IN A COLUMN many years ago, I described how I once attempted to chart a family tree. Most of my father's family had been killed in Auschwitz and my efforts to trace their genealogy left me, I wrote, with a family tree that "has stumps where branches ought to be" and "gets narrower, not wider, as it grows."
A woman phoned me the morning that column appeared. She said she was a Mormon, and wanted to add the names of my father's massacred relatives – the column had mentioned about 18 of them by name – to the Mormon Church's vast genealogical archives. I told her that I certainly had no objection; indeed, I was grateful for any gesture that might help preserve some remembrance of these family members whose lives had been so cruelly cut short.
At the time I knew nothing about "baptism by proxy," the ritual that Mormons believe gives even souls in the afterlife a chance to accept their faith and thus enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only later did I learn that some Mormons, eager to save the souls of dead Jews, had taken to submitting the names of Holocaust victims for posthumous baptism.
The discovery didn't trouble me at all. In Judaism, conversion after death is a concept without meaning; no after-the-fact rites in this world can possibly change the Jewishness of the men, women, children, and babies whom the Nazis, in their obsessive hatred, singled out for extermination. I found the Mormons' belief eccentric, not offensive. By my lights, their efforts to make salvation available to millions of deceased strangers were ineffectual. But plainly they were sincere, and intended as a kindness.
Other Jews, however, were offended. There was a commotion over the issue in the 1990s, and in response the Mormon Church formally barred proxy baptism for Jewish Holocaust victims. As a rule the ban is respected but there are occasional violations of church policy, and the issue is back in the news following reports that Anne Frank, who died at 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was recently baptized by proxy at a Mormon temple in the Dominican Republic. Relatives of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and the parents of the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were also submitted for proxy baptisms.
So now there's a whole new commotion, with some prominent Jewish voices once again expressing indignation.