Ever since he escaped from the Nazis, at 21, after enduring more than five years in forced labor camps and Auschwitz, Ernest (“Ernie”) Michel has devoted his life to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.
His engaging personality, optimism and commitment to the Jewish people led to a long and remarkable career, starting with his work as a special correspondent at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial for a German news agency in November 1945, only seven months after his escape to freedom. A year later he came to America, alone in the world, and after a brief stint writing a daily column for a newspaper in rural Michigan, he started getting invitations to speak about his wartime experiences at United Jewish Appeal events around the country. In time he came to work for UJA in New York, a partnership that has lasted more than 67 years and peaked with his leading the organization from 1970 to 1989.
A gifted fundraiser and riveting speaker, he addressed hundreds of audiences here and throughout the U.S., from Washington’s leaders to youngsters in elementary school. As someone who experienced the three most significant Jewish events of the 20th century — the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles — his message was consistent: Preserve the memory. Never forget.
But now, having reached 90 in July, Michel’s own memory often is cloudy, and he is painfully aware of it.
“I’m no longer the person I was,” he told me during a visit last week to his office on the 11th floor of UJA-Federation’s midtown headquarters. “But I have the same guts,” he added, his voice rising.
It was a bittersweet encounter for me. I’ve known and admired him as Ernie for more than 30 years, and often been struck by a balance of strength and warmth that made him so well-respected and loved by the countless people who’ve known and venerated him. In his telling of past experiences, tragic as they were, those remembrances seemed to be less about him and more about his people, his sense of history, and the cause of Jewish survival and continuity that drove him.
I hadn’t seen Ernie in several years, so when it became clear to me during the course of our conversation the other day that he didn’t remember me, and was struggling to recall some pieces of his biography, I felt a surge of sadness. Not just for him and the many others like him out there, Holocaust survivors in the late stages of life striving to grasp memories that defined their humanity. But sadness as well for all who come after us and will never have the firsthand experience of meeting these brave and pained souls, hearing their stories and marveling at their resiliency.
What shone through in Ernie’s talk with me was his emphasis on how fortunate he is. For his wife, Amy Goldberg, and his family and friends, and the amazing career he has had, meeting with American presidents, Israeli prime ministers and other world leaders, including the president of his native Germany on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
“I am so lucky,” he repeated several times, not only to have survived but also to have helped Jews throughout his life.
In his emeritus position, he still enjoys coming in to the office once or twice a week, surrounded by some of the hundreds of personal artifacts he saved from the Nazi era, including a 1946 letter of recommendation he showed me from his editor at the German news agency, Dana. Some years ago Ernie said that his association with the Nuremberg trials was the “single most important” event in his life because it set a precedent for such international tribunals.
“Genocide is a product of evil, of hate, of indifference or moral bankruptcy,” he noted then. “It’s up to us, in whatever way we can, to do something about it.”
One of the many things he himself did in a long career of service to the Jewish people made history in 1981, and it remains a source of great pride to him. That was to initiate and chair the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a poignant reunion held in Israel at a time before Holocaust programs and courses were common. Skeptics thought few would travel great distances to relive such bitter memories. But more than 6,000 survivors and family members from around the world came to Jerusalem, where tears of sadness mixed with tears of joy throughout the four-day event. The most popular feature was an area designated as the “Survivors’ Village.” It was the scene of many dramatic moments as people, aided by a computer system tied in to the records of Yad Vashem, found family members long believed to be dead, or located fellow survivors not seen in more than 35 years.
This past spring Ernie was honored by more than 600 people at a Lincoln Center reception prior to the sold-out performance in Avery Fisher Hall of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi At Terezin,” with more than $4 million going to UJA-Federation’s Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors.
The benefit was a tribute to the spirit of the Jewish prisoners of Terezin who performed Verdi’s Requiem Mass 16 times in 1943 and 1944. The last time was in front of delegates of the International Red Cross, who were duped by the Nazis into believing the concentration camp offered humane treatment to its prisoners.
The Lincoln Center event was also a fitting way to honor Ernie, who helped launch the community initiative in 2000, which provides aid for the more than 70,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York. When he spoke at the testimonial, he rose to the occasion, telling those gathered: “I believe I survived to save Jews anywhere and to keep Israel strong.”
As I got up to say goodbye to Ernie the other day, he grasped my hands in his, thanked me for the visit and showed me the numbers tattooed on his wrists at Auschwitz. “I carry this mark with a great deal of pride,” he said. “And I hope Jews will never forget it.”