“Johann Wondra—Setting the Stage in Vienna,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, 46–49
“We have a message for you from God.” These simple words from two missionaries touched Johann Wondra deeply. He listened as they related the testimony of Joseph Smith, and he accepted a copy of the Book of Mormon. Except for eating and sleeping, he spent the next three days reading the entire book. Then he prayed about it.
“I was filled with an indescribable feeling of peace and joy,” he says of the experience. “What a joy it was to really know that there is a holy being, just as I had sensed there was in my childhood. On the day of my baptism, 30 November 1958, I decided to really get to know my Father in Heaven and my Redeemer and to become close to them.”
That decision has guided Brother Wondra’s life. It has governed his relationship with his wife and his children. It has influenced his work as the artistic general secretary of the twenty plays produced annually at the prestigious Vienna Burgtheater. It has been crucial in his calling as president of the Vienna Austria Stake.
Johann Anton Wondra was born 24 April 1935 in Vienna, Austria. His father came from Southern Moravia, and his mother from Styria. His early years were happy ones. Spending summers on a farm surrounded by forests, playing handball, and kayaking up and down the Blue Danube River are some of his most choice memories.
As a child he had no formal religious teaching, but he developed a strong faith in the existence of God as an invisible, spiritual being who was interested in him. “God was, for me, something very real,” he says. “I consulted with him in all my childhood needs.”
Then, at age four, Johann witnessed Hitler’s occupation of Austria. Before the end of World War II, he escaped with his mother to the United States’ zone some two hundred kilometers away. His father remained behind while they fled in a cart pulled by oxen. “At the end of the war, when we were able to return through the Russian Zone to Vienna, we found our father in good health. The joy of seeing him again was great,” President Wondra remembers.
The fleeing of Austria from allied occupation in 1955 was a momentous occasion for Johann. Austria was the only country from which the Soviet Union withdrew its troops once it had entered. (It is in what had been the Russian zone that the first stake of the Church in Austria was later organized, on 20 April 1980, with Johann A. Wondra as its president.)
During the troubled years of the Allied occupation, Johann attended the Schottenfelder Realschule in Vienna. He graduated cum laude in 1953 and began to study architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna. But the 1956 Hungarian freedom fight moved him deeply and caused him to change his course of study.
“I saw many refugees flee to our country,” he says. “And I was puzzled at their misery and the uselessness of their struggle.” Wondering about the meaning of life, he started a conscientious search for truth. So he gave up the study of architecture and enrolled at the University of Vienna to study philosophy, theater, and art history, and to learn how to share the truths he discovered through the theater and motion pictures.
“In my search for truth, I purchased a Luther Bible one day and was touched by the personality and teachings of Jesus Christ.” Then, only a few months later, in the summer of 1958, the missionaries knocked on his door.
“The gospel brought peace to my heart,” he says, “and I considered changing my profession in order to enjoy a more comfortable occupation.” He sought advice from Elder Eldred G. Smith, who visited Vienna as he served as branch president, but Elder Smith “advised me not to change my profession. He told me that it is precisely in the areas of political and cultural life that negative powers are seeking to exercise strong influences. Members of the Church, Elder Smith said, need to exert their influence for good in all areas of life.”
So Johann Wondra stayed in theater, joining the Burgtheater in 1961 as an assistant director, the youngest member of its staff. This theater, now over two hundred years old, is one of the most prestigious in Europe. It saw premier performances of Beethoven’s works and those of other great masters. That Brother Wondra was chosen to work on its staff was indeed an honor. In 1972 he was elected as “Vertruvensmann des Ensembles in der Direktion” (Trustee of the Ensemble on the Board of Directors) and in 1975, he was chosen as its general secretary, with the special assignment of supervising the theater’s artistic planning.
Coordinating the twenty plays produced annually and the 150 members of the largest troupe repertoire theater in the world is no easy job. At any given time there are six productions in rehearsal, and Brother Wondra works with the directors and artistic teams to keep things running smoothly.
In his work at the theater, he has been dedicated to gospel principles. He sees the danger of the adversary, as he wrote in an essay, who “uses the power of art to suffocate the concept of salvation and to lead our world to destruction.” (“Art: A Possibility for Love,” in Arts and Inspiration, ed. Steven P. Sondrup, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1980, p. 144.) But he also sees its great power for good. “Ennobling art,” he says, “helps prepare the elect for the message of the gospel and permits us to hope for a Zion where the Saints will live together in a culture of peace, of love, and of beauty.” (Ibid.) It is this power for good that he seeks to attain in his work as artistic general secretary at the Burgtheater.
