Behind the Wall: The Church in Eastern Germany


Part 1: Saints in Isolation, 1945–1989

During the night of 13–14 February 1945, in the waning weeks of World War II, raids by Allied bombers destroyed the central part of Dresden. Somewhere among the rubble lay the chapel of the Altstadt Branch of the Church. It was yet another blow to what was left of the Church in Germany.

As soon as the streets were cleared, members of the bombed-out branch made their way across the only remaining bridge over the Elbe River to meet with members of the Neustadt Branch, whose meeting place had been spared. This chapel, however, was soon converted into a dormitory for hundreds of homeless refugees, so Church members had to meet in two small rooms. The branch consisted mostly of children, young mothers, and older couples. Nearly all of the young and middle-aged men of the branch who had not been killed in the war were still in the German army or in prisoner-of-war camps.

“There was no electricity. … We had to walk two kilometers to get water. … After three days a truck came with bread. … We were permitted to dig the canned goods out of the rubble [of a cannery]. … The young people organized service projects to get food to the older people. We visited the members of the Branch in their homes and held devotionals and firesides. We sat in our meetings in our coats and wrapped in blankets. … We were thankful and full of hope, because we knew the Lord would not forget his people. … It was a time of strong faith and inner harmony” (Letter to the authors from Edith Krause, 21 February 1990).

To comprehend the impact of this devastation, it is important to understand that Church units in the southern German state of Saxony were older than many wards in Utah. In Dresden, for example, there had been a branch in continuous operation since 1855, when a young convert, Karl G. Maeser, served as its first president. (In 1875, Maeser became principal of the Brigham Young Academy—now Brigham Young University—in Provo, Utah.)

The experiences of the two Dresden branches in many respects typified those of the thirty or more other branches throughout the eastern part of Germany.

Rebuilding Begins

Soon after the war, missionaries began arriving in western Europe to help rebuild the war-torn Church. But members in the Russian Zone of Occupation, as it was then called, waited in vain. It would be more than forty years before the Saints in that zone, later called the German Democratic Republic, would see full-time missionaries from outside their own country. The members were isolated from the rest of the Church.

In the years immediately after the war, the most pressing tasks of local Church leaders were to find and care for scattered members and to build up the remaining branches. This latter work needed the strength of young priesthood holders and full-time missionaries, but it had to be carried on by women, children, and older members. However, as soon as priesthood holders began returning from the war and from prisoner-of-war camps, they were called to missionary service.

Walter Krause was released from prison on 2 July 1945 in Cottbus, near the Polish border. Several Church members lived in a refugee camp there. Toward the end of November, mission president Richard Ranglack asked Brother Krause what he would think about going on a mission, as there were many branches that needed help. “If the Lord needs me, I will go,” Brother Krause replied.

“On December 1, 1945, I set out with 20 Marks in my pocket, a piece of dry bread, and a bottle of herb tea. One Brother had given me a winter coat that had belonged to his son who did not return from the war. Another Brother who was a shoemaker gave me a pair of shoes. And so I set out on a mission with two shirts, two handkerchiefs, and two pair of socks,” Brother Krause recalled. (In an unpublished collection of autobiographical sketches edited by Manfred Schutze, page 3.)

Transportation was either difficult to obtain or nonexistent. Brother Krause reported that it was common to walk twelve or thirteen hours, for distances of up to fifty kilometers, to visit various branches of the Church. But many members, like Sister Elli Polzin, still had to be found and cared for.

“I came from Stettin [now in Poland] with our children and my mother in 1946. … One day two missionaries, one of them was Brother Walter Bohme from Groitzsch, came by to help us make contact with the Church once again. They encouraged us to move into Schwerin where there was a branch of the Church. I got a job there … and after much difficulty I was able to bring my family to Schwerin. … For years we lived in one room until we got an apartment. And then in December of 1949, one day before Christmas Eve, my husband came home from prison” (Schutze, page 18).

Brother Eberhard Gabler described his mission:

“With no financial support … I had full confidence that if the Lord needed me then He would support me. I was not disappointed in this faith.” For thirty-eight months Brother Gabler helped build “the Kingdom of God in what was then the East German Mission. … Almost all of the leadership of the organizations lay in the hands of the missionaries. We were the branch presidents, the [youth] leaders, the Sunday School leaders, the officers in the Primary, and the teachers in all the organizations” (Schutze, page 29).

