The Mormon/Jewish Controversy:
What Really Happened
by Gary Mokotoff
Reprinted from the Summer 1995 issue of AVOTAYNU
Copyright 1995, Avotaynu, Inc.
On May 3, 1995, a landmark agreement was signed by representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints (the Mormons) and members of the Jewish community that ended the practice of Mormons posthumously baptizing
Jews who were not direct ancestors of Mormons. The agreement calls for:
* Removing from the next issue of the Mormon's International Genealogical Index (IGI) the
names of all known posthumously baptized Jewish Holocaust victims who were not direct ancestors of living members
of the Church--some 360,000 entries. The IGI includes entries for more than 200 million deceased persons baptized
* Providing a list of the names of all Jewish Holocaust victims that are to be removed
from the IGI to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission, the
New York Holocaust Memorial Commission, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial
in Jerusalem, Israel, and written confirmation when the removal of these names has been completed.
* Reaffirming the policy and issuing a directive to all officials and members of the Church
to discontinue any future baptisms of deceased Jews, including use of all lists of Jewish Holocaust victims who
are known Jews, except if they are direct ancestors of living members of the Church, or the Church has the written
approval of all living members of the deceased's immediate family.
* Confirming this policy in all relevant literature produced by the Church.
* Removing from the IGI in the future the names of all deceased Jews who are so identified
if they are known to be improperly included counter to Church policy.
* Releasing to the American Gathering the First Presidency's 1995 directive.
The signing of this agreement was so significant that it received worldwide coverage in the print media, as well
as on radio and television. Most of the coverage implied that the incident started when Ernest Michel, a member
of the American Holocaust survivor community, discovered, in September 1994, that his grandmother and parents,
all Holocaust victims, were baptized as Mormons and that the matter was successfully concluded eight months later
in May 1995.
In fact, the entire incident lasted for nearly three years during which time numerous leaders of the Jewish genealogical
community participated. In determining what the final agreement would be, Jewish leaders consulted with me, as
president of the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, to gain an understanding of Mormon religious beliefs.
The entire story follows.
How It Began
In June 1992, I was assisting a member of the Dutch Jewish Genealogical Society in locating information about family
members with the surname "Caneel" using the facilities of the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library in
Salt Lake City. As a final check, I searched the IGI section that included Netherlands for the name Caneel. Although
the IGI has very little information about Jews because it is primarily a list of some 200 million ancestors of
Mormons who have been baptized into the faith, I noticed a number of persons named Caneel, and some had distinctly
Jewish given names.
Information in the IGI can be traced to its source, and I determined that the source was a book located in the
Family History Library entitled Lijst van Nederlandee jooden die gestorven zijn gedurende de tweede wereld oorlog
(List of Dutch Jews, prisoners and missing people that have died in concentration camps during World War II). Spot
checking a few other names from the Dutch book, it was clear that other names had been extracted and other Jews
had been baptized. The source information in the IGI also revealed that the extraction was not the act of individuals
but a planned program of the Mormon Church. I also checked to see if Anne Frank was among the baptized but could
not find her name. (In truth, I later discovered that Anne Frank had been baptized; I was looking in the Dutch
section of the IGI--Anne Frank was German.)
As president of the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, I had made numerous contacts at the Family History
Library. In fact, it was my policy to visit with the library's director each time I went to Salt Lake City in order
to find out the latest developments of interest to Jewish genealogists and to inform the director about activities
in Jewish genealogy of interest to the library.
I discussed the matter with David Mayfield, then director of the library, and protested the extraction. Mayfield
explained various aspects of the Mormon religion involving posthumous baptism. He noted that, since the Mormons
believe that life is eternal and that the departed reside in heaven, the baptism is not a forced baptism, but one
that can be rejected by the individual. I subsequently sent a letter in June 1992, to Mayfield stating: "It
shows an incredible insensitivity to the anguish of the brothers, sisters, children and even parents of these victims.
Many of the relatives of Holocaust victims are still alive; many of them witnessed the murder of their loved ones.
The Mormon Church's reaction to this contemporary tragedy is to convert them to Mormonism?"
I questioned how an eight-year-old child gassed at Auschwitz could make an intelligent decision as to whether to
accept the baptism. Mayfield explained that it is the Mormon belief that not only does a person's spirit survive
death, but the person grows in age and wisdom; therefore, an eight-year-old child who died in 1943 was 57 years
old in 1992 and was capable of making a rational decision.
