The brothers—Michael, Peter, and Matthias Lehmann—had spent their lives behind barbed wire and concrete walls, guarded by men who would shoot to kill if they tried to escape. It looked like a life sentence with no hope of parole.
One of those “crime families”? A maximum security prison? Hardly. The Lehmanns are an active LDS family whose only “crime” was being born in East Germany. And it looked like future generations of Lehmanns would also be born behind the barbed wire.
Then, suddenly, in November of 1989, the East German government seemed to collapse like a cheap beach ball. Guard towers stood deserted. And The Wall was hammered and broken into a million souvenir paperweights.
While many East Germans rushed to fill their shopping bags in the West, Peter, Matthias, and Michael Lehmann hurried to fill out their mission papers.
The young men’s parents, Rudolf and Ruth Lehmann, had joined the Church just months before the infamous Berlin Wall went up in 1961. They proceeded to raise seven LDS sons in a country where families are small and atheism is the official religion.
Like other East German citizens, the Lehmanns were told where they could and could not travel, what schools they could attend, what occupations they could pursue, and what they couldn’t read or say. They could practice their religion in their home, and they could meet in small branches, but government agents sometimes visited their meetings. They could have their scriptures, but other Church literature was stopped at the border. Proselyting was forbidden, and going on missions was out of the question. It was a challenging place in which to grow up active LDS.
Peter Lehmann remembers being made fun of in citizenship classes in school. Everyone knew he was a Mormon. “In fact,” he says, “they probably knew more about my life than I did. We were watched. I think my family had a red dot on any record we had in any government office. We belonged to the Mormon church. We had seven sons. We were a different family.”
Michael Lehmann recalls: “My parents tried to raise me in a way that I wouldn’t talk about certain topics in public. They taught me to be careful in case I was near somebody who might have installed microphones or something like that. You never knew who to trust.”
In those conditions, people either dropped away from the Church completely, or they clung to it—and each other. It was a place where faith grew despite the surroundings. And as President Spencer W. Kimball said, faith precedes miracles.
Most of the miracles were quiet ones: healings, and the blessings that come from paying tithing and living the Word of Wisdom. And there was the miracle of developing and keeping a testimony in such a place.
Michael: “When I started going to school, I had a hard time with it because my parents told me about God, but everybody around me—students and teachers—tried to tell me there was no God at all.”
Peter: “In citizenship classes in school we were taught atheism as official policy. They made fun of religion in class and said if you belonged to a religious organization, you were working against the government. The government was more or less worshipped.”
Parents taught one thing; society often taught the opposite. Like LDS teens everywhere, the Lehmann brothers had to find out for themselves. “We had a really good home,” Peter recalls. “I kind of recognized the importance of doing what my parents wanted me to do. Still, with all of the experiences I had in school—people and teachers gave us a hard time and wanted me to get up and deny God—I said to myself, ‘We’re doing all this stuff. Why? There’s got to be something.’ I got on my knees and said, ‘I want to know for myself. I want to have the feeling in my heart.’
“I prayed and studied the Book of Mormon, and I got a testimony at that time, a little testimony that grew.”
Gaining a testimony is a major step. But what do you do when you know something is true and necessary—but it looks impossible to achieve? For example, what do you do when you have been taught how important temples are, yet you can’t travel to one? You do what the Lehmanns and other East German Saints did. You pray, and you live to be worthy of temple blessings someday in the future. And it looked like it would be a long way into the future.
But even faithful people can be surprised by blessings. And when the East German government announced in 1982 that the Church would be allowed to build a temple there, the members were grateful and astonished. “It blew me away,” says Michael simply. “From that time on, I knew everything else was possible.”
The brothers talk about the time they went with their father to see the temple while it was under construction. After work one night, they took off, riding their dilapidated bikes 25 miles through the hilly countryside. And when they got to the temple site, they just stood across the street from the rising walls and watched.
And they wept.
The four eldest Lehmann brothers had grown up in the Church, found occupations, married—all without real hope of first serving missions. And it looked like the three youngest would follow the same path.
Michael, oldest of the three, says, “In church, everybody talks about saving money for a mission, but because the wall was up, none of the younger people believed we would be able to go on missions.”
“My parents taught me to save money to go on a mission,” says Matthias, “and I did it, too. But I never really thought I’d be able to go.” His patriarchal blessing did say he would serve a mission, but he assumed it would be later in life. When he served as a stake missionary at the open house prior to the temple dedication, Matthias thought maybe that was the fulfillment of the blessing.
Then there was Peter, youngest of the sons. He knew something his brothers didn’t know. Peter received his patriarchal blessing in 1986, after the temple dedication. He talks about going to a small town on the Polish border, attending a small branch in a shabby rented building rich with the Spirit, and then going to the home of the patriarch.
“He told me that I would go on a full-time mission. I would serve in a different country and a different language, and it would be in my youth. I was crying, I felt so close to the Lord in that moment. Afterward, I read my patriarchal blessing every night. I prayed. And I started saving money for my mission. I knew I was going soon.”
Peter just didn’t know where he would be going. (He thought somehow it might be Russia, since he spoke that language fairly well.) And, for some reason, he shared his blessing with his parents but not his brothers. “I was kind of different in my family. I always said, ‘We’re going on a mission and it’s going to be great. We’re going to change things.’ My brother Matthias was skeptical. But I had my patriarchal blessing. I knew.”
Still, Peter didn’t know how it would happen. Also, he was the youngest. As far as he knew, he had been given a promise that his brothers hadn’t been given. So he kept quiet about it.
Then, not long before the hated wall came down, the East German government began to allow a few full-time missionaries in for the first time in 50 years. At the same time, a handful of East German missionaries were allowed out of the country to serve in other nations. For some reason, none of the Lehmanns were permitted to be part of that group.
But then came those November days that were replayed on TV screens all over the world. East Berliners sat atop the wall with hammers and iron bars, tearing apart a barrier that had already been undermined by faith and prayer.
Peter was the first to submit his mission papers. Matthias and Michael followed soon after. All three were called to missions in the United States: Michael in the Tennessee Nashville Mission; Matthias in the Idaho Boise Mission; and Peter in the Colorado Denver Mission.
They knew what it was like to become free. Now they were ready to help others tear down another kind of wall. Every conversion, every life changed, is another person set free spiritually. And that is the greatest freedom. Just ask the Lehmanns.