The experiences of Herbert Schreiter typify those of many German Latter-day Saint men. Brother Schreiter had given up a good job to serve a two-year mission in the economically depressed years of 1929–1930. He returned to serve as branch president in Chemnitz (later Karl-Marx-Stadt) from 1937 to 1941, when he was called into the German army. While in the army, he served as Sunday School president in the Salzburg (Austria) Branch. Soon after the war, in 1946, Brother Schreiter was called to leave his family and serve another mission. His answer: “Of course! I am ready and am pleased to have this privilege” (Schutze, page 46).

The unusual circumstances of the Church behind the Iron Curtain required men of experience and maturity. Often such men had families. Paul Schmidt wrote of his mission: “Can those of you who were born and raised after the war comprehend what that meant, in the Summer of 1946, at the age of 41, to be called on a mission that would last 50 months, and which meant leaving behind a wife and two school children?” (Schutze, page 50).

But experience and maturity were not the missionaries’ most important assets. Brother Schmidt wrote: “If we had relied on experience only, we could have done nothing, because very few members in 1945–46 had the experience which was needed. … But the members could rely also on inspiration, and this we followed fearlessly, and we had success” (Schutze, page 51).

The Labor of Faith

Building up the branches often meant literal, physical building. When missionaries in Dresden asked the Soviet command for a place to meet, they were given the old officers’ casino in a bombed-out German army building. Members—mostly women, children, and older men—did the heavy labor themselves, even though they had very little food. Once, for example, eight women, two deacons, and two older men maneuvered a six-meter steel beam into the building and managed to lift it onto supports three meters off the floor.

The building served as a meeting place for the Dresden branch and ward for the next forty years. President Spencer W. Kimball spoke in that chapel in 1977, and in the late 1980s it was used for a performance by Brigham Young University’s student group, the Lamanite Generation. When the Dresden ward moved into a new chapel in 1988, members remodeled part of the old building into a comfortable apartment for a missionary couple.

Like Church members from Dresden, which was in the far southern part of the German Democratic Republic, members up north in Schwerin experienced great difficulty in finding a home for their branch. For ten years they moved from one rented room to another, then to one family’s living room. In 1956, they were able to purchase a piece of property—but had to do so in the name of the branch president because the Church could not own property. Members were not allowed to tear down a building on the property because it contained an apartment, but they were given permission to build on the remaining part of the land. They were also allowed to tear down an old army barracks eight kilometers outside the city to use as building materials.

Then, after they had hauled twenty-three truckloads of building materials to their site, they were refused permission to build! But after they had fasted and prayed, they were allowed to remodel an old horse barn on the property into a meetinghouse.

The remodeling project required more building materials, which were under strict government control. But members felt that they succeeded in obtaining these with the help of the Lord. (See Schutze, page 22.) On 5 January 1958, Henry Burckhardt, counselor to the president of the North German Mission, dedicated the former horse barn as a meeting place for the Schwerin Branch.

In 1973, the branch was given permission to expand the building, but this meant going through the difficult process of obtaining building materials all over again. A large quantity of building blocks was obtained through the aid of the building supervisor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, who had come to appreciate the industriousness and integrity of the Latter-day Saints. Other building materials could be obtained only in small amounts, after members had stood in long lines to request them. Because work schedules prevented men in the branch from waiting in line, the branch president’s wife took responsibility for obtaining the materials—even though it meant she had to get them to the building site in a hand-pulled cart. (See Schutze, page 24.)

Similar stories could be repeated for nearly every branch in the German Democratic Republic. For example, in Leipzig, in the south central part of the republic, when members had to vacate the remodeled building where they had been meeting, the branch was given permission to remodel an old movie theater. The members worked on the project for many months. In 1968, as they were planning a beautiful dedication service, branch president Herbert Schreiter was informed by the city authorities that the building was to be condemned and could no longer be used. The only reason given was that the branch had not followed all the building requirements. Eventually, however, members were able to regain permission to use their newly remodeled chapel.

New Barriers

At this same time, political events in the German Democratic Republic were making things more difficult for the Church members.

