The Wall Comes Down: The Church in Eastern Germany (Part 2: 1989–1990)

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    Breaching the wall ended the isolation endured for half a lifetime by members in eastern Germany.

    At the end of World War II, in 1945, missionaries once again were sent to areas in the western “zones of occupation” in Germany—what would become the Federal Republic of Germany. But they were not permitted to enter the Russian zone of occupation, the eastern area of Germany that would become the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Members in the eastern branches of the Church would have to provide their own missionary force. So, for the next twenty years, single women and single and married men accepted the call to serve as full-time missionaries within the German Democratic Republic’s borders.

    In the mid-1960s, even this internal missionary service was banned by the government. For the next twenty-five years there were no full-time missionaries in eastern Germany. One can easily imagine, then, the joy and excitement that swept through the thirty wards and branches in the German Democratic Republic when the government announced, in late October 1988, that foreign missionaries would once again be allowed to enter areas where they had not served for fifty years.

    Elder Jorg von Allmen recalled his arrival in Dresden in March 1989:

    “As my companion, Elder Ludwig, and I entered the chapel for the first time, the Relief Society broke into a song of welcome. We were enveloped in a feeling of warmth and love. The faces of the sisters reflected the fulfillment of many, many years of prayers.”

    By the first of June 1989, the full-time missionary force had increased to twenty-two; missionaries were assigned to Dresden, Freiberg, Leipzig, Zwickau, Cottbus, Berlin, Erfurt, and Annaberg. There were two couples. One couple was assigned to the temple grounds in Freiberg (as guides), the other to the mission office. President Wolfgang Paul, who had been serving as president of the Germany Hamburg Mission, was called to preside over the new Germany Dresden Mission, both from his home in Hamburg and from the temporary office in the basement of the meetinghouse in Dresden. In mid-July, he moved his family into a hotel in Dresden, and later the mission was able to obtain a temporary mission home on the sixth floor of a large apartment building.

    Because of the critical housing shortage in the German Democratic Republic, missionaries were housed either with families or in temporary quarters in ward and branch meetinghouses. In Church buildings, it was common that the missionary apartment would become a classroom on Sunday. In some cases, portable showers were installed in the ward kitchen, where the missionaries also cooked. The bathroom might be located two floors below the living quarters. Still, the missionaries were happy to be serving where missionary service had been forbidden for so long, and the members were overjoyed to have them.

    On one occasion, we, as missionaries, were assigned to help deliver four young elders to their new areas in the GDR. As we approached the side street which led to the meeting place of the Neubrandenburg Branch, we saw a small crowd of nicely dressed people standing on the corner, peering anxiously toward us. When we turned into the small side street, the older members clasped their hands and stared, as if unable to believe they were seeing the arrival of full-time missionaries. They stood for a moment with tears in their eyes and then began waving excitedly. The young people ran alongside the VW bus shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands.

    As we entered the small chapel, the missionaries smiled and clapped their hands as they saw a long table beautifully decorated with flowers and with plates of food—sandwiches, salads, cakes, and drinks.

    Missionaries arrived in the German Democratic Republic on the last day of March 1989, and their first baptisms were held within a few days.

    In many of the wards and branches, there were investigators who had become acquainted with the Church but had not yet accepted baptism. The new full-time missionaries immediately visited these people—including Angela Kalkbrenner, a young married woman from Dresden who was expecting her first child. She had been attending church with her member husband.

    “Sunday after Sunday I learned more about the true gospel, but I continued to postpone my baptism,” she recalled. “Then the missionaries came to us. They taught me. They helped me recognize the Holy Ghost for the first time. It was wonderful.” (This and other quotations in this article are taken from personal letters written by converts at the request of the authors.)

    There are many facets to the story of the new mission in the eastern part of Germany: persistent prayers by faithful members around the world; long, dedicated service by members in the German Democratic Republic, working in semi-isolation; careful negotiation with the government; the faith of missionaries who, with proselyting restricted, worked closely with members to find the people the Lord had prepared to receive the gospel. Perhaps the most important facet of the story, however, is the histories of the converts themselves and how they were prepared by the Spirit of the Lord.

