“War and Peace and Dutch Potatoes,” Ensign, July 1978, 19
President Cornelius Zappey’s first weeks among the war-scarred Dutch Saints made him do much praying—and some weeping. In February 1946, just nine months after the end of a shattering world war, he and Sister Zappey had arrived from America to reorganize and rejuvenate the Netherlands Mission.
Acting mission president Jacob Schipanboord had done excellent work. The war had done its work too. Many of the 3,200 members needed food and clothes. Branches needed to be fully staffed, administered, and adequately housed. The bomb-damaged mission home in The Hague needed windows, doors, repairs, and furniture. Full-time proselyting was to be instituted. And the hatred and bitterness many members felt toward their former enemies somehow had to be dissolved.
The horrors of World War II had begun for tiny Holland in late 1940 when German tanks and troops overran the country in five days. To break Dutch resistance, the German Luftwaffe wiped out the center of Rotterdam—including the LDS chapel there—in the first major air blitz aimed at a city; 40,000 civilians perished.
For five bitter years Nazi troops occupied Holland. Many Dutch, to protect family and friends, cooperated. Others resisted. Some did both. Many Dutch soldiers, resisters, and Jews were executed or taken to prison camps. (Anne Frank was one.)
Both at the beginning of war, when Germany attacked, and at the end when allied forces counter-attacked, Holland suffered much physical damage. About 400,000 homes were damaged or destroyed; 8,000 farms ruined, 700 square miles of land inundated when Nazis wrecked dikes holding back the sea, half of the forests destroyed, and 40 percent of the livestock wiped out. Railroad equipment, bicycles, motor vehicles, and in some cases entire factories were confiscated. More than 200,000 Dutch people died because of the war. Such destruction and casualties were not as great as those in some countries; still, bitterness ran deep and the Saints were not immune.
The last months of the Nazi occupation had been the worst. Germany, reeling under the Allies’ military impact and running out of supplies, systematically robbed Holland’s foodstuffs, fuel, and clothing. This left the Dutch civilians destitute during the biting winter of 1944–45. Some froze. Some starved. One survivor recalls how schoolchildren at one point were lucky to get a carrot for breakfast and potato peel soup for lunch. Another survivor who had several children made the family walk 150 miles from Rotterdam to Groningen, where there was more food, in severe weather. In Amsterdam the daily ration was reduced to one-tenth of normal requirements. This period of hunger hardened feelings even more toward the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators.1
Even when the Zappeys arrived, almost a year after the war ended, hunger still stalked Holland, even though relief goods from America and elsewhere were pouring in, including tons of LDS welfare supplies. From a Church welfare storehouse in The Hague, mission leaders, volunteers, and dilapidated trucks distributed needed items to two dozen branches.
Welfare goods clothed and nourished the body. But what would help the scarred souls? What could dissolve the bitter feelings toward Germans and collaborators about the loss of loved ones?
“Mama, all we can do here is pray for the people to overcome their hate,” President Zappey told his wife. But then he went to work to answer his own prayers. A salesman by profession, he set out to convince the Saints of the importance of love and forgiveness. He chose as a mission theme “Love One Another,” which he preached constantly in the branches and at mission meetings.2
Elder Ezra Taft Benson, in Europe directing the Church’s relief effort, instructed President Zappey to have the Dutch members be welfare producers as well as recipients. President Zappey saw how it could help the Saints learn to work together again and forget their differences. He moved on the instructions at once. Since potatoes were one of Holland’s best crops, President Zappey proposed to local priesthood leaders that they start branch or quorum potato projects where they had land. Where they didn’t, they were to start sewing projects.
During 1947, Mormon potato patches sprang up in backyards, road medians, vacant lots, and former flower gardens. Planting days became special branch occasions with singing, speaking, and praying, after which the Saints planted seed potatoes obtained from the Dutch government. And it was cooperative! Typically, one member punched a hole in the ground with a stick, a second person dropped the potato in, and a third covered it.3
During summer months many Saints, before going to work, visited their branch’s potato patch to water or weed. By autumn the prospects for a good harvest looked bright. Members expected that potatoes produced by their hard work would be used to aid local members.
