Captive Missionary

“Captive Missionary,” New Era, Apr. 1977, 18

Missionary Focus:
Captive Missionary

On May 15, 1942, Piet Vlam kissed his wife good-bye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” As the train carried him through the springtime countryside toward Arnhem, a Dutch city near the German border, his mind was full of his pressing duties as second counselor in the Netherlands Mission. He was impatient to get back to them.

Unfortunately, this trip was unavoidable. As an ex-naval officer in occupied Holland he was required to register in Arnhem with the other Dutch officers.

These all-too-frequent registrations had become a routine, though irritating, part of his life—nothing to worry about. He didn’t suspect as he watched green fields flash past his window that his one-day trip to Arnhem was to be a three-year journey into captivity.

In Arnhem the Dutch officers were informed that they were prisoners of war and were loaded onto trains bound for Germany. As Piet rode through the darkness of discouragement and night on his way to the prison compound at Langwasser, his mind stood somewhere apart from the sweat and metal world around him, wrestling with an unanswerable question: “Why?” The Lord had called him to the mission presidency, and he was needed badly. Why was he being taken away? Every click of the railroad tracks seemed to ask again, “Why?” But there was no answer.

But Piet’s faith was strong. He didn’t really need an answer. He would wait and see.

He didn’t realize till much later that his imprisonment constituted one of the clearest though most unwelcome mission calls in the history of the Church.

One day not long after his arrival at Langwasser, Piet was lying outside the lice-ridden wooden barracks on the camp’s one anemic spot of grass when a fellow prisoner sharing it with him started asking questions about religion. Piet knew exactly how to answer, and this became the first of many religious discussions.

Soon there were many other prisoners who wanted to hear about the Church. Piet couldn’t talk to them in large groups because the guards wouldn’t allow it, so he took two men at a time and walked with them around the camp, mile after mile.

After a few months at Langwasser, the prisoners were transferred to Stanislaw on the Russian-Polish border. Piet made a walk-talk schedule and continued to teach the gospel.

A group of Piet’s most interested investigators asked if they could hold LDS services. They found an empty barracks in a far-off corner of the prison, put a blanket in front of the window for privacy, and set up an old soapbox for a pulpit. They had to do all this in secret because the guards didn’t allow extra meetings.

These services were filled with the Spirit, but they were a little unorthodox. The opening and closing songs were read, since the congregation didn’t dare sing out loud for fear of alerting their guards, and the worshipers had to sneak away afterwards one at a time.

Gospel principles were strictly observed inside the barbed-wire compound. The men observed fast Sunday by giving their meager cup of beans to someone else even though they were already hungry themselves. Many men received a testimony of the gospel while praying through the long nights made sleepless by hunger. One of the most skeptical investigators received a testimony during such a night of fasting. He stood weeping the following day and told of an indescribable feeling of peace that had come over him. He humbly asked that he too might have some small task to help prepare for the Sunday meetings. When Piet asked him to sweep the floor each week, he replied that it would be an honor. “You enter this room,” he said, “and with you the holy priesthood.”

When the men heard about the Mutual Improvement Association, they wanted to hold one of their own, so Piet organized one, calling prisoners to serve as the presidency, secretary, and teacher. They studied the Doctrine and Covenants in their meetings, and Piet later reported that he had never heard that book taught better than it was by these nonmembers.

As the months wore on, the long walks around the camp continued, and men grew strong in the gospel. Their faith helped them to endure. The men developed a deep love for Piet, and one Easter morning they surprised him with an original song entitled “Faith.” It was later included in the official songbook of the Netherlands Mission.

Near the end of the war, the prisoners were moved to Neubrandenburg, Germany, where the Church activities continued. On April 28, 1945, a Russian tank ran down the barbed wire fence, and the camp was liberated. A few weeks later Piet was home with his wife and children. Those of his fellow prisoners who had been willing to receive it took home with them a gift that made the hunger and cold and bedbugs well worth it to them.

Seven of them were later baptized into the Church, and with them many family members. One of Piet’s prison converts later became the first president of the Netherlands Stake.

Piet Vlam was a hard man to distract from his duty. When he was taken away from his mission field, he simply took his mission with him, and many people will be eternally grateful that he did.

Illustrated by Ralph Reynolds