His efforts were officially recognized in 1981 when he received the “Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste umdie Republik Österreich” (Gold Medal of Honor for Service to the Republic of Austria) from the president of Austria. He prizes the medal, which is inscribed: “The far-reaching tasks of the Artistic General Secretary, an office which has a long and honorable tradition, rest in the capable hands of Dr. Wondra and are carried out by him tactfully, amicably, ably and also, when necessary, forcefully.”
President Wondra says that his wife, Ursula Tischhauser, is a great support in all aspects of his life. He first met her at a youth conference. A third-generation member of the Church, Ursula was at that time serving as Primary president in the Stuttgart Stake. After their first brief meeting, they met together only three other times before they were married—once in Vienna, once in Esslingen near Ursula’s home, and once at Christmastime in Salzburg. During the six months prior to their marriage in the Swiss temple on 22 January 1966, they wrote many letters, in which they shaped the foundation of their life together.
Sister Wondra says of her husband: “How marvelous it is to have a partner who has the priesthood and is a real patriarch of the family. I feel like I can talk to him about anything.”
In late 1966, their oldest son, Michael, was born, with Ulrike, their only daughter, following a year later.
The April conference following their daughter’s birth was an unforgettable one. “We had just come out of the hospital,” President Wondra remembers, “where our six-month-old daughter lay in the last stages of cancer. Traces of it were already in her spinal column. Her liver was twice its normal size. In blessings, our baby was promised that she would live and become well, even though the doctors, who were specialists in this area, gave us no hope.
“It was right after this that we heard the conference message of President David O. McKay. He talked about the divinity of Jesus Christ and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and quoted the Savior when he said, ‘If thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God.’ (John 11:40.)
“This message helped us once more to put all our trust in the power of the Lord. We knew that if the Lord were willing, our faith would determine whether our child lived or not. We strengthened our faith by praying earnestly each day, listening to the Spirit, writing down what he whispered to us, and striving to do what he asked. Our daughter lives, free of her suffering and greatly strengthened.”
To express their appreciation for their daughter’s recovery, President and Sister Wondra “brought a sacrifice of gratitude to the Lord,” he says. They determined to make it the central purpose of their lives to lead souls to him and expressed willingness to accept another child into their family, even though couples in their country seldom have more than two children. In 1969, their son George was born, and three years later, another son, Helmut David, joined the family.
President Wondra’s dedication to following the Spirit is not limited to emergency situations. It is a life-long practice. He often strolls through the Vienna Woods while reading scriptures and praying. As he walks and ponders, he writes down what the Spirit whispers to his heart.
One day when many problems were troubling him, he decided to climb a nearby mountain to ask the Lord for answers. “On the way,” he remembers, “I composed a list of all the things that were burdening me, a list that was complete to the slightest detail. It was a long list. Satisfied with my work, I began to enjoy the beauty around me. I was amazed at the way the Lord rules his creations, giving them a law and then allowing them to work out their own complicated existence. As realization of this plan crept over me, I stopped beseeching God to solve all my individual problems for me. I asked instead that I be given the necessary wisdom to solve the many-faceted problems myself. And I thanked him for the blessings of my life. As I climbed down the mountain, I found that many of my problems had disappeared.”
Listening to the Spirit has at times had an immediate and profound impact on his life. Once, for example, Brother Wondra was at work busily preparing for the opening of a new theatrical production. “I had a strong feeling that I should go home. I left immediately and found Ursula very ill. I called the doctor and took her to see him. On the way, she lapsed in and out of consciousness. The doctor told me she needed an immediate operation. After the operation, I spent the night with her. In these early hours I had a strong feeling that whether or not she lived, our lives were inseparable through our eternal marriage. She recovered, and I have been ever grateful that the Lord prompted me to leave my busy day to go home and that I was able to listen to the Spirit.”
President Wondra feels it is very important that all his family learn to understand the language of the Spirit. Together they set goals for their monthly fast. Before they pray to begin or end their fast, each member of the family, beginning with the youngest, expresses his feelings and impressions while the others listen. They also read and study the scriptures together.
His love for the scriptures is readily apparent, as is his love for the prophets. When he heard the Joseph Smith story for the first time, he immediately felt a great love for the Prophet. “It would be my greatest joy to be worthy of creating a film about the Prophet Joseph Smith,” he says. “I am convinced that he is the greatest man, besides Jesus Christ, who ever lived on this earth.”
He has similar feelings for President Spencer W. Kimball. A friend once arranged a surprise visit with the President, and Brother Wondra left deeply impressed. “My meeting with President Kimball taught me that it is really possible to become like Christ and love as he loves. I have adopted that goal for myself and my stake.”
