform leader told JTA that he does not see making it a high-priority issue. Yoffie says the internal processes of the Mormon church are something over which Jews have no control.

“I don’t think this is going to become a major focus of the Jewish community, which now is dealing with a whole range of issues,” Yoffie said. “I wish them well in their efforts.”

But Michel, who frequently stresses that his negotiations with the Mormons have always remained polite and respectful, says the practice is hurtful to Holocaust survivors. He also worries about the uses to which Holocaust deniers may someday put the Mormon records.

"They tell me that my parents’ Jewishness has not been altered," said Michel’s prepared remarks for the news conference, which was held on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. "But in 100 years, how will they be able to guarantee that my mother and father of blessed memory, who lived as Jews and were slaughtered by Hitler for no other reason than they were Jews, will someday not be identified as Mormon victims of the Holocaust?"

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