The Mormon Church, the Holocaust & Me

The Mormon Church, the Holocaust & Me

On Saturday, I made my first visit to Tucson’s Family History Center to take advantage of a slate of free genealogy courses. I learned more in three hours about my research options — including, at the center, free access to Ancestry.com — than I had in the last six months.

Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes studying genealogy knows that most of these centers offer top notch research facilities  —  and that they are run by the Mormon Church (also called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS). This knowledge led a Jewish friend to ask me how, for this project in particular, I could work with a group that baptizes Holocaust victims posthumously.

Say What? Posthumous Baptism?

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Baptisim for the Dead:

In the practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a living person, acting as proxy, is baptized by immersion on behalf of a deceased person…. Baptism for the dead is a distinctive ordinance of the church and is based on the belief that baptism is a required ordinance for entry into the Kingdom of God.

This is why genealogy has become so crucial a part of LDS life. According to Mormon.org, the official church site:

Those of us who have been bitten by the family history bug know how fun it can be. But this isn’t why we have the largest genealogical library in the world and why 13 million Mormons are encouraged to research their family roots. Rather, we are driven by our doctrine that teaches that marriage and families can continue beyond this life… When Christ organized His Church anciently, it included vicarious work for the dead and the practice of performing ordinances for deceased relatives “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29).

The emphasis on “relatives” is mine. Church doctrine requires that proxy baptisms can only be performed by kin. Genealogy isn’t just a fun hobby for Mormons; it’s the key to finding souls to save.

The souls aren’t required to go along with the program, however. According to Wikipedia:

The LDS Church teaches that those in the afterlife who have been baptized by proxy are free to accept or reject the ordinance done on their behalf. Baptism on behalf of a deceased individual is not binding if that individual chooses to reject it in the afterlife.

Overzealousness within the Church

Funny, she doesn't look LDS

Funny, she doesn’t look LDS

Unfortunately, not all church members have been vigilant about observing the only-baptize-your-relatives rule. According to a March 2012 story in the New York Times:

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promised in 1995 to stop including Holocaust victims in its ritual, the church admitted last week that Anne Frank had been “baptized” in a Mormon church in the Dominican Republic. On Wednesday, The Boston Globe reported that Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped and killed by terrorists in Pakistan in early 2002, was baptized last June in Twin Falls, Idaho; Mr. Pearl was Jewish.

Non-Jewish celebrities had been posthumously baptized too.

The church’s reaction to these disclosures was swift and definitive. According to a USAToday.com article, also published in March 2012:

On Friday, the LDS church’s governing First Presidency issued an unequivocal mandate to its members: Do not submit names of Jewish Holocaust victims or celebrities for proxy baptism. Doing so could cost Mormons access to their church’s genealogical data or even their good standing in the faith.

“I don’t think it’s nice”

Some Jews were seriously offended, including Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was quoted in another USAToday.com story on the controversy:

I am a Holocaust survivor. It is so offensive in the sense that Holocaust victims were killed solely because they were Jews. And here comes the Mormon church taking away their Jewishness…. It’s like killing them twice.

Others were more philosophical about it. Laura Baum, an Ohio rabbi, is quoted in the New York Times article. “I don’t want to give any credence to anyone who thinks baptizing us matters,” she said. “On the other hand, I don’t think it’s nice.”

I agree with Rabbi Baum. It’s not nice. I find all proselytizing, before or after death, disrespectful. But I disagree with Abraham Foxman, who makes a profession out of being offended. There’s a vast difference between something done in good faith — literally — to the dead than something done to make them dead in the first place.

The Jews were not killed for their religion — after all, many had converted, or were not practicing — but for an insane, entirely false cultural construction of what a Jew is. The Nazis believed Jews were not human, akin to animals. In order to try to save someone’s soul, you have to believe she has one, which the Mormons do.

So I am happy to use the vast resources of the Family History Center to rescue my relatives from the hell to which they were consigned by the Nazis, in my fashion. And if the people at the center are a little nicer to me because they feel bad that a church member may have posthumously proselytized a great aunt or uncle, what could it hurt?

14 Responses to The Mormon Church, the Holocaust & Me

  1. Jewish gen organization offers training, workshops online, and in person thru many conferences. (see article link)
    I guess you dont know what the ADL does. The Anti-Defamation league wrote the hate-crime laws we have in this country defending Gays and every other minority pretty much. The expanded hate-crime law passed under Obama was cited in the conviction of the white racsist swastika-branding of a mentally disabled Navajo man in NM last year.
    Foxman, ADL prez, has stood up to the press when I could not.
    The Mormon genealogy program is useful but there are choices out there.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I didn’t get the article link — would you please re-send? — but I appreciate your feedback. I was talking about one-on-one free genealogical help at a center, rather than on line; I’m afraid there are no Jewish resources available like that (I found the JewishGen online classes, which were not free, confusing). I am certainly not dissing ADL as an organization, or the effectiveness of Abraham Foxman, which I appreciate. I just have a problem with the fact that he doesn’t always distinguish between real instances of racial hatred — like the one you describe — and things like posthumous baptism and is often knee-jerk in his reactions.