    Lydia Stapel, a young woman who was baptized into the Church said, “We have been living in darkness all our lives. Now the missionaries are bringing us light—and I want to leave that light wherever I go.” That was the feeling of many who became acquainted with the gospel as missionary work was opened in the German Democratic Republic, before the two Germanies were reunited on 3 October 1990.

    Rainer Wollny first learned about the Church when he visited the new Dresden chapel during an open house on 1 May 1990. He was baptized less than a week later, after receiving the missionary lessons, reading the Book of Mormon twice from cover to cover, and gaining a testimony of it. As he attended Sunday services on the morning of May 7, “I felt for the first time what a beautiful, peaceful, and happy feeling it is to discover the entire breadth of the eternal and true gospel. When I was baptized … my heart felt so warm and pleasant that I cried as I received the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

    Brother Wollny has since been ordained an elder, has converted and baptized his wife, and together they are now serving as stake missionaries.

    Thomas Weitz and his wife, though not LDS at the time, took a Russian visitor to see the new LDS meetinghouse in Zwickau. A guided tour, in Russian, was arranged for them, and the Weitzes went home with a copy of the Book of Mormon. While his wife was away on vacation, Thomas began reading the book.

    “As I was reading, I came upon the passage in 3 Nephi 28 (the request of the disciples of Christ). … I didn’t believe such a thing was possible. I was so doubtful that I laid the book aside and didn’t want to read it any more. But it wouldn’t let me alone. I began to read from the beginning of the book, but I couldn’t seem to concentrate. The idea came into my mind, Why don’t you just pray? So I did.” [3 Ne. 28]

    He asked the Lord to help him know if this book was really true. “The next day, about 5 o’clock in the evening, the doorbell rang. I went to see who it was, and two well-dressed young men were standing at the door. They told me they were missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that I had been praying about the Book of Mormon. I simply could not believe it. How could they know that? Our Father in Heaven had heard my prayer and had sent the missionaries.”

    He joined the Church on 30 April 1989, and his wife was baptized two weeks after she returned from her vacation. “My wife and I have been working since our baptism to see that many more people can learn about the true gospel and about the plan of our Father in Heaven.”

    In the fertile fields of eastern Germany, the gospel has touched people of all ages.

    Birga Weber’s religious education had been typical for her generation in the German Democratic Republic, which was officially atheist. “In my family there was no one who had the slightest belief in God. And so I pushed all thoughts and feelings about God far from me, although in the depths of my heart I always hoped that there might be a God.”

    This hope led 22-year-old Birga to Freiberg to attend a performance of the Lamanite Generation, a Brigham Young University performing group. She knew that the performance was sponsored by the Church. “After the performance, the missionaries asked me if I was interested in the Mormons and told me a few things about Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, and the gospel. In that moment I knew immediately: this is it. I was absolutely certain that I would become a Mormon. Nothing in the world could prevent me, and I felt an irresistible longing for more knowledge. This all took place in a matter of seconds, one thought after another.”

    Birga Weber was baptized one week after the missionaries began teaching her. “It was not accidental that the missionaries found me just at this time. God had prepared me, and I am so thankful to him for this. I love him with all my heart.”

    Anita Jander, of Dresden, had recently gone through a divorce and was left with three children to rear. One Saturday evening in June 1989, she was out for a drive with her two younger sons, ages fourteen and sixteen, when they passed by the LDS chapel “and it seemed to me as if an inner voice was calling out to me that I had to stop the car and go in.” She and her sons went into the building. “I was overwhelmed with the love and friendliness that surrounded us,” she recalls, “and I had a feeling of happiness in my heart that I had never known before. I wanted to learn more about faith, about the gospel, and about the Mormons.”