During his twenty-six years as a Latter-day Saint, President Wondra has had many Church callings. One of his first callings was as a drama director, a calling he loved. “But,” he says, “I soon had to learn that the mission of the Church was not to make a theater out of the ward.” Since then he has served as a teacher in many organizations, as MIA president, as a counselor in branch and district presidencies, and as branch president as well as counselor to seven different mission presidents. One of his most fondly remembered experiences was his calling as a teacher of the investigator class of his branch. Seventy people attended, and many of them were later baptized. His own parents were among the members of the class; they were baptized in January 1967.
In many callings, President Wondra has worked directly with youth of the Church. He loves them, and sees their great potential. Known as an inspiring speaker who relates well to youth, he often tells the young people of Vienna that they “need to learn how to be leaders not only in the Church, but also in the world.”
One of his responsibilities in working with young people as counselor in the mission presidency has been to help them plan their once-a-year youth conferences. “I want them to develop their leadership abilities, to develop their talents, and to learn to work together,” he says. “So I have them work in committees.” These committees, consisting of a president, a vice president, specialists (to help them bring their plans to fulfillment), and a priesthood adviser (to keep the Spirit), have put together some fine youth conferences—once with fifty such committees, he comments. One featured a pioneer day, complete with costumes (even pioneer shawls), covered wagons with horses, pioneer music and dancing, and performances before many people. Another conference featured a tent city with roadshows for the public to see, and the youth planned a little theater for the children.
But President Wondra is not content to have the youth conferences merely times of fun. He feels the young people need to learn to serve. Each conference has included a significant service project, also planned and supervised by youth committees. One year the group cleaned a stream, clearing its course through a nearby wooded area. Another year they built a children’s play garden: the land for it was donated by a nonmember family, and the youth earned the money to build this children’s play garden with a small house, a playground, and a family game area.
In his current calling as stake president, Brother Wondra feels that he must continue his own spiritual growth in order to help the stake grow. Aware of his limitations and imperfections, he says, “To the extent that I work on myself, the Lord will work with our stake.” Rupert Fuchshofer, stake patriarch, says of President Wondra that he does not ask the members of the stake to “please do this,” but to “follow me.”
Bettering himself before reproving others is a practice he follows in his family life also. Sister Wondra says that “in all aspects of his life, he strives for beauty and perfection, and suffers if this is not possible. He is a generous person, and any narrow-mindedness is unpleasant to him.” In his striving for perfection, he often asks his children in their personal interviews how he can be a better father. The Wondra’s son George, who loves all kinds of sports, felt his family wasn’t active enough, so he recommended a daily fitness and weight control program. His desire for activities initiated a stake family sports day. “I neglected the daily fitness plan,” says President Wondra, “but started it again at the beginning of our vacation.”
His great love for and appreciation of art has led President Wondra to carry out what he calls “a storage plan of beauty.” He feels that parents need to create an appropriate spiritual and cultural climate for their family so that children will be armed against “cultural barbarism” and so that artistic talents will be discovered and developed early. “We build a storage of the physical necessities of life,” he says. “We ought also to build a storage of the virtuous and lovely aspects of our culture.” His home is full of music, filmstrips, books, cassettes, slide presentations he has made, and some paintings. Periodically, he takes his family, or perhaps just one member of the family, to dramatic productions, operas, concerts, and exhibitions.
He tells of taking his little daughter Ulrike to the concert hall to hear Karl Bohm conducting works of Mozart, Strauss, and Brahms. Ulrike was visibly moved by the music. Her eyes beamed, and she applauded with intensity. After the concert, the two went out for a special Viennese crepe with ice cream (“a work of art in itself,” President Wondra comments), and he talked to her of the life of Mozart.
Because he is so busy at the theater, he spends the two months the theater is closed with his family. “I especially like it,” says Helmut, “when he makes a ‘Helmut day.’ That means I can pick out things the two of us want to do that day—swim, hike, go to the Burgtheater or State Opera, go out to eat, or whatever I want. Then we have lots of time to talk to each other.”
President Wondra spends similar days with the other members of his family. He often invites his wife or a child to accompany him on his many trips—to the Holy Land with the Burgtheater, or to the United States to give lectures on dramatists, to attend general conference, or to visit Church historical sites.
As a father, stake president, and artist, as well as a follower of the Spirit and a seeker after beauty, Johann Wondra strives to become like his Savior. His dedication to the Lord and to his fellowmen is summarized in a psalm which he wrote:
O Lord, my Lord,
My Deliverer, my Redeemer, my Savior.
Thou shield of my faith,
Thou rock of my salvation,
Thou comfort in my affliction,
Thou alone God of my devotion and my songs of praise and glory.
Oh, it is wonderful to taste of Thy love!
Give me, O Lord, the love that is in Thee,
So that it may be in me,
And I, thus, may be in Thee,
So that the times may be accomplished
When all the world will praise Thee eternally.