In the summer of 1941, when Alexandria Safronova Graybeal was just seventeen years old, German armies turned their attention to the east and swiftly invaded her Russian homeland. Even though she had sensed for some time that the growing conflict in Europe would affect her life, the disruption it brought to her and her family was more devastating than she could have imagined.
Born in the Ukrainian Republic in 1924, Alexandria was one of four daughters born to Michael and Hannah Safronova. Michael was a kind neighbor and hard worker who loved horses. Hannah was a woman of great faith who prayed frequently but always in silence, because in the Ukraine it was forbidden to practice or teach religion in the home. Alexandria learned valuable lessons from both parents, but it was from her mother that she learned to trust in God.
One example of her mother’s faith left an indelible impression on nine-year-old Alexandria. Her father, who had been working hard in the field one day, came home early with a burning fever. Hannah immediately gathered the children, asked them to remain quiet, and then knelt beside her husband’s bed and said a silent prayer. When she arose, she smiled at her concerned children. “Your papa will be well soon,” she said. That very day his fever subsided, and he was able to return to work. Alexandria never forgot that experience.
By November 1941, German forces had penetrated as far as Moscow and Leningrad. That month Alexandria married a Russian soldier who had escaped from captivity. With war at their heels, they fled far north to live with Alexandria’s husband’s family. But soon the war reached them, and they and many other families were forced to hide in the nearby forest for four months.
Often Alexandria would not see her husband for days. Along with many other young men, he had joined an underground resistance force that attacked enemy convoys. Alexandria feared for his life but was powerless to do anything about it. Further darkening her condition was the resentment her in-laws felt towards her. Because she was from the Ukraine and spoke a different language, they considered her inferior. “It was all very depressing,” Sister Graybeal recalls. “I cried all the time.”
One night Alexandria’s husband came home and gave her the shock of her life: not only did he tell her that he’d joined the Nazis but he demanded that she leave and never return. Alexandria, frightened by her husband’s threatening, hostile behavior, left. She never saw him again.
The journey to her parents’ home some five hundred miles away seemed impossible. The distance was disheartening, and she had no provisions. To make matters worse, it was winter. But those fears were nothing compared to the thought of traveling alone through a war zone. Alexandria remembers sitting alone in the snow, hungry and weak, with cold tears on her cheeks. She was inconsolable until, remembering her mother’s prayers, she decided to offer her first: “Help me. Help me find my way home.” She wasn’t sure her prayer had been heard, but she nevertheless began the dangerous trek.
The winter days passed slowly. As if in answer to her prayer, someone along the way gave her a map. That spark of hope kept her going, from farm to farm and town to town, day after day. At dusk she pleaded with strangers for a place to sleep—floor or barn, it didn’t matter, as long as it was inside, so she wouldn’t get caught—and shot—for breaking curfew. Food was so scarce that she had nothing to eat but the meager scraps of stale bread and potato peelings that she scrounged from scrap buckets after her hosts had retired to bed. At first light she would resume her journey, often with her clothing wet because of the damp, leaking barns in which she had slept.
Late one afternoon, after an unusually long walk in deep snow, Alexandria was exhausted and knew she would not reach the next town on her own before curfew. She was afraid because she’d learned that German soldiers were in the area. Suddenly, three horse-drawn hay wagons driven by German soldiers appeared on the narrow road. As Alexandria hid nearby, she got an idea. If she hopped onto one of the wagons without being seen, she could make it to the next town before dark. The last wagon passed, and she put her desperate plan into action. Running with all her strength, she managed to grab a pole attached to the back of the wagon and climb aboard.
Alexandria rode in relative comfort until, a few miles later, the wagons came to an abrupt halt. She froze with fear. At the sound of approaching footsteps, she closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. “Please help me, dear God!” The footsteps came closer, then stopped right next to her. Alexandria lifted her head to look into the compassionate eyes of a young soldier who motioned for her to remain still. Then he turned to rejoin his comrades without making his discovery known. The company moved on, and Alexandria safely reached the next town.