The Gedenkbuch Incident
I dropped the matter at that time, concluding that it was an isolated incident. A year later, in June 1993,
I received a fax from Carlton Brooks, president of the JGS of Phoenix (Arizona). Brooks wrote that he had just
been to his local LDS Family History Center, had used the latest version of the IGI, and had found some of his
relatives in the German section of the index. Tracing the entry back to the source, Brooks had determined that
the source was the Gedenkbuch, a two-volume work published by the German government that lists some 128,000
German Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Within the next two weeks, I received three additional calls from other
Jewish genealogists who had also found family in the IGI. I went to the local Family History Center with sample
names from the Gedenkbuch, including members of my own family and rapidly realized that it was likely that
most, if not all, of the book's 128,000 names were on the list of persons baptized as Mormons.
Now I knew we had a potential crisis on our hands. Some months earlier, there had been an international incident
when the Polish Roman Catholic Church tried to place a convent and erect a cross at Auschwitz. After much public
outcry and acts of civil disobedience by Jewish militants at Auschwitz, the Church relented. The Mormon problem
was more serious. The convent at Auschwitz was an attack against a symbol of the Holocaust--Auschwitz. The Mormon
effort was an attack against individuals murdered in the Holocaust who had living family members.
I called Thomas Noy, president of the JGS of Salt Lake City, and asked him to do some research at the Family History
Library. Of German heritage, Noy discovered that he, too, had family members listed in the IGI, including parents
of living members of his family. Noy told Daniel Schlyter and Suzanne Scott of the library staff about the baptisms.
Schlyter, who has worked closely for years with Jewish patrons of the library, instantly recognized the significance
of the act and informed superiors of the matter. The decision was made immediately to remove the Gedenkbuch
from the library shelves in addition to removing any other Holocaust-related materials that might be used by Mormons
to baptize other Holocaust victims. Noy was also able to determine that, unlike the Dutch extraction which was
Church sanctioned, the German extraction was the act of individuals--five families in the Salt Lake City area.
Another early informant was Bernard Kouchel, president of the JGS of Broward County, Florida. Kouchel was very
upset with the practice and wanted to spread the word and mount a protest drive. I was convinced that once the
Mormon hierarchy realized the implication of what had been done, the names would be removed from the IGI and word
sent to the various Mormon stakes that this practice was unacceptable. Anxious not to create a "cross at Auschwitz"
incident, I suggested to Kouchel that the protest be directed to the Church and recommended that letters be sent
to the current director of the Family History Library, Stephen Kendall. This gave Jewish genealogists an avenue
to vent their frustrations and still keep the matter from the public arena.
Carol Davidson Baird, president of the JGS of San Diego, also contacted me. The daughter of Holocaust survivors,
she had discovered that her granduncle was among those baptized. She was so outraged that she put forth the effort
to determine who the individuals were who performed the extractions and sent letters of protest to their homes.
[Schlyter indicated subsequently that the families involved did receive some hate mail--Ed.] Sophie Caplan, president
of the Australian JGS and a Holocaust survivor herself, also wrote to me indicating that she planned to take positive
action to protest the baptisms. It was clear that the leadership of the Jewish genealogical community wanted something
done about the matter.
A Letter is Sent to the Mormon Church
Given the negative reaction by Mayfield to my protest a year earlier, I decided that a person higher on the
ladder had to be contacted and made the decision to write to the elder of the Church who was in charge of the Family
History Department, J. Richard Clarke. I called Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern to make him aware of the Gedenkbuch
extraction and my plans to write to Elder Clarke. Rabbi Stern was dismayed at the Mormon's actions and agreed that
a letter should be written. Prior to sending the letter, I showed it to Rabbi Stern who approved of its contents.
The now-famous letter, which was published in the Spring 1994 issue of AVOTAYNU, nine months after it was sent
to Clarke, stated:
|Dear Elder Clarke:
It has come to my attention that well-intentioned LDS members are baptizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust into
the Mormon faith. It shows incredible insensitivity to the anguish of the living relatives of these martyrs, some
of whom saw their loved ones murdered, to perform a Christian ritual on people who were killed for only one reason;
they were Jews.
