Volume 6, Number 5 | April 12, 2005
The Mormon-Jewish Controversy: The Problem That Won't Go Away
Last Sunday I flew to Salt Lake City to participate in a dialogue with representatives of the Mormon Church about the continually festering problem of members of the Mormon Church posthumously baptizing Jews who are not their ancestors. Particularly upsetting was the use of Holocaust victims' lists.
The meeting was both cordial and necessarily frank. The Church considers this a serious matter that they too want resolved as was demonstrated by the stature of the Mormons present. On Sunday evening we had dinner with Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who could be described as the fourth-ranking person in the Church. Participants in the actual meeting included important persons from the Family History Department as well as officials that rank among the 100 most important persons in their religion.
Having the meeting in Salt Lake City made it possible to research examples of violations of the agreement immediately. For example, when presented with a list of Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust who were baptized as recently as March 2005, it was determined that this was done by a Mormon living in Utah who discovered that a branch of his family were Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Using a list of Dutch Holocaust victims he submitted to the Church every name on the list that was identical to his surname--some 100 Dutch Holocaust victims. This was typical of what the Church considers abuse of their policies.
Will the problem ever be resolved? The answer is that the Church has found a potential solution. They have always been concerned about the fact that members of the faith have violated Church regulations governing how names should be acquired for the ritual of posthumous baptism--the posthumous baptism of Jews only being a part of the overall problem. Some of these baptisms have been an embarrassment to the Church because invariably they make their way to the worldwide press. Typical was the baptism of Pope Pius XII, whose birth name was Eugenio Pacelli. Not only was Eugenio Pacelli submitted for baptism but so was "Mrs. Pacelli." I am sure, at this moment, many "Nu? What's New?" readers are laughing. That demonstrates the problem. Posthumous baptism is very important part of the Mormon religion and such acts make a mockery of this practice.
This system to monitor submissions for temple ordinances is still in the development stage, but Church officials disclosed enough to make me realize it is going to be an extremely sophisticated system that will go well beyond looking for men named "Shloime"and women named "Ruchel". I was in the computer software industry for 35 years, and the Church is clearly heading in the right direction.
Will it succeed? The final conclusion of the meeting is that there would be a small committee of Jews and Mormons who will monitor the success of the program. I will be the person leading the Jewish portion of the group, and I suspect the Mormon group will include people with whom I have developed a long-term friendship through my involvement in American genealogy.
Members of the Jewish group who met with Church officials, in addition to myself, were Ernest Michel, executive vice-president emeritus of the UJA-Federation of New York who has always led this group; Dr. David Elcott, director of U.S. inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee; Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Western director of the American Jewish Committee and Herbert Kronish, founding partner of the law firm Kronish, Leib, Weiner & Hellman, a close friend of Michel.
Come to the Las Vegas Conference
The early registration deadline is approaching for the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, which this year will be held in Las Vegas from July 10-15. On May 1, the registration fee goes from $200 to $230.
Some people have frowned at the thought of going to Las Vegas, a town whose reputation is based on its gambling casinos. In reality, the city is as fascinating as DisneyWorld. It is a city totally dedicated to having fun, and at night it lights up in such a gaudy manner that it is a total delight. There is so much enjoyment in Las Vegas that you can devote days to playing tourist without placing a single dollar in a slot machine. The shows at night in the hotels are the finest in the world; the restaurants--meant to lure you to the gambling tables--are excellent, and the decor of the hotels is worth viewing. For those that have already made the commitment to go to the conference but have never been to Las Vegas, I recommend walking from hotel to hotel just to see the decor. The conference hotel, the Flamingo Hilton, is in the heart of the hotel district. The outdoors will be like a furnace in July, but it is a dry heat and it never bothered me.
Oh yes, there are other good reasons to come to the conference: 150 lectures, meetings of the Special Interest Groups, Breakfast with Experts, Birds of a Feather meetings, luncheons, networking, vendors (Avotaynu will be selling its books with free shipping within the U.S.), and $5 roulette games.
Information about the conference, including registration, can be found at http://www.jgssn.org.
JPEG Images of Postcards Once Again Available at Avotaynu Site
Avotaynu is once again offering scanned images (JPEGs) of towns in Eastern Europe created from postcards, some more than 100 years old. This website was removed at one time at the request of Tomasz Wisniewski, a resident of Bialystok, Poland, who originally supplied the images. Avotaynu has gotten permission to offer the images again even though Wisniewski is no longer participating in the project.
Postcard images of your ancestral town from the turn of the 20th century can be a wonderful addition to the photographic portion of your family history, but they are rare items and consequently very expensive. Typical prices are $20-50 each, with some costing hundreds of dollars.
