Witnesses through Trial and Triumph


Despite persecution and isolation in Czechoslovakia, Jirí and Olga Snederfler persevered in faith for decades—and lived to see the gospel triumph over opposition.

For more than 40 years, Jirí Snederfler, a Czech citizen, was subject to surveillance, interrogation, and persecution because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met often with communist leaders, requesting that the Church be granted official recognition, but he was treated with contempt, and his requests were denied.

Yet when Church leaders told Jirí in 1988 that renewed effort on his part could change the government’s decision to grant the Church official recognition, he said, “I will do it!” Embracing his wife, he said, “We will do whatever is needed. This is for the Lord, and His work is more important than our freedom or life.”

After Brother Snederfler submitted a new request to the government, the suspicion and persecution he and other Church members had endured for so long became even more severe. However, “the Saints continued in courage and faith,” says Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who along with Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy had made repeated requests over several years for formal recognition. “Ultimately, after periodic fasting and prayer … , that glorious announcement of recognition came. How I admire the Snederflers and all these stalwart members who endured so much interrogation and risk!” 1 says Elder Nelson.

Brother Snederfler dismisses any notion of heroism: “We Church members who lived under communism in constant danger ceased after a certain time to be aware of it. If one has to live in constant danger, the danger ceases to exist; it turns into normal, everyday life. I have not done anything more than any other Church member would have done in the same situation.”

A Desire to Know More

Jirí Snederfler was born 24 April 1932 in Plzen, Western Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. While growing up, he received strict religious training from his mother and her church. Then in September 1948, two friends told 16-year-old Jirí about hearing a lecture given by Mormon missionaries. He went with his friends to the next meeting. “The missionaries were young, friendly, and full of optimism,” he says. “I felt an immediate desire to know more about the Church. I decided to study diligently in my mind and heart the doctrines they were preaching.”

Early on a Sunday morning seven months later, on his 17th birthday, Jirí and his two friends traveled to Kamenicky Pond, near Lochotín, to be baptized. “It was several degrees below freezing,” he remembers, “and the grass and trees were covered with frost. We walked bravely to the pond, surrounded by magnificent nature, to enter into covenants with the Lord.” After being baptized by the missionaries, they were confirmed at the water’s edge. “It was for all of us one of the most beautiful moments in our lives.”

The branch in Plzen had only seven members. Later that year, Jirí was ordained a deacon and then a priest. In 1950, when the communists prohibited Church activity and closed the mission, 18-year-old Jirí and others determined to keep the branch alive. They met in members’ apartments despite pressure from the secret police that made it very hard. At age 20 Jirí became a counselor in the branch presidency.

“I’m at Home!”

At 22, Jirí married Olga Kozáková, who had been baptized in Prague six months after Jirí was baptized. Like Jirí, Olga had been introduced to the Church as a teenager by school friends who had heard the missionaries preaching. “When I attended the lectures,” she says, “I felt very, very warm in my heart, and I said ‘I’m at home!’”

Jirí and Olga met at an outing of young people from various branches. They were married 24 April 1954, Jirí’s 22nd birthday and the fifth anniversary of his baptism. Soon thereafter, he was drafted into mandatory military service. Regarded as an enemy of the state because of his religious affiliation, he spent his two-year stint in a military labor brigade rather than as a soldier. Turning to the Lord for strength, he endured, returning to civilian life “in good health and strengthened in the faith.”

For the next several years, he was involved in helping branch president Bohumil Kolár visit members in their homes to encourage them and strengthen their faith. In 1965, when Jirí was 33, he was ordained an elder.

The persecution of Church members continued unabated. The secret police often questioned them. “One time I was interrogated for six hours,” Jirí says. “They used threats and intimidations to shake our faith and discourage us from activity in the Church. With the majority of members they didn’t succeed.”