Before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Church leaders and members from eastern Germany had some contact with the Church in the West. Mission presidents from the western sector of Germany presided over full-time missionary work in the eastern sector. After the wall was built, visits by mission presidents were, for the most part, restricted to the time of the semiannual Leipzig Fair, when Western visitors could usually get a visa to enter the country. At these times, members always crowded into Leipzig for a chance to meet with one another and with Church authorities from outside the country. (One exception seems to have been President Joel A. Tate, mission president from 1963 to 1966, who somehow found a way to get into the country more frequently to visit the missionaries and the Saints.)

Before 1961, missionary conferences were sometimes held in West Berlin, and missionaries and members from the German Democratic Republic could occasionally bring back lesson manuals in their luggage. Although not officially approved by the government, these were not always officially denied at the border crossings. Local Saints then typed the lesson manual information, making many carbon copies, until there were enough copies for each of the branches. After 1961, even this contact with official Church literature became more and more restricted. Brother Joachim Albrecht in Bautzen told this story:

“We received a directive from President Burckhardt that all unauthorized religious materials, books, manuals, etc., were to be destroyed. I was heartbroken. I had, over the years, scraped together a small but nice library of Church materials, for which I had no official authorization. I sat in front of an open fireplace. No, I said to myself. I can’t do it. But in the end, I burned all of the books and manuals I had collected with such difficulty. Less than two weeks after that the secret police knocked on my door. They searched my house for unauthorized printed material. I had none. From that experience I learned a great lesson about inspired leaders and listening to their counsel.”

A Time of Joy

Not only was reading material restricted, but by the mid-1960s the full-time missionary program within the country was no longer permitted. Only older, retired couples were allowed to do missionary work, and even then, the proselyting system was severely limited. Local Church activities were also under restraint. In many branches, the president was required to make application with the police for every meeting. The application had to contain the names of the speakers and their topics. Meetings were also attended by members of the secret police.

Although the late 1960s and the early 1970s may have seemed the darkest days for the Church in the German Democratic Republic, the members themselves recall that period with great fondness—even joy. The more they were driven together from outside pressures, the closer they grew to one another, to the Church, and to the Lord. Attendance at meetings was high; home teaching and visiting teaching assignments were carried out with devotion and sincerity; members looked out for one another and helped one another; tithes and offerings were donated faithfully.

Some members remained faithful despite years of isolation. Gunter Schulze, now bishop of the Dresden Ward, spent much of his time during that period finding and caring for isolated members—some in Poland, some in outlying areas of the German Democratic Republic. One of these was an elderly sister in Upper Silesia.

“We visited with her a long time,” recalls Brother Schulze. “Finally she went behind the stove and brought out a knotted stocking and began untying the knots, several knots. Then she held out her two hands like a scale and weighed money from the knotted stocking. She said, ‘This is my tithing. I have been saving it for over twenty-five years now. I knew the priesthood would come into my home again someday!’”

A Brighter Day

During this time of darkness and difficulty, an event took place that later proved to be a turning point for the Church in the German Democratic Republic. On 9–10 November 1968, mission president Stanley D. Rees of the North German Mission and his wife visited the German Democratic Republic, bringing with them Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve. Sister Krause recalls: “He [Elder Monson] was so young we thought he was a missionary, because the Mission Presidents often brought missionaries with them when they came” (Krause letter, page 5).

At a meeting in Görlitz, near the Polish border, Elder Monson promised the Saints of eastern Germany they would have all the blessings other members of the Church enjoyed. (See Ensign, May 1989, pages 50–51.) Although outward events of the “cold war” in the German Democratic Republic did not seem to be altered immediately, subtle changes began taking place within the Church in that country—slowly at first, but accelerating over the next twenty years.

On 27 April 1975, on a hilltop overlooking the Elbe River between Dresden and Meissen, Elder Monson dedicated the German Democratic Republic for the preaching of the gospel. On 24 August 1977, President Spencer W. Kimball spoke to the Saints in the Dresden chapel, the chapel that had been converted after the war from an officers’ casino. In August 1982, the Freiberg stake was created. On 23 April 1983, ground was broken in Freiberg for a temple. In June 1984, the Leipzig stake was created, and in 1985, the Freiberg Germany Temple was dedicated. Permission was given to build new chapels for the Saints: in Freiberg, alongside the temple; in Leipzig; in Zwickau; in Dresden; and in Karl-Marx-Stadt.