    Sister Jander and her sons began studying with the missionaries. On 11 June 1989, she and fourteen-year-old Danilo were baptized. “I am so thankful that I am no longer alone, that I can turn to God with all of my sorrows and problems, and he will help me through them. … I simply could not live any more without my faith, and I am so full of joy that I would like to shout it out to the whole world—to share it with everyone,” she writes.

    The theme of being lost, of being in despair, of searching, and of finally finding the light of the gospel is repeated over and over in the testimonies of converts. The struggle of Sieglinda Wochnik illustrates what has happened in many lives. She had been reared by a religious father who nevertheless rejected organized religions. When, at age twenty, she left her little village to attend a university, “God was pushed further and further into the background. I lived from day to day without taking much thought about my actions—whether they were right or wrong. And yet, I felt an emptiness within me. … I continued to search for this missing thing, for this meaning to my life.”

    Eventually, Sister Wochnik came into contact with the LDS missionaries who had arrived in the German Democratic Republic. “The following Sunday I attended the meetings. … The Sunday School class and the sacrament meeting brought me more and more to the conclusion that God exists and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. A comparison of the Book of Mormon with the Bible strengthened this conclusion. I came to realize that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the true church and that I needed to change my life.

    “I became aware of the many sins I had committed and I ought to have been thankful if these sins would be forgiven me. But that was not the case.

    “The truth had broken over me like a storm. I wished I could have hidden myself, and yet I knew that the truth would find me everywhere. … A battle was raging within me. I held stubbornly to my way of life, my habits, and refused to accept the gospel. I quit going to church, and I stopped praying because I was afraid of the answers I would get from my Father in Heaven. This battle lasted for three weeks. Then I wrote Elder Palmer a letter and asked him not to visit me again.

    “And now comes the part that is unbelievable. I experienced a transformation of heart from one day to the next. I suddenly realized that I was trying to hold on to trifles. It became clear to me that it was the gospel for which I had been waiting. I suddenly saw baptism and the forgiveness of sins as my great chance. I realized that the laws and commandments were not given to mankind to restrict our freedom but that they were God’s challenges [to us] and that God would help me keep the commandments if I would ask him.”

    Despite her letter, the missionaries came to visit her that same evening. They gave her a blessing, and the deep, warm feeling that came into her heart lingered into the next day.

    “From that hour on I have changed my life. Two weeks later—on Easter Sunday—was my baptism. It was an unforgettable day. A deep sense of peace came over me. I suddenly had the feeling that I had finally come home from my long wandering,” she writes.

    “I am sad when I think of all the years of my life I have wasted. I will work diligently to acquire the knowledge I need that will allow me to make the remaining years of my life meaningful.”

    These are but a few testimonies of the many converts who lived in spiritual darkness before the borders of the German Democratic Republic were opened to full-time missionaries preaching the gospel. Only heaven could have foreseen the flood of spiritual light and freedom that the world-changing events in this part of Europe during the years 1988 to 1990 would bring.

    [photos] Photography by Peggy Jellinghausen

    [photos] The Berlin Wall stood for more than twenty-seven years before it began to come down in late 1988. Here, Hans Jürgen Bartsch shakes hands with his brother Ralf through a crack in the wall.

    [photos] Above: Arthur and Martha Müller, missionaries from Switzerland, serve at the Freiberg Germany Temple. Left: Ralf and Beate Bartsch and their eldest daughter, left, with Roswitha and Hans Jürgen Bartsch, at the broken Berlin Wall.

    [photos] Left, a Primary in East Berlin. Right, youth from Dresden, in eastern Germany, and Frankfurt, in western Germany, meet for a youth conference in 1990. Background: The former no-man’s land between western, eastern sectors of Germany.

    [photos] Rudi and Marietta Lehmann, right, of Görlitz, are serving a mission in Freiberg. (Photo by Peggy Jellinghausen.) Below: The Dresden chapel. (Photo by Rolf Gunther.)

    Garold and Norma Davis recently served as missionaries in Dresden, German Democratic Republic. She is Relief Society president and he is a counselor in the Sunday School presidency in the Oak Hills Second Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake.