Toward the end of World War II, my family was living in Czechoslovakia, where I was born. My father, a customs officer, was drafted into the army and sent to the western front of the war. As the war raged with more severity and the eastern front moved closer to our town, my mother, alone with her four children and in an effort to protect them, made the decision to leave our home and all our earthly possessions behind and head west, toward the home of her parents in East Germany.
It was the winter of 1944—one of the coldest, harshest winters of World War II. My mother instructed us to take only warm clothes and food but no other possessions. At this time, we were members of the Lutheran Church, not even aware that there was a restored Church of Jesus Christ. Considering this, it is interesting that she took most of our family records and family pictures on our flight west.
We were on one of the last refugee trains, and the journey, which would usually take one or two days, took us almost two weeks. I was only four years old. Traveling in a freezing train, stopping over in refugee camps, and heading out again—exhaustion, hunger, and fear were the continuous ingredients of this perilous flight.
One night the train stopped again at a train station, and, as usual, my mother stepped out in search of some food for us children. Often, kind people came to those stations and brought milk and bread and other food for the refugee children. But this time when my mother returned with some precious food for us, the train was gone, with all of her four children in it.
During this time of the war, many family members were separated from each other, never to be united again. There she was, in a war zone, without her husband, alone on deserted railroad tracks, realizing that she had just lost all of her children! Later she shared with us how lonely and devastated she felt. The physical stress of the effort to flee to the west and the emotional stress culminating in the apparent loss of all her children in a few minutes of time were overwhelming. She started to pray—the only source of solace available to her at that desperate time. I know today that the Light of Christ moved her to pray with faith, as a good Lutheran, and then to get up and look around to see if she could find the train somewhere else at the station. After a short period of terror and despair, she got on her feet and moved from one track to another and eventually found our train on a parallel track quite a distance away, where it had been moved during her absence.
With the protection of God and under the inspired leadership of our mother, we reached her hometown and were reunited with her parents in Zwickau, East Germany.
It was in this town of Zwickau that my grandmother was invited by an elderly single woman to attend church with her. The setting was still desperate—the war was just over. Food was scarce, and so were all other goods, like coal to heat our homes or cook our meals. Houses had been destroyed, and a family was fortunate if they were all still alive and had a roof over their heads.
My grandmother accepted the invitation of this dear single sister to attend sacrament meeting with her. This act of kindness might appear small and not too hard to do, but it changed our lives forever.
We attended church in a cold, cramped, backroom meeting place with electricity often failing, leaving us in the dark. But at the same time, this room was filled with the Spirit, and the divine light of the message of the restored gospel was in great abundance, and we were surrounded by the love, friendship, and helping hands of the dear members.
All of our family joined the Church. Because I was only six at the time, I was baptized two years later in a local indoor swimming pool by one of the Church leaders in our branch. I will always remember the feeling of warmth, safety, and importance as I came out of the water after this sacred ordinance had been performed.
How grateful I am to these two women of the Church—my grandmother and my mother! They are true modern-day pioneers! They went before and ventured into new spiritual territory. They helped me to gain a testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. They had faith, and they radiated love to a little boy, even in places and times of darkness, despair, and coldness.
The light of the gospel, bright as the sun, lighted up their life in these challenging times. And then in return, the warmth of their light and example helped me to feel secure and well grounded in the principles of the gospel.
I share these very personal experiences with you, hoping to impress upon you that wherever you live, whatever circumstances you live in, whatever your background or challenges might be, the gospel light has the power and purpose to bring blessings into your life and into the lives of those placed in your path. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to bring blessings to our Heavenly Father’s children. You are planted in your country, your community, your family to facilitate these blessings. I urge you to bloom where you are planted!
A few years after my baptism, my family became refugees for a second time. The political regime in East Germany perceived my father as a dissident. His life was at risk, and we had to leave the country overnight, leaving behind everything we possessed. Again we had only the clothes we wore, some food for the trip, and family records as well as family pictures. By the time I was 11, we had been refugees twice within only seven years. But this time we had already received the gospel of Jesus Christ. We had made covenants with the Lord through baptism, and we came to a branch in Frankfurt, West Germany, with other members who had the same principles and precious values.
Into this branch, just a few years later, came a young widow with her two daughters. The missionaries had found this beautiful family, which included my future wife, Harriet.
When I saw Harriet for the first time, with her dark brown eyes, I thought, “These missionaries are really doing a great job!” Even as a teenager I liked Harriet quite a lot. My bold advances, however, showed only marginal success. I tried, for instance, to influence the seating at the sacrament table so I could pass the sacrament to her. This did not impress her very much. On my way to Church activities during the week, I usually rode my nice bicycle and often stopped at their home to ask if Harriet would want to have a ride to church on my bicycle. Harriet always declined. Sometimes, however, her mother was there and would say, “Harriet will walk, but I will gladly ride with you on your bike to church.” This wasn’t really what I was hoping for at the time, but I later realized it is an advantage to be on good terms with the mother of the girl of your dreams!
My mother and my mother-in-law both had the same strong faith that blessed them with the gifts of the Spirit. And they blessed not only my life, but the lives of generations to come.
President David O. McKay (1873–1970) said the principal reason the Church was organized was “to make life sweet today, to give contentment to the heart today, to bring salvation today. … Some of us look forward to a time in the future—salvation and exaltation in the world to come—but today is part of eternity” (Pathways to Happiness , 291–2).
What you do today will determine how the restored gospel principles can influence the nations of the world tomorrow. It will determine how these heavenly rays of the gospel will light every land in the future.
By living up to this mission—in whatever life circumstance you find yourself—the Lord our God has responsibilities and blessings in store for each of you individually, far beyond your imagination.
May I invite you to rise to the great potential within you. But don’t reach beyond your capacity. Don’t set goals beyond your capacity to achieve. Don’t feel guilty or dwell on thoughts of failure. Don’t compare yourself with others. Do the best you can, and the Lord will provide the rest. Have faith and confidence in Him, our Savior, and you will see miracles happen in your life and the lives of your loved ones. The virtue of your own personal life will be a light to those who sit in darkness, and it will be because you are a living witness of the fulness of the restored gospel.
Wherever you are on this beautiful, but often troubled earth of ours, you can be the one to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).