Jewish group wants Mormons to stop proxy baptisms

Holocaust survivors group: Church repeatedly violated 13-year-old agreement barring the practice.

jesus 88 (photo credit: )
jesus 88
(photo credit: )
NEW YORK - Holocaust survivors said Monday they were abandoning negotiations with the Mormon church over its posthumous baptisms of Jews who were killed in Nazi death camps. Survivors claim elders of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have refused to systemically search for and remove the names of Holocaust victims from their master genealogical database and have failed to prevent "zealots" from adding thousands of new Jewish names to the list in recent years - including thousands lifted from Yizkor books of Jews massacred at Berdichev in Ukraine. "We are not going to continue meeting with the Mormon Church," said Auschwitz survivor Ernest Michel, head of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, who has spearheaded efforts to scrub the Mormon lists since discovering in the 1990s that his parents were among 380,000 Holocaust victims having been baptized into the Christian faith. Gary Motokoff, a Jewish genealogist who participated in meetings with Mormon leaders, described the negotiations as "fruitless." "We go round and round, and they refuse to change their position," Motokoff the The Jerusalem Post. He and Michel claimed the church had failed to enforce rules it agreed to in 1995 to prevent Holocaust victims' names from being added and had not reprimanded those who moved to restore thousands that had been removed form baptismal lists. "The Church's actions show disrespect for us - they revise history, intentionally or not," said Michel, who cited July correspondence with church leaders at a Manhattan news conference in which elders stated they would only remove the names of Jewish Holocaust victims upon request rather than conducting their own records search. "Leave our six million people, all victims, alone," Michel said. "They have suffered enough." According to Mormon teaching, posthumous baptism - done through a living proxy - does not automatically override a dead person's Jewishness but merely opens the door for the soul to accept or reject Mormon teaching. Dead celebrities from Albert Einstein to Pope John Paul II have been posthumously baptized by Mormon proxies seeking to help the dead enter heaven. The Church responded by releasing correspondence dated November 6, written after their last meeting with Michel's group on November 3, in which leaders insisted that the practice of posthumous baptism has no effect on the "Jewishness" of a person. "The effect of baptism by proxy or any other ordinance for the dead is to make an offer, which the individual may choose to accept. If not accepted, the ordinance is of no effect," wrote Marlin Jensen, a church elder. Jensen added that the church is in the process of upgrading its genealogical database and will flag the names of any Holocaust victims as ineligible for baptism or other ordinances except at the request of immediate surviving family members. Jensen also proposed establishing a joint review committee to address specific concerns over the addition of names. "Everyone has agreed that we don't want the names of Holocaust victims on the [master database]," Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for the Church, told the Post. "The problem is how to prevent it - it's like trying to get everyone to comply with the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, so we've been very reluctant to guarantee those names won't appear." Otterson claimed the new system would "substantially reduce if not eliminate" the problem by requiring submitters to explain their own genealogical link to those they want baptized - as much to address the Holocaust victims issue as to prevent other "mischief" involving celebrities. But he said the Church would not agree to automatically remove anyone with Jewish-sounding names, instead requiring Jewish groups to continue supplying names of victims, out of concern that a legitimate baptism might be accidentally purged and thereby denied the right to reach heaven. Independent researcher Helen Radkey, who began canvassing Mormon lists for people with Jewish names after learning that Dutch diarist Anne Frank had been posthumously baptized, scoffed at the proposal. She said the church had failed to remove all 380,000 known Holocaust victims' names after the 1995 agreement with Michel's group, while her searches of closed databases revealed many baptized Mormons with typically Jewish names like Solomon or Esther who had died between 1941 and 1945. "The list problem is something the church could have cracked down on, should have cracked down on, and has not cracked down on," Radkey told the Post. She said the database could be easily compared against lists from Yad Vashem or other Holocaust clearinghouses. Yet Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, who appeared with Michel and Radkey, said he felt the issue was far simpler. "Forget the lists - it is not a numbers game," Kent said at a press conference held in Manhattan. "If it is even 100 people, it is too many."