But President Zappey was thinking farther ahead. In a March 12, 1947, report President Alma Sonne of the European Mission had painted a harsh picture of conditions in neighboring Germany:
“What few reserves the people had a year ago are now completely exhausted. This exceptionally severe winter has greatly aggravated their tragic condition. Germany is still not productive. Scarcity of available supplies and lack of distribution facilities have not been conducive to improving the situation. Clothing is almost wholly unobtainable; food continues to be rationed on a sub-subsistence basis.”4
By summer the crisis still was severe, despite massive relief efforts by western democracies. Church welfare helped the German Saints, but more was needed. “My people are so hungry,” East German Mission President Walter Stover repeatedly told President Zappey during their meetings in Holland.5
The closer harvest time drew, the more President Zappey knew the Lord wanted those welfare potatoes sent to the German Saints to supplement the welfare goods coming from America. But he wondered how Dutch members would react “if we should ask them for the food for which they had worked so hard to give to the people who had caused them such suffering and depredation—the people who had ruthlessly confiscated the last bit of their food and exposed their little children to starvation?”6
Facing this hard test of the spirit of the gospel, President Zappey decided to call a mission conference in Rotterdam to propose that the potatoes be shipped to Germany. He worried about how the leaders might react, particularly when the Dutch still were on rationing themselves. He asked mission secretary Johanna Riet to take careful notes during the expected debate. Then, calling on the spirit of the Lord, he preached in behalf of the proposal:
“Some of the most bitter enemies you people have encountered as a result of this war are the German people. We know what intense feelings of dislike you have for them. But those people are now much worse off than you, and we are asking you to send your entire potato harvest to the German saints. Will you do it? Do you want our own saints to die of hunger there?”7
The leaders, touched by the Spirit, voted for the project.8
One hurdle cleared, another large one appeared: laws forbid the export of food grown in Holland. President Zappey, however, trusting the Lord to make the way possible, wrote to the Minister of Agriculture and Food Supply for special permission to ship the welfare potatoes. The blunt reply was: “The exporting of food is absolutely not permitted, and under no circumstances can or will there be an exception made.” Refusing to give up, President Zappey filled out more forms. He met with one government official after another. The mission staff fasted and prayed earnestly.
The answer to their prayers came during the fateful meeting at the Amsterdam airport. President Zappey was there to put Elder Sonne on a plane for London. To Elder Sonne’s pleasant surprise he met a close friend, Dr. P. Vincent Cardon from Utah, in the ticket line. Dr. Cardon, chairman of the United Nations advisory committee on food and agriculture in Geneva, Switzerland, had just finished meeting with Dutch food officials. President Zappey requested and received from Dr. Cardon a personal letter of introduction to the Dutch food ministry.9
President Zappey did not think that meeting was an accident: “Why should President Sonne return to London on that particular day? Why was it just at the time when passage on the plane from Amsterdam to New York was unavailable, making it necessary for Dr. Cardon to fly to London? Why was it that President Sonne should take the same flight to London when there are five flights daily between Amsterdam and London? For days and days and time and time again, this matter had been made a matter of prayer—that the Lord would open the way so that the Dutch Saints would be able to send these potatoes to the suffering German Saints. The Lord is continually guiding His children and answering their prayers when they ask Him in righteousness for help if they have exerted their own efforts to the utmost.”10
Dr. Cardon’s letter enabled President Zappey to personally explain the Church’s welfare program to high government officials. He received permission to ship fifteen tons.
At harvest time, Groningen, Dordrecht, Utrecht, and a dozen other Dutch branches shipped loose potatoes in various size truckloads to The Hague warehouse. They represented many hours of hard work and sacrifice by hundreds of dedicated Saints. The potatoes were sorted, but sacks were in short supply. One day missionary Symen Stam saw some bundles of patched sacks being unloaded from an ocean liner, and felt inspired to ask about them. To his surprise, the ship’s personnel, once they learned why he needed the sacks, sold him more than 500 at a reduced price, enough for the welfare project.11
As The Hague warehouse filled with the new potatoes, President Zappey discovered that the Lord had blessed their project beyond expectation. Instead of the projected fifteen tons, the warehouse soon held seventy tons—five times what the export permit would allow!
President Zappy went back to the food ministry. Another miracle—an amended permit! But, warned the government, this was “a great exception. Every other church and relief organization which had presented similar proposals had been refused.” When the Bureau of Potatoes Directory tried to interfere, President Zappey astonished them by warning that the potatoes belonged to the Lord, and if He willed it, He would see that they reached Germany. His doggedness paid off and full clearance was granted.12
Missionary and member muscles moved the mountain of potatoes into ten rented trucks. Then, shortly after midnight on November 6–7, the convoy rolled east toward the German border. President Sonne observed, “This will go down in the history of the welfare program as an outstanding example of the true love which characterizes the work of the Lord.”13
Meanwhile Presidents Stover and Jean Wunderlich of the East and West German missions made arrangements for the potatoes to enter their areas. German Saints, when told to come and pick up fresh potatoes, were astonished—and deeply touched. The West German Mission history noted the arrival on November 16, 1947. “Each member of the Hamburg Branch received 25 pounds. This is a wonderful gesture by the Dutch Saints and the members in Hamburg are grateful.”14
At Celle in north-central Germany Brother Philipp Bauer arranged with city officials to store two truckloads of potatoes in the basement of the municipal finance building. Prisoners helped unload the sacks. Members then came from surrounding branches to load up small trucks with their allotments. Celle Saints, mostly refugee women and children from eastern Germany, as well as nonmember relatives and investigators, received 100 pounds per person.15
Members in Berlin gladly picked up potatoes for eating, and President Stover wisely saved a good supply to use as spring seed potatoes. Then early in 1948 Latter-day Saint military officials in Berlin obtained permission from American authorities for the Saints to farm a four-acre section of a city park. Members laboriously prepared the ground and on May 6 planted nearly 4,000 pounds of Dutch potatoes.
