Huddling together against the cold, the group of men patiently awaited the arrival of the truck that would transfer their precious cargo to a railway station in the valley below. The sound of its engine came to them through the wind in gasps until, finally, the sound stopped altogether. Shortly, someone from the truck appeared around a bend in the road and reported that the truck was stranded. One of the group, its leader, directed the men to kneel in prayer. A few minutes later, the truck rounded the bend into view.
But the roads remained treacherous, and only a portion of the cargo could be moved that day. In the evening the group again sought divine help to complete the transfer. Before morning the weather warmed and a tepid rain began to fall, removing the ice from the roads. On the afternoon of the third day, the project was completed. The weather turned cold again.
It was February 1946. Germany lay devastated by war, most of its citizens barely subsisting on meager rations. But the once-silent hallways of Rothenburg Castle rang with activity. Men huddled over piles of centuries-old books filled with names, dates, and places—whispers of lives once lived. These were parish registers, ancient texts in which unheralded priests had laboriously recorded baptisms, marriages, and burials, one by one, for hundreds of years. Added to these records were microfilms, photographic enlargements of the films, and scores of books pertaining to German ancestry. The vast array of records had been hurriedly removed to this deserted castle in the mountains of Thuringia, a hundred and fifty miles southwest of Berlin, for safety as the Third Reich disintegrated.
The men working in the castle were Latter-day Saints, members of the East German Mission. Led by Paul Langheinrich, second counselor in the mission presidency, they were preparing the records for removal to Berlin and the mission home. In the midst of war’s turmoil and suffering, Paul had not forgotten his calling as steward over genealogical work for the mission. And here was triumph; these texts were a priceless legacy for future generations.
Weeks later, a small group of Latter-day Saints stood outside the Berlin mission home, among them Elder Ezra Taft Benson. He and a few aides had arrived on this chilly morning as part of a comprehensive tour of Europe to evaluate the needs of the destitute Saints.
Entering the building, Elder Benson was ushered into the room filled with records—“a bank of heavy books, 5,000 of them, stacked one on the other, three to four feet high, covering half of the large floor. … Thousands of microfilms were spread out on a clean basement floor to dry thoroughly. … The books were church or parish registers. Some were centuries old and bore the look of antiquity. … The penmanship was a work of art. … Beside the display of books there were many scrolls.” 1
President Benson moved forward. He handled the brittle leather binding of a volume, opened it, and thumbed through a few pages. He inspected a second book, and then a third. As he turned to the expectant group, his exclamation was simple but moving. “Wonderful!”
Events leading to this memorable scene had begun more than a decade earlier. And those events have since become, in large measure, Paul Langheinrich’s story.
Interest in genealogy burgeoned in pre-war Germany. By government decree in 1933, the Office of Family Research (Reichsamt fuer Sippenforschung, hereafter RFS) was ordered to systematically microfilm all German parish registers containing information prior to 1874, at which time the vital records offices were established. 2 The program was intended to preserve information in the registers from the ravages of time, insects, and careless individuals. Filming of the registers began in 1935; enlargements were made from the films, then bound into volumes and kept on file at the RFS.
Paul Langheinrich, a convert to the Church, lived in the province of Saxony but often visited Berlin to do genealogical research. There he learned about microfilming and became acquainted with workers at the RFS.
Paul moved to Berlin in 1937. His involvement with genealogy resulted in a call from the mission president, Alfred Rees, to work in the mission’s genealogical department; in this capacity he attempted to acquire copies of RFS films for the Genealogical Society. But he met with a technical difficulty: the films were not perforated and could not be copied with existing equipment in Germany. By the time a suitable machine could be built, the war had started and Paul was unable to obtain the desired copies.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, Paul was called as second counselor in the mission presidency. As the tide of war ebbed for Germany, Paul became aware of the removal of RFS records from Berlin to hiding places in central Germany. At the same time, many original parish registers were gathered in from the eastern provinces and stored with the RFS records.
In 1945 Berlin capitulated. Along with their fellow Germans, many members of the Church were left homeless, hungry, and exhausted. Paul and other mission leaders tirelessly pursued the herculean task of providing shelter, food, and encouragement for the Saints. In August he addressed a letter to the Russian commander of the occupation forces asking for permission to buy needed supplies. In writing the letter, he felt inspired to include a request for authority to locate and gather the records. A response authorizing him to do both was received shortly thereafter.
A few members, including Erich Sellner, Rudolph Poecker, and Gerhard Kupitz, were called as missionaries to search out the records. A former employee of the RFS provided the needed clue—some of the archives had been sent to castles in Thuringia and some to salt mines near the Elbe. Once the records had been retrieved from the castles, the group’s attention turned to the salt mines.
Rudolph Poecker was converted to the gospel during the war. After the war ended he returned to his wife and child in Berlin, and his mission call came shortly thereafter. Depending on the Lord to help provide for his small family, he left in midwinter to search out the records. After the success in Thuringia he began to look for records in the salt mines, contacting one mine office after another until he located a mine engineer who knew where some of the records were secreted. Although there was a death penalty for entering the mines without authorization, the engineer dressed Rudolph as a miner and took him underground. One of the rooms he saw was big enough to “hold the Tabernacle,” and it was filled with books. 3
Another record cache was located in a mine near Schoenebeck. Accompanied by Gerhard Kupitz, a counselor in the mission MIA presidency, Paul headed for that city, located about seventy-five miles southwest of Berlin.