Jirí and Olga are the parents of two children: a daughter, Daniela, and a son, Petr. As babies, both children were blessed in the Church. But because the communist regime had forbidden religious freedom, the Snederflers, like other parents, found it too dangerous to acknowledge their Church membership to their own children. They tried to set examples of moral behavior, however, and filled their home with love and with the Lord’s Spirit. “We taught our children the gospel all the way through,” says Brother Snederfler. “We had home evenings with them, and every Sunday we had a family Sunday School.”

But for years the children had little contact with other Church members. “It was hard to rear them in the gospel in those circumstances,” says Sister Snederfler. Thus, today one child is a member and one is not.

A Time to Prepare

Jirí and Olga sought legal permission many times to leave their homeland, citing religious persecution. Their requests only triggered further interrogations and persecution. Jirí was a government employee, in agricultural and water research, and his supervisors were told by communist leaders to punish him financially. “Heavenly Father protected us,” says Jirí. “Our bosses were our good friends, so we weren’t harmed financially.”

Finally in 1968 they abandoned their efforts to leave Czechoslovakia. “We felt we needed to stay in our homeland because our brothers and sisters would need us,” Jirí says.

In 1972 he was called to be the presiding elder of the Church in Czechoslovakia and was asked to renew Church activity as much as possible. In 1975 a district was created, and Jirí was set apart as its president. For many years, Jirí and Olga and their children spent their summer vacations traveling around the country, locating, visiting, and strengthening members. Often they would find only one person; other times they would meet with a group of five or six members gathered in a home. When Church officials from outside Czechoslovakia were able to obtain visas, Jirí accompanied them on their visits around the country.

But Jirí’s frequent efforts to gain official recognition of the Church continued to be denied. He finally realized that “the time had come to begin preparing the members for the time when we would be able to practice our religion openly.”

Since they couldn’t officially get materials from Church headquarters into Czechoslovakia, they worked quietly and tirelessly to share with one another whatever printed Church material anyone could get their hands on. They translated Church hymns, handbooks, and manuals, finished a translation and review of the Doctrine and Covenants and scriptural commentaries, and transcribed speeches given at district conferences. Then they typed all of these materials on old typewriters with nine carbon copies at a time. Each of the nine recipients would, in turn, make an additional nine carbon copies and hand-deliver them to others. In this way, Church materials were disseminated to members and families wherever they lived.

“These materials helped the members study and gain the greatest knowledge possible,” he says. “It was glorious work, preparing all of us for the time we would again be able to worship freely and openly in public.”

“We Never Felt Alone”

Although for many years the Czechoslovakian Saints had no contact with members at Church headquarters or around the world—and little contact among themselves—“we never felt alone,” says Brother Snederfler. “God is above. I always felt that we were part of the larger family of Church members in the whole world.”

In 1975 Russell M. Nelson, then general president of the Sunday School, visited Prague, commissioned by President Spencer W. Kimball to minister to Czechoslovakian members. “I remember speaking with Brother and Sister Nelson about our desires to go to the temple and our fears that we would never have that possibility in our lifetimes,” says Sister Snederfler. “Brother Nelson said, ‘Sister, one day you will come to Salt Lake City to the temple.’ As impossible as that sounded, I clung to that promise.”

Four years later it came true. In 1979 Jirí and Olga received an invitation from the First Presidency to attend general conference in Salt Lake City that fall and to receive their temple ordinances. After years of being denied visas to travel to Switzerland to the nearest temple, they despaired of receiving permission to travel to Utah. But one day, Jirí told some friends at work about the situation. One of his colleagues told him that the next morning she would bring him the necessary forms to fill out and that she would take care of the rest. Within a few days, Jirí and Olga had received permission to travel to the United States and had obtained American entry visas and airplane tickets. They attended the October 1979 general conference in Salt Lake City; afterward they were endowed and sealed in the temple.

“Did a miracle happen? Yes!” Jirí says. “The Lord sent us a friend who knew the way to get permission, and He influenced the hearts of those who were deciding regarding the visa. When the First Presidency extends an invitation, no power on earth can thwart that plan!”