“I know Father in Heaven was watching over me and was helping me,” Sister Graybeal says, her eyes misty with emotion.
After weeks of traveling, Alexandria arrived home, thin and weak but overjoyed to see her family again. Before long, however, the Germans rounded up all young, able-bodied people and sent them by train to Germany to work for the war effort. Alexandria was no exception. She didn’t know that the camp where she was housed for three months, Dachau, held unspeakable sorrows for other people. From there Alexandria was moved from farm to farm on various work details until American liberation forces entered Germany in the spring of 1945.
The war over, Alexandria planned to return to her parents. But she became ill, spent two weeks in a hospital, and missed her train. That was a blessing, she now realizes; returning Russians faced great struggles, and living conditions were much better in Germany than in Russia. While living in a displaced-persons camp in 1945, Alexandria met a handsome American soldier on a blind date. After months of courtship, they were married, and two years later Sergeant Ronnie Graybeal brought his young bride to the United States.
When two Latter-day Saint missionaries visited the Graybeal home in 1959, Alexandria knew their message was special. Her husband and two children were touched, too, and the Graybeals progressed toward baptism. When Brother Graybeal learned that the Air Force was transferring him to Germany, he decided to be baptized before he left. Alexandria, however, was struggling to know whether Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Some time later, after the family had moved to Germany, her husband said, “If you really want to know, go to Heavenly Father and ask him.” That night Alexandria did just that. “I don’t know what happened,” she explains, “but the next morning I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet.” Alexandria and the two children were baptized a short time later in Kerlsrue, West Germany, in June 1960.
“I just felt wonderful,” Sister Graybeal says, remembering her baptism. “My testimony was strengthened after that, and I couldn’t get enough of the gospel. I studied and studied. It was like walking through a door and finding that the light was shining. It was beautiful.”
Alexandria had not seen her homeland for twenty-nine years. During those years, however, she had corresponded with her parents and one sister. Although she wanted to visit them, she was repeatedly denied a travel visa. Finally, in 1972, she was granted permission to visit her family. The reunion was bittersweet: her mother and two sisters had passed away, and her aging father was blind. Still, it was good to be home again with her father, her sister Katrina, and her relatives and close friends.
On one occasion the family visited the cemetery where Alexandria’s mother was buried. Overcome with emotion, Katrina fell upon the grave and wept. Alexandria knelt beside her and explained that death was not final, that their mother lived yet in spirit, and that in time they would be with her again. Katrina was puzzled, but the look in her eyes expressed hope, so Alexandria explained the plan of salvation as simply as she could. Katrina listened intently, then turned to her father, who had been listening too. “Papa, do you believe what she says?” He nodded yes as he shed tears. Alexandria bore her testimony and saw a glimmer of enlightenment register on their faces. Never had they spoken of such things before. A seed of truth had been planted.
Today, Alexandria’s happiness, spiritual strength, and deep sense of gratitude attest to the remarkable way that commitment to the gospel has shaped her life. The memories of her trials as a youth of seventeen are still tender, but her sadness vanishes as she talks brightly about the recent changes in Europe and the former U.S.S.R. She is certain that like her own family, many Russian people are being prepared for the time when there will be a great harvest of souls in her homeland.
In fact, Sister Graybeal has already thrust in her sickle. For several months the Graybeals, with the help of others, have been sending to Russia an average of one hundred gift packages each month. Each package contains a copy of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the book Gospel Principles as well as a pamphlet on the First Vision, a picture of Jesus Christ, and a personal letter and testimony from Sister Graybeal.
The response has been overwhelming. Sister Graybeal remembers fondly the first thank-you letter she received from Russia and how she felt. “We were so thrilled! No words can express. I cried and cried.”
Today the Graybeals continue to receive numerous requests for literature. One such letter reads, in part: “I have a burning hunger for knowledge of God. I have never had this kind of desire before. I pray that the Lord might inspire you to help me. I would like to know more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how they can help me to find peace and contentment in life. Please send whatever you can.”
In her endearing Russian accent, Alexandria quotes a favorite scripture: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19.) She knows that wherever we live, the Lord is near and able to assist us.