We All Make History!

How often we hear “I am just a home teacher; I am just a clerk; I am just the 14-15 year-olds Sunday School class teacher; I am just the nursery leader; I am just the Relief Society historian; I am just a member.” All too often, little attention is paid to this ordinary living of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; too many think they are nobodies, without status or special title and not worth a page in history. We need to recognize the inherent value of our everyday church life as important history that can strengthen testimonies, teach correct principles, patterns and purpose; benefiting the here and the now and the future.


No matter who we are, when we live, where we reside, how we serve or what we contribute, we all make history in the part we play on this grand stage of mortal life.  Like those who have come before us and those that will follow, we are all The People of History and the truth of our lives has merit and value as the Light of History.  It can bless and inspire the membership of the Church just as the oft-told stories of the Benbow Farm, Martin’s Cove, Zion’s Camp, and the Nauvoo Temple have for us.  The simple stories of our life can be an anchor and  support of testimony for our descendants and fellow saints as our Truth, our place in Church History is lived, recorded, preserved and shared. 


Thankfully, through the faithful efforts of many ward clerks, priesthood and auxiliary secretaries, Relief Society historians, newsletter writers, and just members who have answered the call to live, to serve, to keep journals and record church activity in their part of the vineyard, such history is being made, gathered, written down and kept for Church History.  And when these public documents, statistics, and narratives of the LDS People of History are combined with personal histories, journals, letters, scrapbooks, tape recordings, photographs, slides, and other private means, the accounting of our truth and that of past generations and how we crossed our “Sweetwater”, is available to bless all who willingly seek out history’s beacon.


California Service and Under the Gun


Recently we were inspired by modern day LDS people of history through a unique opportunity my wife Mary had this past year during the many months she was away from home taking care of her elderly parents.  As she watched over them, Mary had the good fortune to be able to help a friend and fellow professional genealogist, Roger P. Minert, PhD, AG, with his Church and Family History Project about German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II. 


As an associate professor of Family History in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, Roger was preparing a companion volume to his 2009 publication In Harm’s Way: East German Latter-day Saints in World War II and needed general readers to review and comment on his new manuscript Under the Gun: West German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II.  This new book, expected to be published in 2011 by the Religious Studies Center of Brigham Young University, identifies and memorializes thousands of West German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II by using the records of LDS church activity, members writings, photographs, historical documentation, and personal interviews, Its intended audience is both for descendants and all who desire to learn the truth from history. 


While we have German ancestry on our family tree and our son JimR served his mission to East Berlin just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have no connection to the people in Under the Gun, except our common LDS faith. Mary volunteered to read several sections because of her love of history, genealogy, and interest in how European Latter-day Saints had fared during that terrible war. She shares the following about her experience with these people of history:   


“In early 2010 when Roger Minert asked me to read parts of his unfinished book Under the Gun I had long since checked out of my real life, 700 miles away in Utah.  During the economic Sweetwater of our lives, Jim had been left to hold down the fort so I could take care of my elderly parents in California.  It was a “25-7” adventure with those I loved, and yet no longer knew, due to debilitated health.  While I remained on the rolls of my home ward as a visiting teacher and ward Relief Society historian, I left these duties in the hands of others for the 6 months I served my parents.  I felt pretty disconnected, with few outside interactions beyond seeing doctors, shooing off telemarketers, buying the groceries, and dealing with termite control and the pool-man.   The highlight of my week was going to Church and volunteering in the Primary where my sister-in-law Lori, was Primary president. I was privileged to teach the CTR class and even attended the baptism of one my special little students. The songs and the lessons on “doing as Jesus would have me do” and having faith in His love for me would help me continue my trek across the wilderness of my parents decline.


When Roger’s request came, I jumped at it because here was an opportunity to think about how others had lived in difficult times and drink from the well of history, to be nourished by the lives of World War II saints, soldiers, and civilians.  As I read his work, I drew upon my long years in historical and genealogical research and writing and through the filter of two particular incidents in my childhood.


My Forever Friend – Mrs. Eve Steinberg


When I was a young girl in Fullerton, California in the mid-1960’s I met my first Jew, my sixth grade school teacher, Mrs. Eve Steinberg, now my forever friend of nearly 50 years. I had come from a family where the world around us was freely discussed on a daily basis; religion, politics, science, people… Meeting Mrs. Steinberg opened intriguing new doors of discovery for me as we studied together world cultures and history. 


The sixties was a time period in California public education when an elementary school student could talk candidly with both teachers and parents about such things.  As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wanted to know more, so I read the Bible that year to better understand the religious and historical connection between Judaism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Mrs. Steinberg shared her family’s religion and place in history with me as we discussed my studies and interests.  I became fascinated by Jewish and European History, Israel, politics and the truth.  And no matter where I moved over the years after I left her classroom, I took Eve Steinberg with me; for she had opened up my eyes to the value of knowing and studying the people of history. I resolved in 6th grade to somehow, pursue the study of history when I went to college. 