The temple changed the Snederflers forever. “Suddenly our spiritual eyes and ears were fully opened,” Jirí says. “We felt we must serve Heavenly Father better, and we knew we would have more opportunities for temple service.”

When the Freiberg Germany Temple was dedicated in June 1985, the Area Presidency invited Jirí and Olga to attend. During one of the dedicatory sessions, President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Brother Snederfler to speak extemporaneously. He spoke in Czech, and his words were translated into German and English. “I remember saying that the Freiberg temple had been built because of the great faith of the brothers and sisters in the DDR [German Democratic Republic] and that it would also serve many members from Eastern Europe. I did not know then that the Freiberg temple and the prayers of its patrons would contribute to the fall of the Iron Curtain and would make it possible for Saints to come from many nations of Eastern Europe.” Nor did he know he and his wife would later serve as president and matron of that temple and would welcome those Saints to the house of the Lord!

On 28 October 1985 Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve held a conference for the Saints in the Snederflers’ apartment in Prague, attended by 56 people. “He dedicated the apartment and the entire building for the gathering of the Saints in Prague and Czechoslovakia,” Brother Snederfler recalls. He also ordained Jirí a high priest. “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and another command from God to serve better and with gladness in my heart.”

Risking Jail

Over the next few years, Jirí renewed efforts to gain official recognition for the Church. Active Church members in Czechoslovakia contributed their faith, fasting, and prayers as well. For two years they had two monthly fast Sundays, on the first Sunday of each month along with Church members worldwide, and on the third Sunday of every month as they prayed for freedom of religion.

During a visit at the communist government’s secretariat of religious affairs in 1987, Elder Russell M. Nelson, by then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was informed that the official leader of the Church in Czechoslovakia—the Church’s official liaison with the government—had to be a Czech citizen. Elder Nelson and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy called Jirí Snederfler to be that leader.

When accompanied by Elder Nelson and Elder Ringger, Jirí was received kindly at the government office. But when he was invited to come alone to a meeting in December 1988, “the officials of the secretariat showed their true faces,” he says. “They tried to intimidate me into withdrawing the Church’s petition for official recognition. They even used threats, telling me what might happen to the Church members if we continued to pursue it.”

Brother Snederfler fearlessly opened his mouth and expressed his outrage at the way the Church had been treated during the preceding four decades. “I lost my patience and told them they had only two alternatives in order to get rid of us: either grant us official recognition and permission to worship publicly or eliminate, lock up, or kick all of us out. I knew I could have landed straight in jail for saying that! But surprisingly they started to treat me with courtesy. Perhaps they were afraid the Church would publish in the free world how the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was illegally oppressing religiously inclined citizens. I know I was under the protection of God.”

For the next year, Jirí found himself near the top of the secret police’s list of people dangerous to the state. Although he was interrogated monthly, he now also was dealing monthly with the secretariat for religious affairs. He used those frequent opportunities “to let them get used to the idea that we would not withdraw our cause.” On 17 May 1989, he submitted a renewed official request for recognition, and when he received no reply, he wrote letters of complaint and began making weekly visits to the secretariat.

After “40 Long Years”

Then came that remarkable day—17 November 1989—that was the beginning of the nationwide “velvet revolution” against the communist regime. “That was a signal to us to intensify even more the pressure regarding our petition. The secretariat for religious affairs referred me to the ministry of culture, who referred me to the state department, where officials claimed not to be able to do anything without a decision of the cabinet. There was chaos. Nobody knew anything; nobody was responsible for anything. Then the secret police ceased to exist, the secretariat for religious affairs was eliminated, and the power of the communists was broken.”

In January 1990, Brother Snederfler submitted the Church’s petition to the new administration’s minister of culture, who was overseeing the registration of churches and religious societies. After hearing Jirí’s account and reading the documents, the minister of culture “immediately wrote a petition recommending that the government grant the Church official recognition and permission for public activity as soon as possible. He wrote that the new government had a moral duty to rectify the injustice done to our Church by the communist regime, which had ‘illegally and criminally abolished the activity thereof.’”

