Ernest Michel, Auschwitz survivor and longtime Jewish leader

by | May 20, 2016 | Obituaries

NEW YORK (JTA)—Ernest (Ernie) Michel, who after surviving Auschwitz and a forced death march went on to become a prominent American Jewish communal leader, has died at 92.

Michel died at his home in Manhattan on Saturday, May 7.

He worked as a Jewish communal professional for more than 60 years, joining the staff of the United Jewish Appeal in 1947, according to UJA-Federation of New York. He served as its executive vice president from 1970 to 1989, overseeing the merger that created UJA-Federation of New York.

Michel also served as chairman of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and negotiated with the Mormon Church over the church’s practice of posthumously baptizing Jews who died in the Holocaust.

According to an interview printed on Wollheim Memorial, a site featuring testimonies of numerous Holocaust survivors, Michel was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1923, the son of a cigarette manufacturer. In 1939, he was deported to a forced labor camp and later to Auschwitz. After a forced death march to Buchenwald in January 1945, he was forced on a second death march in April, which he managed to escape.

Michel’s parents and grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, but his younger sister, Lotte, fled to France and then went into hiding there.

After the war, Michel briefly worked as a correspondent for the German General News Agency, covering the Nuremberg Trials. During the trials, he had the opportunity to meet Hermann Goering, who was Hitler’s vice chancellor, an encounter he described in a first person piece for JTA in 2005:

When I entered, Goering got up and reached out his hand.

I asked myself: “What the hell am I doing here? Should I shake his hand? Am I supposed to ask Goering about his reaction to the trial? How do you feel?”

I must admit I simply could not handle it. I froze. Without uttering a single word, I turned around and asked to be let out. The last thing I remember was Goering standing there with his outstretched hand. Still today, I am glad that I never exchanged a single word with the top Nazi in Nuremberg.

In the same piece, Michel said “the greatest experience of my life was to witness justice being served [at Nuremberg].”

Describing his time in Auschwitz, Michel said, “I never gave up hope, but I will never understand how I survived.”

He immigrated to the United States in 1946 and a year later was hired by the UJA.

In 1993, he published a memoir titled Promises to Keep: One Man’s Journey against Incredible Odds.

Michel is survived by his wife, Amy Goldberg Michel; three children; a sister, and several grandchildren.