Finally, in October 1988, it was announced that, after fifty years, full-time missionaries would once again be permitted to come from outside the country to establish a mission. A brighter day was majestically dawning over the German Democratic Republic.

The Church Behind the Wall: 1946–1990

1946

Walter Stover is appointed first postwar president of the East Germany Mission.

Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve supervises distribution of welfare supplies throughout Germany and parts of Poland.

1947

Five thousand Latter-day Saints participate in the Church’s centennial Pioneer Day celebration in Dresden; it is the largest Latter-day Saint celebration ever held in Germany. (President Stover is not given a travel permit to attend.)

1952

June 23–24—President David O. McKay speaks at a conference in Berlin. Many members from the German Democratic Republic are allowed to attend.

1955

October 22–24—Mission president Herold L. Gregory is permitted to visit Dresden to help celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Dresden Branch.

1968

November 9–10—Elder Thomas S. Monson visits the German Democratic Republic and speaks in Görlitz, promising the people that they will have all the blessings other members of the Church enjoy.

1969

June 15—Elder Monson organizes the Dresden Mission, which will have responsibility for all members inside the German Democratic Republic. Henry Burckhardt, a resident, is appointed mission president.

1970

Walter Krause is ordained patriarch of the Dresden Mission by President Harold B. Lee.

1975

April 27—On a mountainside near Dresden, Elder Thomas S. Monson offers a dedicatory prayer for the German Democratic Republic.

1977

August 24—Returning from a trip to Poland, President Spencer W. Kimball travels through the German Democratic Republic and speaks in the Dresden chapel.

1982

August 29—The Freiberg stake is organized.

1984

June 3—The Leipzig stake is organized.

1985

June 28—The Freiberg Germany Temple is dedicated.

1988

May—Tour of the German Democratic Republic by the Lamanite Generation, a Brigham Young University performing group.

October—The government of the German Democratic Republic announces that missionaries will be allowed to enter the country.

1989

March 31—Missionaries of the newly formed German Democratic Republic Dresden Mission begin entering the country. These are the first foreign missionaries to enter the country for full-time resident missionary work in fifty years.

December 31—The new mission reports 569 convert baptisms for the year ending 31 December 1989.

1990

October 21—At a three-stake conference in West Berlin, the Leipzig stake is divided. The northern wards and branches of the Leipzig stake are transferred to the West Berlin stake. Also, the West Berlin stake becomes part of the territory of the Germany Dresden Mission, and the missionaries from the Germany Hamburg Mission serving in West Berlin are transferred to the Germany Dresden Mission.

[photo] Berlin West, courtesy of FPG International

[photos] Opposite: Members of the Dresden Branch leadership, 1950. Below: A view of Dresden across the Elbe River. (Photograph by Peggy Jellinghausen.) Bottom: Mission president Herold L. Gregory speaks during a 1955 meeting commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Dresden Branch.

[photos] Top left: Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (Photograph by Joachim Messerschmidt, courtesy of FPG International.) Right: Native missionaries laboring in eastern Germany in 1955. Bottom: Walter Stover, front row center, the first postwar mission president of East Germany, with district presidents. Front, from left: Fritz Lehnig, Walter Fassmann, President Stover, Heinze Hinckel, and Anton Larisch. Back, from left: Bruno Schreiter, Erich Sellner, Walter Kindt, Hans Bottcher, and Walter Krause.

[photos] Top left: Werdau Branch Relief Society sisters, 1956. Bottom: Werdau Branch youth at a 1977 activity. Right: Görlitz District Primary during a 1973 conference.

[photos] Top: Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Council of the Twelve, center, Regional Representative Hans B. Ringger, left, and Elder Robert D. Hales, Executive Administrator for Europe, attended a 1982 conference in Dresden. Bottom: Thousands visited the Freiberg Germany Temple prior to its dedication in 1985.

Garold and Norma Davis served as missionaries in Dresden, German Democratic Republic. Brother Davis is a professor of German and chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, where Sister Davis is an assistant professor of humanities. They live in the Oak Hills Second Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake.