Some people collect sports memorabilia; others collect art. Ernest Michel collects history.
Michel’s collection – ranging from personal Holocaust artifacts to an autographed photo of Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat – is on display through April 28 in “Birth of Two Democracies,” the current exhibit at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum.
The exhibition contains artifacts from two exhibits: “The Promise: The Ernest W. Michel Historical Judaica Collection,” featuring documents and photographs from Germany and Israel; and “Parallel Visions,” on loan from the Kaller’s American Gallery, featuring documents dating to the American Revolution.
Curator and Holocaust survivor Michel says he collected his first item after working as a German News Agency correspondent during the Nuremberg War Crimes trial.
During the trial, Nazi leader Hermann Goering’s attorney arranged an interview between his client and Michel. After Michel entered Goering’s cell, Goering stood to shake Michel’s hand. Michel reached out his hand then quickly retracted it and asked the attendant to let him out.
“I thought to myself – what the hell am I doing here?” Michel says. “I never said one word to him,” he remembers. “He stood there with his hand out, with his mouth open. I’ll never forget how he looked.”
The next day, Goering’s attorney brought him Goering’s autograph. After that, Michel collected autographs of 12 of the 22 defendants in the Nuremberg trial – the start of his collection. Although the autographs are not included in the exhibit, a picture of Goering in his cell is, along with one of Michel’s articles about the trial, with his byline: “Special correspondent Ernest W. Michel, former Auschwitz inmate #104994.”
“I insisted that my articles show the fact that I was an Auschwitz survivor,” Michel says.
German-born Michel was sent to his first concentration camp at age 16 in 1939. After almost six years in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna-Monowitz, Buchenwald and Berga, among others, he escaped from a death march before the end of World War II and arrived in the United States as a displaced person in 1946, with the aid of funds from United Jewish Appeal.
Items in the exhibit echo aspects of his life, including the belt he wore while in Auschwitz -the only item he was allowed to keep from the camp – and photographs and autographs of Israeli and American leaders he met during more than 50 years working with the UJA.
“This has been a lifelong hobby,” Michel says. “More than a hobby – an obsession.”
The exhibit started as a personal collection, but then friends suggested he make it public so he displayed it in the UJA ballroom in New York for two years. “I never thought it would go beyond that,” he says. Then, in 2000, a guest from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., asked to exhibit it in Florida. Since then, it has been to Boca Raton, Fla., Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Rockland County, N.Y. After its run in Phoenix, the exhibit is scheduled to go to Denver and Los Angeles.
Some of the items are from his life, such as photographs from the1981 World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, an event he organized which drew 6,000 survivors and their families from 23 countries and four continents to Israel. Other pieces he purchased, such as a letter by Theodore Herzl from 1890 and a reproduction of the Israel Declaration of Independence.
Through his career with the UJA, which culminated in his position as the CEO of UJA-Federation, Michel says he met all the leaders of Israel since the state’s inception. “Because of my role, I knew all of these people,” he says. “I was the only one who always came with my photos and papers and (asked them to) sign it.”
Michel says one of the most interesting things that happened during his career was negotiating with the Mormon Church in 1995 to withdraw from church records almost 400,000 names of Jewish Holocaust victims the church posthumously baptized.
Afterwards, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) offered to introduce a resolution in Congress, “concerning the fact that Jews were killed and people who denied the Holocaust are absolutely wrong,” Michel says. Congress presented Michel a copy of the resolution with the autographs of each of the sponsors of the resolution, passed unanimously in the House and Senate.
“It’s a very meaningful thing that I was glad I was able to participate in,” he says.
His autobiography, “Promises to Keep,” published in 1993, covers his life story beginning with Kristallnacht in 1938 Germany.
The second part of the exhibit, “Parallel Visions,” includes a reproduction of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and letters from George Washington and Ben Franklin.
A third segment of the collection is from Annelese Winterberg Nossbaum of Pennsylvania – the mother of Tempe resident Ivette Maoz. Nossbaum is a survivor of the Theresienstadt camp. Her collection includes a pair of Shabbat candlesticks that a German woman hid and later returned, money from the camp and a passport.
One item in Michel’s exhibit is the only photograph he has of his parents, Otto and Frieda, with his sister, Lotte. His sister survived the war and lives in Israel.
On one wall is a note from Michel, written in 1995, which describes a conversation he had with his sister in 1955, when they met in Israel for the first time after the war: “If only our parents could have known that we survived. … If they only could have died with that knowledge.”
Between Michel and his sister, they have 54 descendants. “Despite what happened between the two of us, we created new Jewish life,” he says.
Michel says he realizes that he was a part of Jewish history and wanted to preserve as much as possible for future generations.
“Many people only know about this period as history,” he writes of his collection. “I lived it.”
This article first appeared in the March 29, 2002 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.