Baptism is a Christian ceremony that is particularly repugnant to Jews. It reminds us of the centuries of persecution
against Jews where our ancestors were given a choice; be baptized or suffer death. There are many Christians living
today who can trace their family history back to people who chose option one. Our Jewish history books are filled
with martyrs who chose option two.
I have been told that the LDS church does not support this policy; that it is the act of individuals. But the fact
that the ritual is performed in a Mormon Temple is tantamount to condoning this practice.
At present, this practice is known to only a few Jewish-American genealogists who noticed the entries in the International
Genealogical Index. Once the Jewish world community is aware of the practice, it will seriously strain relations
between Mormons and Jews.
Elder Clarke responded positively indicating that the act would cause specific changes in Mormon practice.
|Dear Mr. Mokotoff:
Thank you for your letter. I sympathize with the feelings you share in your letter about temple ordinances performed
for Jewish victims of the Holocaust without family members' knowledge or consent. I am hopeful this letter can
help ease your concerns somewhat.
At the outset, I assure you that temple ordinances are generally performed at the request of a family member. We
counsel members to obtain clearance from living family members before performing temple ordinances. Apparently
this has not occurred in the cases cited in your letter.
In light of the concerns raised in your letter, we have reviewed our procedures regarding temple ordinances for
the dead and have adopted the following refinements: first, that temple ordinances be performed only at the request
of family members; and second, that family members wishing to perform such ordinances also have permission from
the nearest living relative before proceeding.
Please be aware that, given the nature of computer databases and the number of temples and family history centers
operational throughout the world, we cannot guarantee that no work will be done. We are reaffirming our procedures
and guidelines and must then rely on our patrons to act in a responsible manner. Realizing that some inadvertent
work may appear in spite of our best efforts to communicate with patrons, we do hope that future names will only
be submitted in accordance with the above-mentioned directives.
Thank you again for sharing your concerns with us. We appreciate your friendship and hope that the changes outlined
in this letter will help resolve the issue.
Based on Clarke's letter, I reasoned that the problem would be solved without involving persons outside the
Jewish genealogical community. As additional phone calls and letters reached the office of the Association of Jewish
Genealogical Societies, I informed each inquirer that the matter was under discussion with Church officials and
hopefully it would be resolved shortly.
Events at the Jerusalem Seminar
The annual seminar on Jewish genealogy was held in Jerusalem in 1994. At the conference, I was approached by
Esther Ramon, president of the Israel Genealogy Society, who had heard about persons listed in the Gedenkbuch
being baptized as Mormons; her grandfather was identified in the book. I told her it was true. Present at the conference
was Lynn Carson, the person responsible for European acquisitions for the Mormon Church. He was invited to lecture
about recent acquisitions made in Central and Eastern Europe by the Family History Library. Carson brought with
him a laptop computer and the disks that make up the Mormon databases, including the IGI. Ramon approached Carson
and asked him to look in the IGI for her relatives. They were there. Ramon located me that evening and was visibly
upset. "Gary, they have baptized my grandfather."
The keynote speaker at the annual seminar on Jewish genealogy was the former president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon.
Navon became aware of the controversy through his sister who, as an avid genealogist, had traced the Navon ancestry
back to pre-Inquisition Spain. Navon thought enough of the controversy to refer to it in his speech at the opening
session of the conference. He said, in part, "The Mormons are good friends of Israel, but we didn't ask them
to baptize us. Anyone who wants to be baptized will find a way."
From July 1993 to July 1994, I made three trips to Salt Lake City on other matters, and each time I contacted officials
in the Mormon hierarchy to determine if any action had been taken on the matter. With each successive trip, I sensed
increased hostility. Finally, on my last trip, in July 1994, I was informed by Thomas Daniels of the public relations
staff of the Family History Department that the decision had been made not to remove the names from the IGI--it
would be business as usual. I informed Daniels that the decision was unwise, and now I had no choice but to allow
Jewish genealogists, who had been holding back at my request, to inform the general Jewish community of what had
The Article in the Jewish Forward
Bill Gladstone, former president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada and a free lance writer, had prepared
an article for Jewish newspapers about the matter. Had there been evidence that the Mormon Church was planning
to take action on the Jewish baptisms, I would have tried to convince Gladstone to defer his story. Instead, the
article was printed in The Canadian Jewish News, the leading Jewish newspaper in Canada, and in the Forward
published in New York.
