Ernst (Ernie) Michel’s life embodied the tragedy and triumph of the Jewish people in the 20th century.
Born in Germany, he was sent to a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buchenwald, at the age of 16 and somehow survived for almost six years before escaping from a death march near war’s end. Once free, he began to tell his story, first as a special correspondent for a German news agency covering the Nuremberg Trials, and he never stopped reminding the world of the Shoah and the command to remember.
Orphaned and alone, he came to America in 1946 and over the next seven decades he dedicated his life to Jewish communal service. He emerged as a riveting speaker, gifted fundraiser and natural leader, overseeing the merger of UJA and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies during his three-decade tenure at the helm of the world’s largest local charity. (See Appreciation, page 9.)
Michel, who died this week at his Manhattan home at the age of 92, often reminded his audiences that he experienced the three most significant Jewish events of the 20th century: the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and the ingathering of the exiles. His consistent message — preserve the memory and learn from it — became tangible when he initiated and chaired the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel in 1981, bringing together for the only time 6,000 survivors and their families from 23 countries.
He said it was “the single most important” event in his life.
Despite all he endured in Europe, the countless people whose lives Michel touched will remember him as a man of warmth, joy and deep humanity. In a poignant interview with The Jewish Week in 2013, when he was battling the indignities of dementia, he noted, “I’m no longer the person I was, but I have the same guts.”
He spoke of how fortunate he was to be cared for by his wife, Amy Goldberg, to be with family and friends, and to have met with American presidents, Israeli prime ministers and other world leaders, including the president of his native Germany on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
We are the fortunate ones to have had Michel as a leading voice in our community, reminding us not only of the horrors of the Holocaust but of renewed hope in the rebirth of the Jewish State and the flourishing of Jewish life in this country.
As our interview with Michel came to a close three years ago, he thanked us for the visit and showed us the numbers tattooed on his forearm at Auschwitz. “I carry this mark with a great deal of pride,” he said. “And I hope Jews will never forget it.”
Thanks to him, many of us never will.