Brigitte, Twentieth-Century Pioneer (Part 1)


(Based on the life of Brigitte Strecker Burns)
I always want to be with my own family, And the Lord has shown me how I can (Children’s Songbook, page 188).

The January night was cold and dark. Six-year-old Brigitte huddled next to her nine-year-old sister, Wanda, both of them trying to stay close to the wood-burning stove. Black paper covered the windows so that not even a bit of light would show through to show enemy planes where to bomb. Papa held out a paper, straining to read it by the light of one tiny candle.

“I am to report to Augsburg (Germany) for military training by February first,” he said. “I have been drafted.”

To be without Papa? It was unthinkable! Papa with his funny stories. Papa, who had always kept the family safe. Brigitte looked at the shadowy faces of Mama, Papa, and Wanda. They were sad faces, but without tears.

Papa’s voice was calm. “Over three-fourths of Nuremberg has already been bombed. We ourselves had to find a new home when a bomb tore the hole in our kitchen. Elizabeth, I think that after I am gone, you and the children should try to find a place to stay away from here. It will be safer in the country.”

Mama nodded her head. “My sister Margarete is already looking for a place for us.”

Shuddering, Brigitte remembered the bombs hitting the top floor of their apartment building before they could escape to the shelter. She remembered burning mattresses being flung out of windows. And she remembered being pulled along to the bunkers by her father’s strong hand as they ran through the street in terror, the upper part of it engulfed in flames. That time there had been no warning.

As though reading her mind, Papa said, “Gitte, remember the time Mama covered you with blankets in the shelter to try to block out the noise and screaming? You had been crying. I know that you were very much afraid. Then you heard one of our neighbors say, ‘I want to sit by Mrs. Baier—she has such strong faith, nothing ever happens to her.’ You pushed the blanket off and looked at Oma (Grandmother), who was sitting quietly. Do you remember what you did then?”

“Yes, Papa. I crawled into Oma’s lap, and I stopped crying.” Brigitte smiled. “I always want to be just like Oma.”

“We must all have faith like Oma,” Papa agreed. “Ever since I was baptized when I was fifteen years old, I have never doubted the truthfulness of the gospel. This war will be over soon, but I will never have peace in my heart until I can move us to America and we are sealed in the temple. I have to leave you for a little while now, but we will be together again, and then, somehow, we will get to America.”

Mama smiled. “Yes, George, I’m sure that your dream will come true when you come back to us. You could have gone there after your mission in 1931. I’m glad you stayed here to marry me, instead.”

Papa grinned back at her. “I thought we could go in 1936, after Wanda was born—we even gave her an American name—but by then the government wouldn’t let us out of the country.”

“You were the branch president, however—perhaps you were needed here for a while. I was really frightened, though, when the police came to our home to search for Church books.”

“I was, too, Elizabeth, but no harm came to us.” Papa looked at his two little girls. “I want to give you each a father’s blessing before I leave. And don’t ever doubt that Heavenly Father will take care of you. He won’t ever leave you.”

Brigitte felt comforted after she was given the blessing. Somehow it made her feel like Papa was always close by, even after he had to go away.

Aunt Margarete found a place for them to stay in the country with a kind farmer and his family. Brigitte started school in the nearby village. There was no word from Papa since he had written that he was being transferred. Every day Mama faithfully wrote to him.

“Mama! Mama!” Wanda cried one day as she hurried home. “The Americans have come. The war is over! Surely Papa will be home soon.”

Mama looked up from the stove where she was cooking potato pancakes, wiped her brow with her apron, and sighed. “I hope so, Wanda. I wish we would have some word of him.”

Although the long war was over and there were no more alarms, no more hurrying through the streets to get to the underground shelter when the bombs came, there was no word yet from Papa. Was he alive? Mama still wrote to him. But it had been two years. …

When she came home from the post office with a letter one day, Brigitte and Wanda both ran to her crying, “Is it from Papa?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Oma needs us to come back to Nuremberg. Opa (Grandfather) is very sick. She needs help taking care of him. We must leave right away.”

What about school? Brigitte wanted to ask. But she kept silent. Oma needed them. They walked over an hour, and then two American soldiers gave them a ride in a jeep to Nuremberg. All of the American soldiers treated the people with kindness.

“Oma, let me sweep this floor for you,” Brigitte said, hurrying to take the broom from her grandmother. Opa did not have much longer to live, and Oma looked worn out. Brigitte watched for every chance to help her.

Mama had been called to be Relief Society president. “I don’t know what we’d do without this help from the Saints in America,” she said, opening a big box of food to distribute to people in need.

Brigitte loved the powdered milk that came in some of the boxes. How she loved to put a bit of the white powder on the end of her spoon and lick it off. Mmmm!

Spring came. Opa died in March, and Mama, Wanda, and Brigitte planted a garden where he had always planted one. He had always been so proud of his garden. In the years before he got sick, he had risen at five o’clock each morning and hurried to it, a small part of a shared lot about a twenty minute walk from their apartment.

The garden wasn’t doing very well, though, and Mama was discouraged. “Throw these plants away, Brigitte. They’re so scraggly and the soil is very poor. I don’t think they’re worth bothering with.”

Brigitte looked at the plants with their drooping leaves. They looked dead already. She started to pull them up, then stopped. Opa always worked hard in his garden, she thought. I can’t give up on these plants. I know he wouldn’t. She carefully loosened the dirt around each one and gave them a drink of water. “Please help them to grow, Heavenly Father,” she prayed. Every day she came to the garden and watered it or pulled weeds or both.

One day after she had worked in the garden, she returned home to find her mother sitting and rocking back and forth with tears chasing each other down her cheeks, clutching a letter. “Papa’s alive! This letter is from him. He is a prisoner of war in France and has been clearing the forests there. He didn’t get any of my letters, so he wrote to our friend Peter Loscher in America to see if he could find out if we were all right. Peter sent him our address.” She started to read from Papa’s letter:

“I am so happy to finally know how to reach you and to find that you are safe and well. I am too. My biggest problem is lack of food. Sometimes I have been so hungry that I have had to eat insects. But my faith remains strong. Once when I was clearing a forest, I climbed to the top of a high mountain, where I was able to be alone for a few minutes. I asked the Lord for renewed strength to endure it here. I haven’t forgotten our dream—surely we will be together soon!”

(To be continued)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett