“Jirí and Olga Snederfler: A Closer Look at Two Czech Pioneers,” Liahona, Sept. 1997, 16
For more than 40 years, Jirí Snederfler, a Czech citizen, was subject to surveillance, interrogation, and persecution because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met often with Communist leaders, requesting that the Church be granted official recognition—but he was treated with contempt, and his requests were denied.
Faithful to their testimonies ever since their baptisms as teenagers, he and his wife, Olga, saw missionaries and the Church’s official presence removed from Czechoslovakia after the Communists began their totalitarian regime. For more than four decades, they quietly served Church members throughout their native land, encouraging them and seeking to keep faith alive in an environment hostile to religion.
When Church leaders told Jirí in 1988 that renewed effort on his part could change the government’s decision to grant the Church official recognition, he did not hesitate. Although he was putting at risk his family’s safety, his job, his freedom—possibly even his life—he said, “I will go! I will do it!” Embracing his wife, he said, “We will do whatever is needed. This is for the Lord, and his work is more important than our freedom or life.”
After Brother Snederfler submitted that request, the suspicion and persecution he and other Church members had endured for so long became even more severe. However, “the Saints continued in courage and faith,” says Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who, accompanied by Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy, had made repeated requests over several years for formal recognition. Elder Nelson adds, “Ultimately, after periodic fasting and prayer and complete compliance with all requirements, that glorious announcement of recognition came. How I admire the Snederflers and all these stalwart members who endured so much interrogation and risk!” (Tambuli, May 1992, 14–15).
Brother Snederfler dismisses any notion of heroism: “I have heard and even read a few times that I am a hero. I do not think so. We Church members who lived under Communism in constant danger ceased after a certain time to be aware of it. If one has to live in constant danger, the danger ceases to exist; it turns into normal, everyday life. I have not done anything more than any other Church member would have done in the same situation.”
Jirí Snederfler was born 24 April 1932 in Plzen, Western Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. As a child, he received strict religious training from his mother; at age 14, he received a diploma from his parish priest for completing an intensive study of religion.
In September 1948, two friends told 16-year-old Jirí about hearing a lecture given by Mormon missionaries. He went with them to the next meeting. “The missionaries were young, friendly, and full of optimism,” he says. “I felt an immediate desire to know more about the Church. Reassured by the lectures I heard at the meeting, I decided to study diligently in my mind and heart the doctrines they were preaching.”
Seven months later, early on the morning of his 17th birthday, Sunday, 24 April 1949, Jirí and his two friends—along with four missionaries and two local members—took a streetcar to the end of the line in Lochotín and then walked for 45 minutes to Kamenicky Pond.
“It was several degrees below freezing,” he remembers, “and the grass and trees were covered with frost. We walked bravely to the pond, surrounded by magnificent nature, to enter into covenants with the Lord.” They were baptized, then confirmed at the waters’ edge. “It was for all of us one of the most beautiful moments in our lives.”
The branch in Plzen had only seven members. Later that year, Jirí was ordained a deacon and then a priest. The following year, when the Communists prohibited Church activity and closed the mission, 18-year-old Jirí and others tried to keep the branch alive. At age 20, Jirí became a counselor in the branch presidency. “We always tried to meet in the largest numbers possible in members’ apartments, but pressure from the secret police became so strong—it was very hard.”
At age 22, Jill married Olga Kozáková. Like Jirí, Olga had been introduced to the Church as a teenager by school friends who had heard the missionaries preaching. “When I attended the lectures,” she says, “I felt very, very warm in my heart, and I said ‘I’m at home!’” She was baptized in Prague six months after Jirí was baptized in Plzen.
Jirí and Olga met later at an outing of young people from various branches. Groups of Saints went on outings every July 24th to Priests Hill near Karlstejn Castle to commemorate Elder John A. Widtsoe’s dedicatory prayer there on 24 July 1929. At times the youth had programs and competitions or studied scriptures together. Jirí and Olga were married 24 April 1954—Jirí’s 22nd birthday and the fifth anniversary of his baptism.
Soon thereafter, Jirí was drafted into mandatory military service. Regarded as an enemy of the state because of his religious affiliation, he spent his two-year stint in a military labor brigade rather than as a soldier. Turning to the Lord for strength, he endured, returning to civilian life “in good health and strengthened in the faith.”
Back home in Plzen, 24-year-old Jirí and branch president Bohumil Kolar started visiting members in their homes to encourage them and strengthen their faith. In 1965, 33-year-old Jirí was ordained an elder.
The persecution of Church members continued unabated. The secret police often questioned them. “One time I was interrogated for six hours,” Jirí says. “They used threats and intimidations to shake our faith and discourage us from activity in the Church. With the majority of members they didn’t succeed.”
Jirí and Olga are the parents of two children—a daughter, Daniela, and a son, Petr. As babies, both children were blessed in the Church. But because the Communist regime had forbidden religious freedom, the Snederflers, like other parents, found it too dangerous to acknowledge their Church membership even to their own young children. But they set examples of moral behavior and filled their home with love and with the Lord’s Spirit.
“We taught our children the gospel all the way through,” says Brother Snederfler. “We had home evenings with them, and every Sunday we had a family Sunday School. Both our daughter and our son took part in these lessons, reading scriptures and so on.”
“Our children knew we were different from their friends’ parents because we didn’t smoke or drink,” says Sister Snederfler. “But for years they had little contact with other Church members. It was hard to rear children in the gospel in those circumstances.”
When their daughter was about 12 years old and their son was about 8, Jirí and Olga began telling them about the Church. “But our daughter didn’t care to listen,” says Sister Snederfler. Although she believes in God, she has never been baptized into any church. She is now married and has one child. “She has her free will,” says Brother Snederfler. “Perhaps someday she’ll recognize the truth.”
Their son, Petr, believed their teachings and was baptized at age 13. He later married Jaromíra Hejduková, a member of the Church; they have two children.
During this difficult period, Jirí and Olga sought legal permission many times to leave their homeland, citing religious persecution. But their requests only triggered new interrogations and further persecution. Since there was no private enterprise in Czechoslovakia, Jirí was a government employee, devoting his career to agricultural and water research. His own supervisors were summoned by Communist leaders and were told to financially punish him. “Heavenly Father protected us,” says Jirí. “Our bosses were our good friends, so we weren’t harmed financially.”
In 1968 they abandoned their efforts to leave Czechoslovakia. “We felt we needed to stay in our homeland because our brothers and sisters would need us,” Jirí says. “We couldn’t leave them.”
In 1972, Jirí was called to be the presiding elder of the Church in Czechoslovakia and was asked to renew Church activity as much as possible. In 1975, a district was created, and Jirí was set apart as its president. For many years, Jirí and Olga and their children spent their summer vacations traveling around the country, locating, visiting, and strengthening members. Often they would find only one person; other times they would meet with a group of five or six members gathered in a home. When Church officials from outside Czechoslovakia were able to obtain visas, Jirí accompanied them on their visits around the country.
Between visits, written correspondence “was executed very carefully,” he says. “We worked out an information system interspersed in our letters so the secret police, who censored all my mail—-both overseas and domestic, couldn’t find out what was happening. It was very difficult for somebody uninitiated to see the meaning of our letters.”
But Jirí’s frequent efforts to gain official recognition of the Church continued to be denied. He finally realized that “we could not wait any longer for official recognition. The time had come to begin preparing the members for the time when we would be able to practice our religion openly.”
Those were busy—though quiet—years for Czechoslovak Church leaders and members. “We weren’t idle!” Brother Snederfler says. Since they couldn’t officially get materials from Church headquarters into Czechoslovakia, they worked quietly and tirelessly to share with one another whatever printed Church material anyone could get their hands on. They translated Church hymns, handbooks, and manuals, finished a translation and review of the Doctrine and Covenants and scriptural commentaries, and transcribed speeches given at district conferences.
Then they typed all of these materials on old typewriters with nine carbon copies at a time. Each of the nine recipients would, in turn, make an additional nine carbon copies and hand-deliver them to others. In this way, Church materials were disseminated to members and families wherever they lived.
At all times, the members knew they were running the risk of severe consequences if they were caught with Church literature. “Our home was searched by the authorities,” says Jirí, “but they never found anything. We had many places to hide things.” And the risk was worth it. “These materials helped the members study and gain the greatest knowledge possible,” he says. “It was glorious work—preparing all of us for the time we would again be able to worship freely and openly in public.”
Although for many years the Czechoslovak Saints had no contact with members at Church headquarters or around the world—and little contact among themselves—“we never felt alone,” says Brother Snederfler. “God is above. I always felt that we were part of the larger family of Church members in the whole world.”
For a time, members traveled to the DDR (the former German Democratic Republic) to receive patriarchal blessings; since both nations were governed by Communist regimes, some travel between them was permitted. But when Brother Calvin McOmber visited Czechoslovakia in 1979, he gave Jirí the exciting news that he (Brother McOmber) had been authorized to give patriarchal blessings to the Saints in Czechoslovakia!
“I had been pondering this possibility during that year,” says Brother Snederfler, “and had prayed to know how to write about this to Brother McOmber so the secret police wouldn’t be able to read it in my letter. Finally, I had decided just to wait and talk to him about it when he came. And here he was giving me the news that he was now our patriarch! Righteous ideas are carried by the Holy Ghost from heart to heart—and do not need to be written or spoken.”
In 1975 Russell M. Nelson, at that time the general president of the Sunday School, visited Prague, commissioned by President Spencer W. Kimball to bless the Czechoslovak members. “I remember speaking with Brother and Sister Nelson about our desires to go to the temple—and our fears that we would never have that possibility in our lifetimes,” says Sister Snederfler. “Brother Nelson said, ‘Sister, one day you will come to Salt Lake City to the temple.’ As impossible as that sounded, I clung to that promise.” Four years later it came true.
In the spring of 1979, Jirí and Olga received an invitation from the First Presidency to attend general conference in Salt Lake City that fall and to receive their temple ordinances. After years of being denied visas to travel to Switzerland to the nearest temple, they despaired of ever receiving permission to travel to Utah.
One day, Jirí told some friends at work about the situation. One of his colleagues told him that the next morning she would bring him the necessary forms to fill out—and that she would take care of the rest. Within a few days Jirí and Olga had received permission to travel to the United States and had obtained American entry visas and airplane tickets! They attended the October 1979 general conference in Salt Lake City; afterward they were endowed and sealed in the temple.
“Did a miracle happen? Yes!” Jirí says. “The Lord sent us a friend who knew the way to get the permission—and he influenced the hearts of those who were deciding regarding the visa. When the First Presidency extends an invitation, no power on earth can thwart that plan!”
“It was a wonder, a miracle,” says Sister Snederfler.
The temple changed the Snederflers forever. “Suddenly our spiritual eyes and ears were fully opened,” he says. “We heard and saw ‘the mysteries of God’ and felt we must serve Heavenly Father better. And we knew we would have more opportunities for temple service.”
When the Freiberg Germany Temple was dedicated in June 1985, the Area Presidency invited Jirí and Olga to attend. During one of the dedicatory sessions, President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Brother Snederfler to speak extemporaneously. Nervously, Jirí accepted the invitation. He spoke in Czech, and his words were translated into German and English. “I remember saying that the Freiberg temple had been built because of the great faith of the brothers and sisters in the DDR—and that it would also serve many members from Eastern Europe. I did not know then that the Freiberg temple and the prayers of its patrons would contribute to the fall of the Iron Curtain and would make it possible for Saints to come from many nations of Eastern Europe.” Nor did he know he and his wife would later serve as president and matron of that temple and would welcome those Saints to the house of the Lord!
On 28 October 1985 Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve held a conference for the Saints in the Snederflers’ apartment in Prague, attended by 56 people. “I thought the floor of our apartment was not going to be able to hold us all!” laughs Sister Snederfler. “But it was a wonderful meeting.”
“Elder Monson dedicated our apartment and the entire building for the gathering of the Saints in Prague and Czechoslovakia,” says Brother Snederfler. “It was a marvelous spiritual experience from which all present received new strength and dedication to build up and expand the kingdom of God.” At that time, Elder Monson also ordained Jirí a high priest. “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and another command from God to serve better and with gladness in my heart.”
Over the next few years, Jirí renewed efforts to gain official recognition for the Church. And all active Church members in Czechoslovakia contributed their faith, fasting, and prayers. For two years, the Czechoslovak Saints had two monthly fast Sundays: they fasted on the first Sunday of each month, along with Church members worldwide—and they also fasted on the third Sunday of every month for freedom of religion.
During a visit with the Communist government’s secretariat of religious affairs in 1987, Elder Russell M. Nelson was informed that the official leader of the Church in Czechoslovakia—the Church’s official liaison with the government had to be a Czech citizen. Elder Nelson and Elder Hans B. Ringger called Jirí Snederfler to be that Czech leader.
Of course, Jirí was more than willing to accept the assignment; he had already made countless petitions to the government over the years and had been regarded as a troublemaker and an enemy of the state. Now, by the secretariat’s own decree, he—a Czech citizen—would officially represent the Church in the eyes of the Communist government.
When accompanied by Elder Nelson and Elder Ringger, Jirí was received kindly. But when he was invited to come alone to a meeting in December 1988, “the officials of the secretariat showed their true faces,” he says. “They tried to intimidate me into withdrawing the Church’s petition for official recognition. They even used threats, telling me what might happen to the Church members if we continued to pursue it.”