The Tile Setter Veteran


These aspirations were solidified by a life-changing event that occurred the year I turned 14 while my parents were building a new family home.  Many of my 11 brothers and sisters still have memories of helping the workers, cleaning plaster off the windows and doors, preparing the many wooden cabinets for stain, picking up the trash and being a “gofer”.

  This labor brought me face to face with the other side of history when a middle-aged man came to set the tile around the sunken Jacuzzi bath that they had had installed in their master bedroom suite.  I had never seen one before, in those days long before hot tubs became common features in home construction, and I wanted to know more about it. He was to tell me way more than tile setting, more than I could ever have imagined. 


I vividly remember him and our conversations.  I wish now I could recall his name, for this tile man like Mrs. Steinberg, changed my life forever; but my journal keeping in those days was kind of focused on the names of my sister Barbara’s secret boy friends, David Lowe and Bill Darke.  No matter, this man is one person I will seek out and thank when we meet again, for he allowed me to touch history and learn from the stories of those who had gone before in the great timeline of world events. 


As I began questioning him about the tub, I found he had a foreign accent and learned he was from Germany.   Because of Mrs. Steinberg’s family experience, I had just read The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich; so I asked him if he had served in the German Army during the Second World War.  He answered, “Yes”.  Forget learning about the Jacuzzi and laying tile!  Here was my chance to learn first hand from a German World War II participant!  He was a real-live person of history! And so we began to discuss his experiences.


I knew so little about soldiering and war. More than anything, I wanted to know how he could have done it.  I wondered aloud, “How? Why? What?”  He explained, “I was a soldier, fighting for my land, my country that I loved.  It wasn’t about politics; it was for my home and my family.”  It almost sounded like choosing sides for a neighborhood game of dodge ball. 


The Bombshell


And then he dropped the bombshell, “I am a Mormon.” Oh, my young heart pounded!!!  He was a fellow Saint, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just like me!  Envisioning the scenes of war from the colored and black and white photographs of one of my favorite childhood books that I call my “Life Magazine: World War II Picture Book” (the title page from this well-used work is now gone), I came to the shocking realization that Mormons had fought against Mormons.


And so, over the course of the next several days, we talked about his involvement in the war and his testimony of the Gospel that eventually brought him to America and a new life.  I learned that history has many sides, and each person’s story is important.  We need these stories so we can learn the truth – not merely about what happened, but how we should live.  That is the purpose of recording, preserving and sharing history: to learn of the past and by knowing the different ways of living, choose the better way for now and for the future. 


My love for history and for the people of history grew from these youthful experiences with a Jewish elementary school teacher and an LDS German World War II veteran. I would go on to Brigham Young University and graduate in 1972 with a B.A. in history.  That same year I would begin my life-long adventure in professional genealogy when I married James W. Petty, AG, CG.  Together we would pursue the journey of sharing the message: “Ancestors are the People of History”.   When I got the opportunity to be a reader for Professor Minert’s second book Under the Gun, I was anxious for more truths from the people of history.  


Saints Made History – A Light for the Future


The stories found in Under the Gun and In Harm’s Way  are drawn from LDS branch, district, and mission records for over 13,000 members of the Church in Germany and Austria who lived during World War II and the ensuing long dark years of silence from Church Headquarters.  They are woven together by Brother Minert through personal interviews, treasured letters, photographs, and personal writings representing hundreds of these Axis Saints living and dying in the war.  These members made history, and because it was recorded, preserved and shared, their stories are a light for the future. 


As I read my assigned parts of Under the Gun, I learned that in the atrocity of war, these European members of the Church endeavored to remain active Mormons, to participate and support one another as family, friends, neighbors, countrymen and fellow Saints.  Great efforts were made to keep as much normalcy as possible in the functioning of the Church and daily living. Leaders and members would come and go, be charged with crimes, protect the Church, be called into the service, be killed, and be made prisoners of war.  And yet, in spite of bombings, death, and sacrifice enveloping their lives, these Saints made genuine and brave efforts to keep the programs and activity of the Church going and to serve their fellow men. I read and recognized the same LDS Church that my family attended during the war in Allied USA, California and Utah, then and now.  


They attended Sacrament Meeting and Sunday School, along with Primary, Mutual, Relief Society, and Priesthood.  They held bazaars, dramas and speech festivals and celebrated Pioneer Day.  They fulfilled callings, served one another and donated their time, talents, and means.  They paid tithing and fast-offering; were baptized at eight; did missionary work; and yes, they did genealogy, even in those days without access to temples or the yet unborn Internet; just like my family in America.  I learned all this because reliable clerks and mission historians and just members of the Church recorded their diligent participation, their obedient living, and generous giving for God, community and family. I was inspired by how so many continued faithfully in all their trials. In the vein of the handcart pioneers and their Sweetwater crossings, these Saints kept on walking, with their eyes and hearts on the Lord and a better day. 


