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 as Mormons.
    * 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 transpired.

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:

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.
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!"

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:

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.
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:

    * 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 the baptism;

    * 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 that:

    * 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 Societies:

"Shalom. Bravo! Well done!"

Postscript. Starting in about 2000 Helen Radkey of Salt Lake City 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.  From 2004 thru 2008 Michel and I had a dialog with the Church but the matter reached an impasse, discussions have ended. The Mormons steadfastly refuse to comply with the 1995 agreement. They claim it is their First Amendment right to posthumously baptize Jews, including Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Another chronicle of the Mormon/Jewish controversy can be found at

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