As Veteran’s day is once again upon us, we commemorate the inspiring and valiant sacrifice of America ‘s men and women in the military from all wars of the past and present. While our focus on this occasion is first and foremost on those of our fellow countrymen, have you ever paused to reflect on the service or sacrifice of veteran’s from other nations? For Latter-day Saints, this question holds particular intrigue as they reflect on the world wars of the twentieth century. Not only did LDS serve in these wars from other nations, but also on both sides.
For eight years, the Saints at War Project at BYU has been involved in preserving the voices of LDS at war. The series has included several books and documentaries. All are devoted to the purpose of preserving the voices of Latter-day Saints at war. Now comes German Saints at War, the newest volume in the series. For the first time, a book for the LDS audience is exclusively devoted to accessing the voices of German Latter-day Saints in wartime-soldiers and civilians alike. From prominent leaders President Dieter Uchtdorf to Elder Busche, to lesser known Latter-day Saint men and women, stories are provided in the words of the Saints involved and against the backdrop of one of the most awful wars in human history.
One German soldier, Horst Hilbert, reflected on the time when his mother’s prayer at home came at a time of great danger in the fighting and made a big difference in his life. In the face of danger he had wished that his mother at home could pray for him. With this thought he turned and a bullet passed and missed him. Had he not turned he would have been a casualty. Later he learned of his mother’s confidence that at the same timed he avoided injury or death, she was at home and instinctively called for an urgent prayer in behalf of her son. She said to others in the family, “we have to pray fast. Horst is in mortal danger and needs our prayer.” The women knelt down, prayed and returned to bed. He comment to the family, “Horst has been in danger, but the Lord has helped him.”
Reflecting on his time as a prisoner of the American military, Elder F. Enzio Busche, reflects in this volume on his feelings about his captors, “I always had a feeling that the Americans were different. I smelled something of agency. I have always had a deep love for agency, for freedom of expression, for freedom from any false influence. I saw it confirmed with the Americans that took us prisoner.” (F. Enzio Busche, German Saints at War, 8). Only fourteen years of age at the time, Elder Busche was eventually released, but only after he and his fellow associates entered into an oath that they would return home and never fight again.
Artur and Fritz
On the home front, danger was a daily companion of Latter-day Saint families. Speaking of the violence in her homeland near the end of the war and of the need to evacuate and leave their home, Martha Bauer Duckwitz recalled, “so we left our home, abandoning everything we ever owned and treasured. Nonetheless, the fear of falling into enemy hands was too great a threat and our freedom meant more to us than all the belongings in the world.”
The accounts of the German Latter-day Saint soldiers are not dissimilar stories are not dissimilar from there American LDS counterparts in that many of these young men also lived the Word of Wisdom, observed the moral standard and found that ultimate reliance upon God was the key to their survival. Of course, hundreds of LDS German soldiers died during the conflict as did many other German Saints on the home front. By the end of the horrible war, most German LDS were left homeless and had family scattered across war-ravaged Germany. Many lost family members over the course of the war. The story of the post-war travels of Elder Ezra Taft Benson and other leaders across Europe, including Germany to administer relief is one of the miracle laced stories of Church welfare in action during the twentieth century.
The following stories are excerpts from German Saints at War.
Walter H. Kindt
Walter Kindt was born November 15, 1923, in Schneidemuehl, West Prussia, the second child of Johannes and Frieda Kindt. Johannes was soon called to serve as the District president of the area and the family was very active in their local branch of the church in Schneidemuehl. When Walter was only 15 years old, his mother, Frieda, died of cancer, leaving Johannes alone to raise the five children. Nevertheless, the family grew strong, and was never without guidance. After a year, Johannes remarried Maria Bernau, who was a member of their branch, and they had five more children. As the war began, the family was at peace in their knowledge of the gospel.
I started my army life in a work camp, Arbeitsdienst, a kind of pre-army training where we built a dam on the Baltic Sea for three months in Pogegen, near the city of Tilsit. We had shovels, not rifles. While there, I prayed to be able to go to church. Soon my prayer was answered. All the soldiers in the work camps in East Prussia were sent overnight to the Russian front, except for my work camp.
The other work camps also didn’t have military training, so I assume they were sent to support the soldiers on the front. However, many of them were killed while on the front. My particular camp was dispersed and we were assigned to guard the other camps which were empty now that the soldiers had left to the Russian front.
On a Sunday morning, I was sent to Tilsit to guard the camp there. It so happened that in Tilsit there was a branch and I was able to travel by boat and attend the meeting there. This church attendance was an outstanding experience. At my first day of church I made life-long friends. The members in Tilsit were incredibly kind to me. They had me speak in church and several families fed me after church. During those days there weren’t many visitors attending such small branches. They were thrilled to see that there were other good Mormons around. And I was thrilled with the great love which they showed to me.