At that moment, Brother Snederfler fearlessly opened his mouth and expressed his outrage at the way the Church had been treated during the preceding four decades. “I lost my patience and told them they had only two alternatives in order to get rid of us: either grant us official recognition and permission to worship publicly—or eliminate, lock up, or kick all of us out. I knew I could have landed straight in jail for saying that! But surprisingly they started to treat me with courtesy. Perhaps they were afraid the Church would publish in the free world how the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was illegally oppressing religiously inclined citizens. Be it as it may, I know I was under the protection of God.”
For the next year, Jirí found himself near the top of the secret police’s list of people dangerous to the state. “I had grown used to that for the past 40 years anyway,” he says. But although he was interrogated monthly by the secret police, he now also dealt monthly with the secretariat for religious affairs. He used those frequent opportunities “to let them get used to the idea that we would not withdraw our cause.” On 17 May 1989, he submitted a renewed official request for recognition. When he received no reply, he wrote letters of complaint and began making weekly visits to the secretariat.
Then came that remarkable day of 17 November 1989—the beginning of the nationwide “velvet revolution” against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. “That was a signal to us to intensify even more the pressure regarding our petition. The secretariat for religious affairs referred me to the ministry of culture, who referred me to the state department, who claimed not to be able to do anything without a decision of the cabinet. There was chaos. Nobody knew anything; nobody was responsible for anything. Then the secret police ceased to exist, the secretariat for religious affairs was eliminated, and the power of the Communists was broken.”
In January 1990, Brother Snederfler submitted the Church’s petition to the new administration’s minister of culture, who was overseeing the registration of churches and religious societies. After hearing Jirí’s account and reading the documents, the minister of culture “immediately wrote a petition recommending that the government grant the Church official recognition and permission for public activity as soon as possible. He wrote that the new government had a moral duty to rectify the injustice done to our Church by the Communist regime, which had ‘illegally and criminally abolished the activity thereof.’”
On 6 February 1990, Elder Russell M. Nelson, Elder Hans B. Ringger, and Brother Snederfler met with the vice chairman of the new government; that afternoon they retraced Elder John A. Widtsoe’s steps up Priests Hill near Karlstejn Castle, and Elder Nelson reaffirmed the dedication of Czechoslovakia for the preaching of the restored gospel.
On 21 February 1990, the new administration passed a resolution granting the Church’s request, effective 1 March 1990. The news was broadcast nationwide in newspapers and on radio and television. “Finally, 40 long years of struggle for official recognition and public activity in Czechoslovakia had come to an end!” says Brother Snederfler.
Later that year, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Czechoslovakia and held a special meeting with the Saints. “It was for each of us a spiritual feast; everyone who was present later testified feeling very strongly the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some moments are indeed unforgettable for the rest of our lives.”
Brother Snederfler recalls another unforgettable moment: On 20 May 1991, the phone rang. The caller was President Thomas S. Monson, then Second Counselor in the First Presidency. “He said: ‘Jirí, you have been called as the president of the Freiberg temple. You will begin this office on 1 September of this year. What do you say?’ At first I was not able to say anything at all because of my astonishment. President Monson inquired, ‘Are you there, Jirí?’ I told President Monson, ‘I accept humbly this calling.’”
In the temple, the Snederflers opened prison doors to generations of deceased persons who had never had an opportunity to hear the gospel. And they also opened temple doors to patrons who—having had no religious freedom—had languished in spiritual darkness on earth. They welcomed members of the Church from such former Communist nations as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and the DDR.
“It is so, so good to be in the temple,” Sister Snederfler says simply. After four years of faithful service there, the Snederflers have returned home to Prague to continue family history research so that more of their own ancestors may enjoy temple blessings.
“Before my spiritual eyes pass the faces of all who have contributed to the restoration of the work of God in our homeland,” Brother Snederfler says, naming a host of missionaries, mission presidents, local Saints, and present and past General Authorities.
As he reviews names, faces, and events, he shakes his head again at the suggestion that he is a hero. “On the contrary, I think I should have done more. However, if I am a hero, then every Church member is a hero. All of us must face the ever-growing dangers of this world. I feel that the Church does not need heroes—but people who are willing to labor in the work of God, to be faithful to the principles of the restored gospel, to establish the kingdom of God, and to bind themselves to our Savior, Jesus Christ, with all their minds and all their souls.”