There are some 330 towns represented in more than 1,300 pictures. Many of the pictures are of synagogues since destroyed in the Holocaust, street scenes and panoramic views. Most are from Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, but also include images from Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Israel (Palestine), Italy, Libya, The Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Slovak Republic, Spain, Trieste, Tunisia, United States and Yugoslavia
The cost of each JPEG is only $2.50 (minimum purchase $10.00). These images are a perfect way to dress up your family website. [Note: We are offering computer images of the postcards which will be sent by e-mail, not the postcards themselves.] They can be viewed at http://www.avotaynu.com/postcards/.
Wisniewski is also the author of two books about Jewish life in the Bialystok area: "Synagogues and Jewish Communities in the Bialystok Region," published in 1992; and, more recently, "Jewish Bialystok and Its Surroundings in Eastern Poland," which is sold by Avotaynu (http://www.avotaynu.com/bookjew.htm#bialystok).
Audio Portion of Genealogy TV Show Accessible on Internet
For more than six years (132 shows), Arline Sachs and Avotaynu co-owner Sallyann Amdur Sack of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington have been broadcasting a television show called "Tracing Your Family Roots" on local public access in the Washington, DC, area. There are now plans to make the audio portion of some of these shows available on the Internet. The first show is available at http://tracingroots.nova.org/show_130.htm. It features an interview with Vadim Altskan, an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sachs is investigating the possibility of making available parts of the video portion on CD.
New from Ancestry.com
There is now an index to New York City deaths 1892-1902 at http://www.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=6492. There are some gaps, as explained at their site, due to missing documents.
Ancestry.com has completed their Philadelphia passenger arrivals 1883-1945. Stephen P. Morse has created portals at his site--http://www.stevemorse.org--that permit access by Ancestry subscribers to these records by name, specific ship arrival, and by date or roll/frame.
A Passover Story
The following story was related to me recently--one a genealogist would love.
I am a physician and a biological chemist. In 1994 I was on the faculty of Columbia University. At the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research that year, a scientist who worked in the same general area as mine, approached me with a request. He knew a Russian-Jewish woman who was doing comparable work in Novosibirsk, the Russian science city in Siberia. She had managed to obtain refugee status in the U.S. and would be arriving in New York shortly from Siberia with her husband and son. Would I give her a position in my laboratory?
My first reaction was somewhat negative; I did not have the resources to support wayward Russian scientists, certainly not sight unseen. But, this fellow did not give up so easily, and eventually, after a few guilty moments, I acceded.
Luba Benimetskaya came to work for me in late 1994. In 1995, at Passover time, I was making small talk and off-handedly asked her where she was spending the Seder nights. She said that since she had no relatives in this country, she would be home with her husband and son. She then related that 30 years previous, when she was growing up in Kiev, she had asked her grandmother whether they had any relatives in the U.S. The grandmother said to keep it quiet (in the Soviet Union it was barely politically acceptable to acknowledge American relatives), but there may indeed be some, and gave Luba a name, the grandmother's own maiden name. When Luba came to the U.S., she obtained a phone book for the Queens section of New York City and did find a few families with that surname.
She phoned one of the families, but the person she spoke to was elderly and could not help her. For some reason, (there are more than 2 million people in Queens), I asked her the name of the person whom she called. She said it was a long German name that she could not pronounce, but that she had it written down. She produced the paper, and on it, to my utter amazement, was the name of my grandfather's elderly brother and his wife; Morris and Berdie Schiffenbauer.
It appears, to the best of my knowledge, that there is only one Jewish Schiffenbauer family in the world at the present time. The maiden name of Luba's grandmother was Gisa Schiffenbauer, and her father was Hanoch Schiffenbauer. This information was critical because of what my own grandfather, Abraham Schiffenbauer (Morris' brother), had told me 30 years previous when I was growing up in New York.
The Schiffenbauer family comes from a region in Ukraine about 40-60 km northwest of the city of Lviv (Lvov, or Lemberg as it was known under the Austrians). Abe's father was Mechel Schiffenbauer, the brother of Hanoch. The brothers' father was Jonah Schiffenbauer, who had several other children besides Hanoch and Mechel. All of these children had families and descendants who were known to my grandfather, but he knew almost nothing about the family of his uncle Hanoch. The only thing he knew was that this family did not emigrate from Europe and, therefore, he believed they were all lost during the war.
This, as Luba and I discovered, was clearly not true. Henoch's family did survive (Luba's mother, the daughter of Gisa, the daughter of Hanoch, was a journalist and retreated with the Red Army, eventually finding herself in safety in Kazakhstan). The fit between Luba's information and mine was perfect. To my existential amazement, this person, who was working on similar scientific problems in Siberia and then later as my employee, is my third cousin. I suppose that statistically speaking this one has to be about a one in a billion, but personally I think it's really all in the genes.
C.A. Stein, M.D., Ph.D. Professor of Medicine and Molecular Pharmacology Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Happy Passover to all.
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