  2. Mormons can be pretty infuriating as well as charming. I guess it depends on your beliefs. If you feel they are desecrating the dead (or even just dont like it) and they continue to do secret baptisms of Jews after having been asked not to, then for my part i would not want my family info entered in their ancestry.com database.
    I own stock inExxon which is probably a worse thing so i have to wrestle with that. the link is in reference to the article I think I listed about when I learned about my genealogy but I will try to find out where they offer in-person stuff .
    http://www.examiner.com/article/jewish-genealogist-the-clue-master-and-a-town-for-which-i-cared-not-much

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for the link — I remember the story, from before the days when I was interested in genealogy. I’m sorry Tracing the Tribe is no longer being updated; I turned to it first when I started researching this problem.

      I didn’t go into it here, but I believe that the baptisms that are being carried out are being done by those who are trying to embarrass the church or have other nefarious motives; it’s not an official policy and the genealogy software got an extensive upgrade so as to alleviate the problem. All groups have members that can be jerks.

      Ancestry.com’s database is huge and I would probably make access to whatever I entered public anyway.

      I often use information from JewishGen, and I’m hoping to go to a Jewish genealogy conference this summer. I don’t think appreciating the resources that one group offers — and explaining why I don’t have a problem with taking advantage of them — is mutually exclusive with appreciating the ones that are more familiar and natural to me.

  3. Paradox says:

    “The Nazis believed Jews were not human, akin to animals. In order to try to save someone’s soul, you have to believe she has one, which the Mormons do.”

    Thanks for giving us the benefit of the doubt. Stumbled across your post here, and I hope your experience at the family history center continues to be a good one!

    Contrary to the perceptions of some, not all members of our Church go out of our way to find and perform ordinances for people who are not our kin. It’s a very uninformed few who participate in this sort of behavior, and it’s embarrassing to the rest of us who know better. Thanks again for giving us all the benefit of the doubt and trying to see things from our perspective. I hope you never find a shortage of members of our faith who offer you that same courtesy.

    Cheers!
    Paradox
    Paradox recently posted..OrganizationMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you so much for coming by and commenting; this was a difficult post for me to write and I hoped it would be understood from both perspectives. That is, I didn’t want to offend anyone from the Mormon church by bringing up the issue in the first place because I’ve come to believe as you do — that it is just an uninformed few who participate in this behavior. But I did want to answer my friend’s question honestly.

      I have had nothing but positive experiences with members of your faith, even before I started this research, but didn’t want to go down the “some of my best friends are Mormon” path. I have no doubt that I will continue to benefit from the helpfulness of staff at the family history center.

  4. Lydia Davis says:

    This is a fascinating dialogue. Thanks to Paradox for writing in from the Mormon perspective! So often the uninformed, misguided, or fanatic few give the rest of a group a bad name. (Easy to think of other examples!) In these partisan times, it’s so much healthier to keep the dialogue alive.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Yes, I was very pleased to get some feedback from the Mormon perspective — and have found myself defending their position on other forums (especially Facebook). I admit that, before I started thinking about this issue, I was knee-jerk negative about it, so I’m glad I opened my own mind.

  5. It might interest you to know that in the Mormon church all non-members except those of the Jewish faith, are referred to as gentiles.

    I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse, but it is fascinating.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I knew that Mormon theology holds Jews in special regard — a Mormon friend once tried to explain it to me but it was a bit complicated and I’ve forgotten most of what she told me, including (probably) the gentile part. I agree, it’s fascinating. And it always makes me feel better to be chosen for something good rather than something bad…

  6. it worries me. i didn’t like it when my cousin who joined the ultra-orthodox insisted that Jews have an extra level of their aura – a rather technical way of saying ‘holier than thou’. The two Mormons i know seem to carry that attitude around with them, though it took some time to see it. I guess it’s not fair to generalize to all Mormons, any more than it would be if the only Jews you knew were like my cousin. (which often happens in remote places)

    By the way, the Vatican put out a news release to bishops in 2008 not to let Mormons see their parish rolls. While I suppose we can never know who to believe, I have to sit up and take notice if it’s bothering the Vatican.
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..What is the point of something illogical?My Profile

  7. Edie, per usual, I think your blog is genius–and this post is beyond fascinating to me. Lots to think about here. I am particularly impressed with your ability to understand all sides of the equation and your quest to learn more. It’s why I keep coming back.
    Jackie Dishner recently posted..Maine Your Days Be Merry…Bright and PeacefulMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      And here I didn’t even know you read my blog, much less what you thought of it. What a nice surprise. Thank you so much for your nice words.

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