I reflected, “Sure, I am doing something hard here in California, but not that hard.”  I could endure and be cheerful and pleasant. I could be helpful and generous.  I could love more, forgive more, and share more.  The stories of these wonderful German and Austrian Saints became my beacon during the difficult days of my California service.   They inspired me to keep on going, doing my part in the vineyard.


A Special Beacon


One World War II story in particular stood out for me as I struggled in 2010 with the loneliness, the heartache, and the trials of being a 25-7 caretaker of two failing octogenarians.  I read about one young German Saint – turned soldier who was captured by the Allies.   At the time, he knew little of the conditions in the eastern prison camps of the Soviet Union, but he knew one thing for sure, the French to the west were his mortal enemy.


He wrote home of the horror of horrors of a POW when he was sent west to a French prison camp.  He recorded his feelings, of being so far from his family and yearning for home, to be free from his bondage.  He wrote of his imprisonment, the deprivation, the grief and sorrow he felt; but incredibly, in the midst of all this unhappiness, he shared this truth: “The only thing I have in common with my guards is the Gospel.”


What? His French jailers were LDS?  Then I wondered if he just meant Christians; but with no historical clarification, and in my own confinement, I took it literally.  Here was an LDS German in a French POW camp being guarded by fellow Mormons/Christians. He witnessed the Light of Christ shining over his prison as his jailors lived “Come follow Me.  Love one another. Love your enemies.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”


Blessing of Blessings – this German Mormon Soldier survived because he went west to France where members of the Church were his jailors; not east to the real horrors of POW imprisonment at the hands of the Russian Army. He lived because of the Gospel. And remarkably, in the dungeon of his life, this ancestor of someone I didn’t even know, one of the LDS People of History, expressed his testimony that I internalized in my own trials, “God has brought me here and He will bring me home.”  That truth carried me all those long difficult months in California – God would bring even me, Mary Petty, home.   And He did.


One Big Rich Voice – One Bright Light


Under the Gun: West German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II is one of the most remarkable Church history books I have ever read about ancestors, the people of history, and their stories.  The testimonies of the dead and the living ring out through its pages as witnesses of the Gospel.  It gives clear proof of the incredible value of being just members, keeping journals, writing personal histories and bearing testimonies.  It is profound evidence of the worth of historians and clerks all over the Church as they serve by making and keeping Church records that preserve the testimonies and knowledge of faithful Saints and their place in history, be they just the ward genealogist, visiting teacher, scout assistant, drama leader, clerk, or just a member. For the descendants of these Saints and for all of us, Brother Minert’s telling shares one big rich voice of Ancestors are the People of History™. 


Under the Gun is a book along with its companion In Harm’s Way that all of us should read, whether or not we have German ancestry or a connection to World War II. Such recorded Church history is a light for everyone as it inspires us to live and serve in the Gospel wherever we are planted.  And to be grateful for those that record, preserve and share that historySomeone is doing that today in each of our missions, stakes, wards and branches – recording for posterity, the history of their place in the vineyard. And we, too, must do our part and record the story of our life, our testimony and service. For, someday, someone will need that one bright light of truth for their Sweetwater Crossing: our living of history as Ancestors are the People of History.”


You, too, can participate in Ancestors are the People of History™ series!


In our Ancestors are the People of History™ series, we have encouraged Meridian Magazine readers to share documented family stories with us from their personal histories or their ancestors’.  The lives and testimonies of the People of History need to be recorded, preserved and shared for the living and future generations to uplift and motivate those that follow. We know that many of you are doing this and appreciate your contributions to the series. 


For us, it has been a spiritual feast as we have read and shared your family’s place in history and service to God, country, and family. Through your examples we are reminded over and over again of how important each of us are “where ere we are planted”.  We know that no matter our circumstances, we can impact history and bear testimony of the Gospel for now and future generations. By sharing these family stories, Ancestors are the People of History™ has become a witness to the importance of keeping, preserving, and sharing the records of the people of history.  It is a testament of the truth in their lives that can benefit us all.  


Please join us in sharing more stories of how “we touch history” and participate in Ancestors are the People of History™.  Each of us has had experiences and ancestors whose brush with history provides new and interesting insights and details of the past that can bring light to our day and for generations to come. Recording and preserving these stories are opportunities for redeeming the living and the dead. And in that great work we have been promised, “… he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:5).


Sit down today and spend a few minutes reviewing your life and your ancestors’ history and then choose a special story to share with us.  Send it to [email protected](dot)com, with the subject line: APH – (Your Name) –  Attention: James W. Petty, AG, CG.   Please include your permission to use your story in our writings and we will take it from there.


James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”.  President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.


For Heirlines-Quality professional services, resources, and products including free genealogy and family history advice or to learn expert answers to commonly asked  ancestry questions visit Jim’s website for free consultations www.Heirlines.com and his blog  www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com.