“The Branch that Wouldn’t Die,” Ensign, Apr. 1971, 31
In early 1945 thousands of German Latter-day Saints fled westward to escape the invading Russian troops that were closing in behind the heavy artillery pounding Germany’s eastern cities. The largest concentration of non-English-speaking Mormons in the world was living in this area, and the LDS chapel in Selbongen was directly in the path of avenging armies bent on retribution for the havoc and misery the Germans had brought to Russia.
Built by the Church in 1928, the Selbongen chapel was the first Mormon structure in Germany. It continues to operate today, after incredible hardships, in territory now ceded to Poland.
“The fiery gates of hell are open. It is almost impossible to visit the branches,” reported a Latter-day Saint district president at the end of World War II. “Life is most difficult. Our last energies are being offered to the god of war. Many of the brethren over fifty and under fifteen are being called up to save the Fatherland. Reason is now insanity.”
Many members in their westward flight walked for days, taking with them only what they could carry. District president Arnold Schmidt and his wife were living in Kresse in eastern Germany, where they owned an attractive home and a six-unit apartment house. “On this day it seemed to me as if someone were saying, ‘Leave quickly before it’s too late!’” President Schmidt recalled. Hurriedly he tried to warn the members and found that many had already left.
Brother and Sister Schmidt loaded a few of their possessions on a handcart, but before leaving they knelt down and thanked God for all the blessings they had enjoyed for so long. As the Schmidts trekked westward, shells began destroying their beloved city. Many others used handcarts in their flight to the West, much the same as persecuted Mormons in the United States had done a century earlier.
“We were cramped into a small freight car without sanitary facilities,” related one woman in a group of thirty members. Then she added, “My husband was sent to Siberia.”
Another Latter-day Saint sister recalled, “My mother-in-law died in our cattle car. At the next stop we were forced to wrap her body in a blanket and leave it on the station platform.”
Eventually the westbound train was taken by the Russians for other purposes, leaving these members stranded in the cold without food or shelter for two days.
“The first night my father died. All his strength just drained away,” reported a woman, adding, “A week later my mother followed him.” Eventually about five percent (over six hundred) of the twelve thousand Latter-day Saints in Germany lost their lives as a result of World War II.1
With Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, the German people faced long months of starvation, death, and suffering in their devastated land. Many LDS branches were closed, as members abandoned their homes. Koenigsberg, for example, had 845 members in 1938; after the war the branch ceased to exist.
Not all Latter-day Saints migrated. Sickness, poverty, or other delays caused some to remain. Others voluntarily stayed in order to be with family and friends and to keep the Church alive. One of the branches that retained enough members to continue on was Selbongen.
Because Russia had taken some of Poland’s eastern territory for its own use, part of eastern Germany was given to Poland. The Selbongen Branch members, their chapel still standing, were now located in Poland, over six hundred miles from the nearest group of Latter-day Saints.
The destitute members in Germany were given new hope and courage in 1946 when Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve became one of the first American civilians to receive permission to tour the land occupied by the allied armies. One of his most touching experiences occurred in Selbongen.
As his group arrived at what appeared to be a deserted village, Elder Benson saw the LDS chapel, the town’s only remaining church house. Entering, he found a woman whom he asked where he might find the branch president.
“Her eyes filled with fear when we stopped, but upon learning who we were, she expressed feelings of gratitude and joy,” Elder Benson wrote in his journal. Soon women, children, and a few men appeared, crying and laughing excitedly, each trying to express his happiness. “Within moments, the cry of the good news went from house to house, that after many years elders from Zion had returned.”
When the German Saints had seen the strange jeep approaching with what they had feared to be either Russian or Polish soldiers, they had abandoned the streets. After the identity of the visitors was determined, however, the village came alive with grateful people. Elder Benson recorded that “within an hour, 104 members and friends crowded into the plain but attractive chapel to enjoy the outpouring of the Spirit.”2
It was an uplifting experience for them because the terrors of war had brought many hardships. Families were broken up; some members became prisoners; and others were deported. There were, at one time, only two elders remaining to inspire the members and to keep alive “the unity and love among the Saints.”3
During the next months Elder Benson directed the distribution of twenty-five hundred tons of food and clothing sent by members of the Church in America to the suffering members and nonmembers in Europe. Most of it went to Germany, including some to Selbongen. A seminary project at South High School in Salt Lake City raised money that was earmarked for this distant branch.4
In 1947 government officials ordered the Selbongen meetings discontinued on the grounds that only Polish could be spoken in public gatherings of any kind. “With the help of the Lord we learned the Polish tongue,” reported the branch president. On December 10, 1950, the doors of the chapel were opened again.
In 1957 Selbongen had its first Church visitor from the West since the visit of Elder Benson eleven years before. Richard Ranglack was sent by Herold L. Gregory, mission president in Berlin, to give comfort to these isolated Saints. “We will never forget their fervent testimonies and their faith that God lives and that the Church is true,” said Elder Ranglack. “We had been sent to strengthen them, but realized with shame that they had been able to add more to our faith than we could have ever hoped to give them.”
Further actions of the Polish government almost brought another closing of the Selbongen Branch in 1958. That year permission was granted for all Germans to leave for the West. A reporter for a Polish magazine, wanting to write about Mormons in his country, visited the lone branch. “I had the great privilege to participate in a service held every Sunday in a little blue Mormon sanctuary,” his published story states. “The little church is warm and pleasant. Although snow covers the fields and the trees are bent by wind storms, a fire glows brightly in an iron stove. The pictures of Christ and [Joseph] Smith are hanging on the wall.”
The reporter then described the discussion in the Sunday School class in great detail. “Questions were raised concerning: What is moral? How can one stay pure? What is character? Husband and wife must be faithful because of marriages for time and eternity.” Then the reporter commented, “We are amazed! We are fascinated by this conversation that treats ethics, and we think we must be in a theological university. This is hard to believe; after all, we are among peasants. We are in the country, and these people, through sober and logical thinking, are able to draw no trivial conclusions for their lives.”
The story also mentioned that most Mormons were expected to leave soon for the West because of the new government ruling. “Let us use this opportunity to write of the Polish Mormons,” the article ended, “for it is possible that in a year from now it will be too late.”5
The branch leader, Brother Erich Koenitz, and several members considered leaving Poland to join their friends in Germany. Plans to discontinue the Church in Selbongen were announced. But as a result of this magazine publicity, the Church received requests for more information. Some readers visited Selbongen and were baptized. Not long afterward the mission headquarters in Berlin received further word from the branch president: “I have decided to stay in Poland for the gospel’s sake. I cannot bring myself to leave the Saints. In spite of the emigration it looks like the branch is going to stay.” The letter concluded, “If I leave now, all efforts will have been in vain. Besides, I am the only elder in Poland.”6
Today the Selbongen Latter-day Saints continue as the only Mormon congregation in their land, and they still meet in the first chapel constructed by the Church in an area that was once part of Germany. If sacrifice and faith necessary to build the kingdom of God on earth have any dramatic illustrations, Selbongen must surely be one of them. If courage and endurance, if human kindness and helpfulness in the midst of raw terror are worth recording, these little-known events of “the branch that wouldn’t die” must rank among the stirring episodes of the Restored Church.