But on Monday, he and other survivors gathered at The Center for Jewish History in New York to publicly denounce what they said is an ongoing practice by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, in doing so, end discussions. The group came together exactly 70 years after Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass," a German pogrom during which Nazis ransacked Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses, killed more than 90 Jews and deported up to 30,000 others to concentration camps.
"I'm doing this in many ways to preserve the memory of my parents who couldn't speak up for themselves," Michel, whose parents died at Auschwitz, said by phone Monday. "I refused any deep interviews until today. . . We want to show the public what the church has been doing."
LDS Church officials, who met with Michel just one week ago, say they are sorry the relationship seems to have ended this way and feel the church's work and intentions have been misunderstood.
Michel, of New York, is the honorary chair for the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which he said has about 180,000 members. His connection to this issue began as a fluke. He'd seen an article in a Jewish newspaper in the mid-1990s about one Holocaust victim who'd been posthumously baptized by Mormons. So he wrote to then-LDS Church President Howard W. Hunter, seeking an explanation.
He never did hear back from Hunter, but Sen. Orrin Hatch, whom Michel had copied, did respond. In a two-page letter, Hatch explained that this practice was "done out of love for Jewish people," Michel remembered. "I got that, and then I got suspicious."
A genealogist friend quickly discovered that Michel's parents, too, had received the ordinance.
"My mother and father were killed in the Holocaust for no other reason than they were Jews," he said earlier. "How can the Mormons victimize them a second time and falsely claim their souls for eternity?"
Over the years, Michel has had many meetings with LDS Church officials, all of them "very pleasant," he said.
In 1995, he saw progress when the church promised to remove Holocaust victim names from its International Genealogical Index (IGI) and send out on First Presidency letterhead a reminder that proxy baptisms are intended for one's own ancestors.
Lance B. Wickman, a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, said Monday that the church immediately removed 260,000 names submitted to IGI by nine individuals. Since then, he said 43,000 additional names - 42,000 of them identified by the church - had made their way into the system, only to be removed. He called this "persuasive evidence" that the church was doing all it could to uphold its end of the deal.
In 2005, Michel presented 5,300 names of concern. Wickman said that with extensive research, which included help from a Jewish genealogist, they discovered that many of the individuals had not been Holocaust victims. Those that were were removed.
Proxy baptisms, Wickman said, are nothing more than a way to give people in the spirit world a chance to reject or accept the gospel. Only Holocaust victims with Mormon descendants are considered for the ordinance, an agreement he said Michel accepted in 1995. And even in those cases, the baptism doesn't cancel out someone's "life story," he said.
But this way of thinking has proven impossible for Michel to swallow. And his concern has been fueled by Helen Radkey, a Salt Lake City researcher who has made the issue her own and has often sent Michel documentation to illustrate a continued practice. He said if he'd known what he was getting into 14 years ago, he might have never pursued this.
"This has gone on year after year - names given, taken off the list, more names go in. I call it the 'unstoppable revolving door,' " Radkey said from her New York hotel room. "Purging the names isn't what the Jews want. They want the baptisms to stop."
On Nov. 3, five LDS Church officials, including Wickman, Dallin H. Oaks of The Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and Marlin K. Jensen, also of the Seventy, met with Michel in New York. He showed up with "pounds and pounds of paperwork" to illustrate his ongoing concern, said Howard Cannon, who spoke for Michel later Monday.
Radkey said hundreds of names, mostly Dutch Holocaust victims, have made the church's master list in the past few months. Some recently discovered records used to do proxy baptisms even had the words "Auschwitz" or "Polish death camp" on them, she said.
Wickman said officials weren't given copies of these new materials and therefore cannot even try to right wrongs, if they exist.
Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.