Ernest Michel, vice-president emeritus of the UJA Federation in New York, an Auschwitz survivor who is also on
the board of directors of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, read the article in the Forward.
The mention of the Gurs concentration camp caught his eye. His grandmother had starved to death at Gurs, and his
parents had died at Auschwitz. Michel contacted Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust
Survivors, and asked him if he knew anything about the matter. Meed said no, but because he was aware that the
Mormons were active in genealogy, he decided to contact me. Meed and I have had a close association for nearly
10 years. I had maintained the National Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors database for the American Gathering
prior to its placement at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (To this day I produce for Meed the book form of
the National Registry.)
I informed Meed of my, as yet unsuccessful, efforts to try to convince the Church of the seriousness of the matter.
Meed was infuriated at the act of baptizing Jews, and of Holocaust victims in particular. I suggested he have Michel
call me to discuss the matter further. When he called, Michel gave me the names of his parents and his grandmother
and asked me to check the IGI to see if they had been baptized. I went to the local Family History Center to check
the IGI. Two hours later I called Michel and recited the following:
There was a long pause at the other end of the phone line; then Michel said, "Gary, what an outrage! They
won't get away with this!"
|Otto Michel, born July 21, 1879, Mannheim, Germany; cleared (for baptism).
Freida Wolff (Michel), born November 1, 1884; baptized June 2, 1990; endowed July 3, 1990, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mathilda Neuwahl (Wolff), born May 16, 1856, Mannheim, Germany; sealed October 27, 1992, Provo, Utah.
In August, Michel wrote a letter to Elder Clarke protesting the baptisms and sent a copy to Senator Orrin B. Hatch
of Utah, a Mormon who is active in the support of Jewish matters both in the United States and internationally.
His letter was answered both by Elder Monte J. Brough, Clarke's successor, and Senator Hatch. Both responses did
little to satisfy Michel because they merely described the intent of the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism
and noted that no offense was intended.
At about the same time, I wrote a letter to Elder Clarke referring back to his first letter to me, noting point
by point that nothing had been done.The letter said in part:
My letter was also answered by Brough who stated that it might be better if the two of us discussed the matter
in person rather than continue the exchange of letters. In November 1994, I took a group of Jewish genealogists
to Salt Lake City for a week of research. It afforded me the opportunity to discuss the matter with Elder Brough.
At the meeting, he restated the Mormon position:
|It has been more than a year since we had our round of correspondence regarding the performance of temple ordinances
on Holocaust victims. At that time you stated that you intended to refine your procedures and allow temple ordinances
to be performed only at the request of family members; and that family members wishing to perform such ordinances
must also have permission from the nearest living relative. I am curious to know whether either of these refinements
have been implemented.
When I was in Salt Lake City in July, I picked up a copy of the pamphlet, A Member's Guide to Temple and Family
History Work. It states on page 14 that "If the person was born within the last 95 years, obtain permission
for the ordinances from the person's closest living relative." This is verified by the TempleReady instruction
screen that makes the same statement. Based on this latest version of the Guide, an LDS would conclude it
is permissible to perform temple ordinances on persons born more than 95 years ago without permission of the closest
living relative. If this is the current policy, it means that it is proper to baptize deceased mothers and fathers
of living persons. As non-Mormons are finding out by searching the IGI, this is, in fact, happening.
In your letter, you noted that some inadvertent work may appear despite best efforts to communicate to patrons
that these guidelines be honored. I will tell you that based on my analysis of temple ordinances performed on Holocaust
victims, the 95-year rule is never upheld. Many victims noted in the Gedenkbuch who were born in this century,
some born in the late 1920s, were baptized. The Dutch list, which was used to perform temple ordinances a number
of years ago, includes victims born in this century. Anne Frank, the symbol of the Holocaust, has been baptized.
She would have been 65 years old today had she not died in Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Because this policy
is not being followed, it means that baptisms are being performed on the brothers and sisters of living persons.
As non-Mormons are finding out by searching the IGI, this is, in fact, happening. You can understand why I used
the word "anguish" in describing the consequence to a Holocaust survivor who discovers that his 13-year-old
sister, whose last image was of her walking to the Auschwitz gas chambers holding her mother's hand, has been baptized.