On 6 February 1990, Elder Nelson, Elder Ringger, and Brother Snederfler met with the vice chairman of the new government. Then that afternoon they retraced the steps of Elder John A. Widtsoe (1872–1952) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles up Priests Hill near Karlstejn Castle, to the spot where on 24 July 1929 Elder Widtsoe had offered a dedicatory prayer on the land. Elder Nelson reaffirmed the dedication of Czechoslovakia for the preaching of the restored gospel.

On 21 February 1990, the new government passed a resolution granting the Church’s request for official recognition, effective 1 March 1990. “Finally, 40 long years of struggle for official recognition and public activity in Czechoslovakia had come to an end!” says Brother Snederfler.

Later that year, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Czechoslovakia and held a special meeting with the Saints. “It was for each of us a spiritual feast,” says Brother Snederfler. “Everyone who was present later testified feeling very strongly the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some moments are indeed unforgettable for the rest of our lives.”

Another of those unforgettable moments came on 20 May 1991, when Brother Snederfler received a call from President Monson, then Second Counselor in the First Presidency. “He said: ‘Jirí, you have been called as the president of the Freiberg temple. You will begin this office on 1 September of this year. What do you say?’ At first I was not able to say anything at all because of my astonishment. President Monson inquired, ‘Are you there, Jirí?’ I told President Monson, ‘I accept humbly this calling.’”

Then followed four years of helping open prison doors to generations of deceased persons who had never had an opportunity to hear the gospel. In their callings at the temple, Brother and Sister Snederfler welcomed members of the Church from such former communist nations as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Slovakia, and the DDR.

Now the Snederflers make their home in Prague, where they continue family history research so that more of their own ancestors may enjoy temple blessings.

Every Member a Hero

Brother Snederfler can name a host of missionaries, mission presidents, local Saints, and present and past General Authorities who, he says, “contributed to the restoration of the work of God in our homeland.”

He shakes his head again at any suggestion of heroism in his own perseverance and boldness. “On the contrary, I think I should have done more. However, if I am a hero, then every Church member is a hero. All of us must face the ever-growing dangers of this world.

“I feel that the Church needs people who are willing to labor in the work of God, to be faithful to the principles of the restored gospel, to establish the kingdom of God, and to bind themselves to our Savior, Jesus Christ, with all their minds and all their souls.”

[photos] Photography by Marvin K. Gardner and courtesy of the Snederfler family; photo on page 26 composed electronically.

[photo] For decades, Czech Saints have made a yearly trek up Priests Hill near Karlstejn Castle to commemorate Elder John A. Widtsoe’s 1929 dedicatory prayer.

[photo] At home in 1965—Jirí, daughter Daniela, son Petr, and Olga. For a time it was too dangerous for the parents to tell their own children they were Church members.

[photo] After a Church meeting in 1965 in a member’s home in Plezn with mission president Wallace F. Toronto (standing, far right) and his wife, Martha (front row, third from left).

[photo] Jirí and Olga served four years as temple president and matron of the Freiberg Germany Temple, 1991–95, welcoming Church members from many former communist nations.

[photo] The Czech district presidency, 1985–90 (from left): Jaromír Holcman, second counselor; Jirí Snederfler, president; Radovan Canek, first counselor.

[photos] The city of Prague, built on the banks of the River Vltava. The Czech Republic has 1 mission, 4 districts, 19 branches, and nearly 2,000 members. Below: The Snederflers (far left) with a group of Czech Saints at the Freiberg Germany Temple.

Marvin K. Gardner is managing editor of the Liahona, the Church’s international magazine.

Show References

    Note

  1.   1.

    “Drama on the European Stage,” Tambuli, May 1992, 14–15.