Three weeks later I was also asked to speak at the stake conference in Koenigsberg. My new Mormon friends in Tilsit paid my way to Koenigsberg as I had no money.
After three months of work camp, October 1941, I went home for a week and then was assigned to begin active military training in Pasewalk, near Stettin where I celebrated my 18th birthday. I trained there for seven months and at the end I was given a two-week furlough, a home pass. Other army training camps only trained for front line duty for 6 weeks. 1 went from Pasewalk to Schneidemuehl. On the way back to Pasewalk, I went via Tilsit. When I returned from my furlough, I was surprised because the whole company had been shipped to Russia.
I was sad to have missed this transfer to the Russian front line with my friends with whom I had trained-I was young and didn’t have a clear perspective on the war. One day I met my Staff-Sergeant in the washroom and asked him, “How come you didn’t call me back from my vacation? You had my address and telephone numbers.” He surprisingly did not answer me. He was older and perhaps thought this young soldier did not realize how lucky he was. Finally he said, “In two weeks there will be another transport going to France.”
When we arrived in Rouen, I wrote twenty-four letters to all of my army buddies from my seven months stay in Pasewalk. I felt close to them. All twenty-four letters came back to me with the same message on the envelopes: “Died for the fatherland (country).” This woke me up, and I offered a special prayer of thanks to my Heavenly Father for being alive. I realized then that this was the second time that God had spared my life-the first being that my work camp was the only one not shipped to the Russian front. All the months in France I said my prayers, and I sent my tithing to my branch president, R. Jonischus, in Schneidemuehl, and otherwise kept the commandments of the Lord.Ruth Birth
Ruth Birth was born March 12, 1920 in Schneidemuehl, West Prussia, the second of eleven children. Though not born into the church, her parents readily accepted the gospel when Ruth was a little girl, eagerly inviting the missionaries in to teach the family. The Birth family was a great addition to the Schneidemuehl branch, and Ruth’s father, Friedrich, was soon called as branch president, where he would serve for many years. Friedrich, who had served as a soldier during the First World War, was a successful glassmaker by trade and his wife, Emma, ran a small market to help support the family.
Learning the gospel together, the Birth children became very active in the branch, serving in the primary organization and attending the many youth activities in the area. Ruth was musically talented and often provided accompaniment with her accordion at activities and meetings. Though she hated going to school, she received training as a secretary and because of the war, was easily able to find work in the war offices of Schneidemuehl.
As the war began, family life continued remarkably unchanged. Soon, however, her brothers, Gerhard and Nephi were drafted and sent to the front. Both were killed in battle which was a tragic blow to the family. Her father, while too old to serve in the military, was called to serve in the Civil Defense forces of the city.
Ruth met Kurt Bratz, a young member of the church, and the two began dating. As the war started and Kurt was drafted, their relationship continued through letters and postcards. Kurt wrote regularly, often writing postcards and letters from the battlefield. On leave, the two became engaged and began planning and waiting for another leave to be married. As the war for Germany worsened, the prospects of Kurt receiving leave dwindled. Early in 1944 Kurt was wounded and hospitalized not far from Schneidemuehl and in a city where Ruth’s aunt and uncle lived. While she was confident that he would recover, it wasn’t long until a telegram arrived for Ruth from her relatives with only three words, “Kurt is dead.” The news was devastating. She did as much as she could to keep busy, but it was difficult to get over the grief of her loss. As 1945 began, Ruth decided to begin keeping a personal journal to help her with the loss.
Sunday, January 14, 1945 – Today, a year ago, my Kurtl died. Is it possible that it has been a full year? I can hardly believe it. How wonderful it was to be together, and what a marriage here on earth we had imagined for ourselves. The question of whether or not I will ever be ready to marry another man, I just don’t know.
This afternoon, once again, we had a few lovely hours. Edith conducted Sunday School and substituted in the adult class. She thinks I should take the assignment in February.
I played the piano for an hour and read a little, but it was noticeable that something was missing.
Monday, January 15, 1945 – A quiet day has passed. I think again and again about the last year. I received the telegram that Kurtl was dead. I couldn’t grasp it. Every part of me fought against what I was hearing. But Heavenly Father knew what was best. I was so egotistical and only thought about my own happiness.
Those interested in this volume may find it in LDS bookstores, by calling 801-422-2484, by going to www.saintsatwar.org. The Saints at War Project welcomes participants in the ongoing research at BYU.