* The act of baptizing deceased persons was an act of love;
* Because Mormons believe these persons reside today in the spirit world, they can reject
* Many of the baptisms were against Church policy that requires the approval of the person's
immediate family if they were born within the past 95 years.
The response gave me food for thought, but in subsequent conversations and correspondence with Brough, I noted
* In order for something to be an act of love, it must be accepted by the receiver as an
act of love. If the act causes the receiver pain, then in truth it was an act of cruelty;
* In certain instances, an offer can be as offensive as the act itself, and many Jews consider
the offer to be baptized a Mormon as offensive as the act itself;
* By allowing members of the faith to unconditionally baptize deceased persons who were
born more than 95 years ago, the Church was permitting the baptism of the mothers and fathers of living persons.
Based on his dissatisfaction with Elder Brough's response to his original letter, Michel decided to go to the top.
He called an emergency meeting of the board of directors of the American Gathering which drafted a letter to the
president of the LDS Church, Howard W. Hunter. The letter listed a number of demands, essentially those that became
the components of the final agreement. Senator Hatch was sent a copy of the letter.
President Hunter's office responded (at that time Hunter was serious ill, in fact dying), requesting that the American
Gathering take no action because the Church was evaluating the matter. Michel agreed, and a planned second meeting
of the American Gathering board was postponed until November. By November, the Church had responded to Michel that
the best solution was for the two parties to sit down and discuss the matter. Michel agreed, and Senator Hatch
offered his offices in Washington as a convenient meeting place. Because of conflicts in the schedules of Michel
and Brough, the meeting did not take place until January 6, 1995.
Just prior to the meeting in January 1995, I had reason to be in Salt Lake City and met with Brough. He indicated
to me that the Church had discovered there were four major extractions and baptisms of Holocaust victims. In addition
to the Gedenkbuch and the Dutch lists, there was an extraction of French names and a source in Israel was
used also. He was uncertain of the total count (later determined to be approximately 360,000 entries). Elder Brough
stated that the Church planned to act on the matter and would provide a list of alternatives. These included leaving
the names in the IGI with a flag to indicate that temple ordinances could not be performed on these individuals.
Brough favored that approach because it retained the genealogical value of the entries in the IGI. I commented
that, at least in the case of the Gedenkbuch extraction, the entries had negative genealogical value because
of inaccuracies. The people doing the work erroneously assumed that the place of last residence was the place of
birth, and, therefore, tens of thousands of IGI entries from the Gedenkbuch had the wrong place of birth.
I also commented that it was unlikely that the Holocaust survivors would want to leave the names of their family
members in a register of baptisms.
The January meeting was attended by Senator Hatch, Elder Brough, Michel and Herbert Kronish, a lawyer active in
UJA-Federation affairs. The meeting was very cordial, not adversarial but more in the spirit of two friends trying
to resolve a mutual problem. [Michel told me a number of years later that he walked into Hatch's office full of
anger. Brough immediately apologized for what had happened totally diffusing the potentially confrontational meeting.]
Elder Brough explained to Michel what had happened, why it happened and that the Church was upset it had offended
people, which was not the intent. Michel indicated that the Mormon Church had always shown friendship to the Jewish
people, was a supporter of Israel and was sympathetic to the impact on Jews of the Holocaust tragedy. Brough presented
a number of alternatives which Michel said he would bring back to the members of the American Gathering board of
directors. When the board met, it was unanimously decided that the names should be removed from the IGI and provisions
made to be certain that any future submissions would be expunged.
On May 3, 1995, in New York, the LDS Church and representatives of the Jewish community signed the agreement described
at the beginning of this article. On May 15, 1995, former president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon, having received word
of the signing of the agreement, faxed a four-word message to me as president of the Association of Jewish Genealogical
"Shalom. Bravo! Well done!"
in about 2000 activist researchers claimed that the LDS Church was not
honoring its commitment to the Jews, for they continued posthumous
baptism of Holocaust victims and others.
Investigation by me verified that information. I notified Michel who evaluated the evidence and he
agreed with the conclusion. Since 2004, Michel has had a dialogue with the Church but the matter is
still unresolved as of the summer of 2008.
Copyright 1995-2008, Avotaynu, Inc.