Things went poorly at first. They were arrested and taken to the prison at Magdeburg to be interviewed by the Russian secret police. The wait was long, and the two had nothing to eat all day. That evening they were questioned. After two hours of rigorous interrogation, they were released to go ahead with their work.
Original parish registers, thousands of microfilms, photographic enlargements of the films, and even original photographic equipment used by the Germans before the war were retrieved from the mine at Schoenebeck and later from the mine near Stassfurt. The gathering of the dispersed records was becoming a reality.
Some time prior to the Thuringia effort, Paul had made arrangements for the records to be permanently located at the Main Government Archives in Berlin-Dahlem. 4 He had also informed the Lutheran and Catholic churches of his activities and had received their approval; they agreed that he should have at least temporary custody of the parish registers. At this point, Paul recorded his expectations for the future:
“When all ‘treasures’ are brought together, volunteers of all religions will build a Genealogical Archive in Berlin-Dahlem. It will be for the use of all. The fresh wood for the shelves is already on the floor of the building. The work can begin! It is a work of peace! For many Germans and expatriates whose records have been in chaos for the past few years, for genealogists, historians, and biographers, these archives will be an inexhaustible source of information.” 5
But, despite his dream, the records were not destined to remain together. Russian officials objected to the films being taken into the American sector of East Berlin. So Paul found a new home for them in the Russian-occupied village of Wolfsgruen—an old mansion which had served as a refugee home for displaced Saints. By the fall of 1946 it was vacant, and the films were moved in. As time passed, additional records, films, and copies were gathered to Wolfsgruen.
Paul now turned his attention to obtaining copies of the films for the Genealogical Society. But there were many obstacles to overcome; foremost among them was the complete absence of roll film in post-war Germany. The only film available was in nine-by-twelve centimeter sheets, a standard German film size. Paul and a mechanic friend modified a camera to fit the film—a prototype of the microfiche camera of today. 6
Filming on microfiche began at Wolfsgruen in 1947 and continued through 1948 when roll film became available. A total of 12,000 fiche were created and sent to the Genealogical Society.
Working conditions in Wolfsgruen were not ideal. Paul, his wife, and his son were not permitted to obtain ration cards because their permanent residence was Berlin; thus they depended upon weekly shipments of food from friends and Church members in Berlin. When it was discovered that some of their shipments were being stolen or rifled, they traveled a greater distance up the rail line to intercept the packages before they could be plundered.
Meanwhile, the local Russian commandant was not favorably disposed to the activities of this religious group within his district. Such a fine building, he reasoned, had many other uses of higher priority. In October 1948, Paul was given twenty-four hours to move his records to a new location; the building was to be used for training a local communist cadre.
The records were relocated in a former restaurant in the nearby village of Eibenstock, where microfilming proceeded during November 1948. But the new facilities proved completely unsatisfactory, and Paul decided to take the records back to Berlin. Providentially, the library at Humboldt University in East Berlin had just re-roofed the bomb-shattered ceiling of its upper floor. The shelves in the room were empty, and the records were accepted.
Soon after Paul’s arrival in Berlin, the director of the archives brought to him a faded document and asked him to see what he could do to copy it. Paul produced a better copy than the original. The director then gave his support to Paul to do copywork; this allowed him to establish a business from which he could make a living, permitting him to remain close to the records and to continue filming them with the assistance of his wife Ruth and his son Armin. In the meantime, a project was initiated by the East German mission to film the original parish registers which Paul had left at the Berlin-Dahlem archives.
In the fall of 1951, Paul received an order from the Ministry of the Interior directing him to send to Poland all original registers in his possession from the period 1919 through 1939 for that part of Germany now under Polish control. Paul feared the loss of the information; so, in the waning months of 1951 he microfilmed the registers, working feverishly day and night, snatching what sleep he could. The filming was completed before the records were shipped to Poland. 7
In 1953 the archives were again scheduled to be relocated, this time to Potsdam. Paul was subsequently offered a residence in East Germany; he did not accept it. For some time he and his family had desired to emmigrate to America, and he interpreted the transfer of the records as a signal that the time had come to leave Germany. The records had been gathered under his supervision, and for eight years he had protected them from destruction and worked to preserve them on film.
In May 1953 the records were removed to Potsdam. Before the year’s end, Paul and his family had left for America.
Paul Langheinrich died in early 1979. But the significant and unselfish labor he performed during his lifetime remains an invaluable legacy to thousands of Saints whose roots are recorded upon the faded pages of those almost-forgotten parish registers.
Don C. Corbett, “Records from the Ruins,” unpublished typescript in LDS Church Historical Department Library, pp. 9–10.
“Photographic Reproduction of German Parish Registers,” Improvement Era, 41 (June 1938): 368.
Rudolph Poecker, “Biographical Sketch,” in Historical Department record group, Biographical Sketches series, Church Hist. Dept. Archives.
Paul Langheinrich, “Record of Procurement of Church Records, Films and Photocopies,” typescript in East German Mission manuscript history, 16 Aug. 1945, Church Hist. Dept. Archives.
“The Church Books Will Be Shown at an LDS Conference,” (translated title), Neue Zeit, 9 June 1946, p. 7.
Armin Langheinrich, telephone interview with Kahlile Mehr, 17 Sept. 1979.
Corbett, p. 21.