In late June the Russians imposed the Berlin Blockade, cutting off overland shipments to Berlin (which is located nearly 100 miles inside East Germany). Western democracies responded with the famous Berlin Airlift, which kept Berliners alive for nearly a year. City residents, fearful that Russia might try to stop the airlift, guarded their foodstuffs carefully. During summer and fall Church members guarded their potato field against thieves and livestock, counting heavily on their potato harvest to be a bountiful one in case the airlift failed.16
During three September days about sixty-five Berliners—mostly women and older men since the younger men had perished in the war—harvested potatoes by hand. Even the tiniest potatoes were saved. “Every pound of food counts in Germany today,” wrote Elder Calvin Clyde, a missionary there. Members dug up sixteen tons of potatoes, an eight-fold return. “It is easy to understand the happiness of all the members of the Church in Berlin and the friends who worked on the project,” Elder Clyde reported, “when each of them received 40 lbs. of new potatoes.” Again, some potatoes were reserved as seed for the next spring.17
Back in Holland the 1947 potato project had produced a new spirit of unity and love among the Saints. And if President Zappey needed further proof, he saw it in 1948. That year the members, on their own initiative, requested that they again be allowed to aid the German Saints. “The hate was simply out of the branches for the Germans,” observed Elder Stam, “on account of doing that great  project.”18 Potato patches were replanted and the project repeated.
Barely had this decision been made when “fishes” joined the “loaves.” Brethren attending a Rotterdam priesthood meeting on February 23, 1948, decided to buy herring to send with the potatoes. Other branches, learning of the idea, raised money too. The mission home received a telegram on March 9 saying: “You may expect six barrels of herring from the branch and four barrels from the missionaries laboring in Amsterdam.”19
The fishing town of Vlaardingen was selected as the site to purchase newly salted herring, in the first herring harvest since the waters were finally cleared of mines. When the town learned of the Mormons’ 1947 potato project and the plans for 1948, its newspaper praised the Church’s welfare program in a feature article on March 5:
“These  potatoes were not bought; they were raised by the givers themselves in their free time. All summer long they had worked on it, and lack of experience along this line was made up [for] by unlimited enthusiasm. Evidence was to be given that the Dutch members of the Church were not only willing to receive but also to give. They had received plenty: after the war, the good gifts from the members of the church in America had flowed into their homes, and shipments of food, clothing and covering up to 2 1/2 million guilders’ worth were distributed to members and non-members of the Church. …
“The ‘Welfare Plan’ is not ended; it is still in full swing. … In the framework of this plan, the Dutch members began in 1947 to raise vegetables, fruit, and particularly potatoes.
“Now they have their eyes on another product of Dutch labor: herring! These, too, will be sent to the German members and the large percentage of albumen and fats that is found in the herring will be a valuable addition to their poor food rations. A few weeks ago, this herring project was announced in the branches of the Church in the Netherlands, and already the financial contributions of the members are flowing in.”20
When the herring were caught, salted, and put into barrels, the Saints purchased eighty barrels—nine tons—and shipped them along with ninety tons of newly dug potatoes to Germany by train in late October 1948.21
The shipment filled six railroad boxcars. But the overloaded sixth car broke down and had to be replaced by two others. In Germany the cargo was reloaded into trucks, which then headed for eastern Germany where the need was greatest.
Welfare supplies other than the Dutch donations were also flowing into the East German Mission. President Stover, using his own funds, purchased in Schleswig-Holstein even more potatoes, so that the German Saints could have a plentiful supply. Other welfare food and clothing arrived from Geneva by way of Vienna, Prague, and Dresden.
Distribution was President Stover’s problem. At one point East Berlin officials decided to confiscate a stockpile in the cellar of Brother Emil Fischer, but President Stover backed them off by using his American citizenship to threaten a diplomatic scene. The Stover family car made many trips into eastern Germany and West Berlin to deliver welfare supplies, including trunkload after trunkload of rather smelly herring. By December, in Berlin alone, every member of the Church received 155 pounds of potatoes and 40 large herring.22
That Saints in one country aided Saints in other countries was not unique to the Dutch. Swedes helped Finns. Swiss sent clothes and chocolate to Austrians. Belgian Mormons also sent much of their American welfare supply to German Saints. And in 1948 alone, Church headquarters shipped 25,876 cases of food, including 542 tons of wheat, to aid European Saints.23
What was unique about the Dutch project, however, was the magnitude of the effort by so few Saints—of a people who had suffered so much from the Germans. Members of fewer than two dozen branches willingly worked countless hours as volunteer farmers to produce 200 tons of fresh vegetables badly needed by German Saints, and volunteered to donate enough money to purchase eighty barrels of herring—all within eighteen months.
The food was important; but more important were the blessings. It’s one thing to talk about brotherhood. It’s another thing to actually act like brothers. When President David O. McKay learned what the Dutch Saints were doing, he called it “one of the greatest acts of true Christian conduct ever brought to my attention.”24 The healing of souls was as important as the nourishing of bodies.
When President Zappey returned to his Salt Lake furniture business in 1949, he perhaps did not fully realize that his leadership had helped the Dutch Saints to write one of the finest chapters in the Church’s history.