The war in Europe had ended in May 1945. But months later, even though Christmas was approaching, the dreary nightmare of years of destruction still stretched a shadowy hand over much of Europe. Austria’s beautiful city of Vienna, on the River Danube, lay largely in ruin.
Famous public monuments like Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the opera house, and the great theater were virtually destroyed. It was still a time of digging out and starting over.
It was also a time of want. Food, clothing, and clean drinking water were scarce. Nearly 270,000 citizens of Vienna were homeless. Bombed-out buildings loomed over streets full of holes. And Vienna was a city divided, with Allied forces each patrolling the areas under their jurisdiction. People didn’t go out at night; there was still a lot of fear in the air.
A number of Latter-day Saints were stationed in the American sector. Local Church members made contact with us and invited us to attend services they were organizing, which we did with joy. We were happy to see them and glad for the fellowship. As Christmas approached, we Americans wrote home to our families and suggested they send us food and other presents we could share with our fellow members of the Church.
A plan was laid out so that all of the Austrian members would have servicemen visit them to celebrate Christ’s birth. Captain Gibson and I were assigned to spend an evening with the branch president’s family.
Captain Gibson had been there before, but I had not. As we drove across the bridge over the River Danube, I saw that the damage on the eastern side of the city, which included much of the port area, was particularly heavy. Vacant ruins gave no indication of street names or house numbers. There were no street lights to help us find directions.
After several minutes, however, Captain Gibson said, “Stop here,” and I did.
He leaned out of the vehicle, cupped his hands around his mouth, and clearly, firmly whistled the Primary song, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”
We waited. The dark, empty street was terrifying. I had misgivings about being in the wrong location. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know if we’d ever get back.
Then, across the street and three floors up, shutters on a window opened. In soft, clear notes that sweet little tune was whistled again, and when I heard it my fears left me. It was the response we’d arranged ahead of time. We were to whistle a Church song and the members were to whistle a response if everything was all right.
A minute later we heard footsteps, then saw the branch president’s daughter running across the street, accompanied by a trusted neighbor. They opened a gate to an inner courtyard, and we drove our vehicle in off the street. They closed the gate behind us and locked it.
The branch president’s daughter was obviously excited. She nearly danced up the three flights of stairs, where we met her parents and another daughter. We looked around the meagerly furnished apartment. Though the family was in very poor circumstances, it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and the table was set for dinner.
We feasted on love and companionship more than the food. We feasted on the knowledge that God’s son was born into a weary world to bring it hope and light. We feasted on the firm belief that with war’s end the gospel would again be preached in Europe and that the Saints would again be free to gather and worship.
We sang the songs the Saints all sing, hymns and Christmas carols. The family gave us each a handmade Christmas card. We gave them some food and clothing. Together we knelt in a prayer of thanks, and then Captain Gibson and I returned to our quarters, enriched and strengthened.
That was many years ago, and the horrors of postwar Europe seem long past and far away. Vienna is once again the beautiful city on the Danube, where Saint Stephen’s Cathedral and the other famous buildings all rebuilt, stand as monuments to man’s commitment to overcome the bombs and flames of war.
Even now, though, whenever I hear “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”—especially when it’s almost Christmas—my mind is filled with memories of a dark street where a gentle whistle reminded me that wherever the Saints gather, there is always faith, rejoicing, fellowship, and hope.