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The Saints Gather in Breslau/Wrocław, 1924

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 21, 2008

Some recent discussion of the Church in pre-World War II Germany suggests that posts about events in that time and place would be of interest … so of course in my skewed way of thinking, the first post concerns a city that isn’t even in Germany anymore.

The city of Wrocław (“Breslau” in German), now in Poland, is part of that historically disputed area that has at times belonged to Germany, Prussia, Poland, Austria, and Bohemia. In the period between the two world wars, it was part of Germany, and assigned to the Swiss-German Mission of the LDS Church. Its population at the time was slightly above a half-million people. And it had been a fruitful field for LDS missionary work – as early as 1910 we had a Breslau branch with 170 members, although in the same year the elders were banished from the country by German officials.

The missionaries soon returned, and by 1922 were baptizing an average of ten people every month in and near Breslau. Although they faced some serious opposition from a few officials, including one pastor who had lived briefly in Utah, the clean lives of the elders and local members successfully refuted much of the slander. According to one elder, “It is quite a revelation to the Germans to see a group of young fellows who do not drink nor smoke in a land where such things are as much a matter of course as things to eat and wear … One of the [Breslau] branch presidents was a German brother who had reared a fine family, [and] is noted for his friendliness, helpfulness and honesty. When the missionaries went tracting and met people who know him they had no trouble in getting them to respond to an invitation to meeting, because they wanted to make the acquaintance of a system which produces such men.”

Civil conditions following the war were difficult: “The German nation is just now in a very important transition point in its history. During the long, miserable months of the rapid depreciation of money, the only thing which held the nation together was a well-trained, efficient police force of picked men, ready to use their rifles on the crowds on the slightest provocation. There have been riots everywhere, and the government is now making a supreme effort to regulate the currency by introducing a new medium of exchange backed by a reasonably good security. It is apparently succeeding.”

On 16-17 December 1923, the three branches that were then part of the Breslau Conference (equivalent to a stake in the mission parlance of the time) gathered at the stock exchange building in Breslau for a major conference. Representative of the changing attitude toward the Mormons is the fact that newly appointed mission president Fred Tadje was hosted by a German police officer, a friend of the Church, during the days of the conference.

Five hundred Saints and 200 of their friends watched a model demonstration of Sunday School recitations and a chorus composed of 65 Sunday School children, with talks on repentance and the Word of Wisdom. Adult meetings followed in the afternoon. Pres. Tadje spoke at all meetings on the topics of priesthood power and missionary work, an elder who was a skilled violinist played several numbers, and the Breslau district choir sang. The vocal solo of one missionary (Norwood Crawford, singing “Forgotten”) drew applause from the audience.

The highlight of the conference was an evening performance of the oratorio “The Vision” performed by the 90-voice choir of the three Breslau branches. This oratorio, written by Evan Stephens and commissioned by Pres. Heber J. Grant to observe the centennial of the First Vision, was an elaborate effort – Elder John D. Montague had translated the words, the choir rehearsed for three months in preparation for their performance. Fully half of the 1,100 in attendance were not members of the Church, and listened with interest to Pres. Tadje’s talk concerning the First Vision and the 45-minute oratorio.

The next day at sunset, twenty-three converts went with the elders to the banks of the Oder river for baptism. Publicity about the LDS conference had been so extensive that an estimated 1,000 Breslau citizens, not members of the Church, watched curiously and respectfully. Attracted by the crowd, two airplane pilots practicing maneuvers circled the baptismal site, the roar of their motors interfering somewhat with the service. Immediately after the baptisms, one of the elders found a place to stand a few feet above the ground and addressed the crowd to explain what they had just witnessed.

The public nature of the meetings, the public relations value of the choir performance, and the number of people – both Saints and strangers – in attendance all indicate the growth, stability, and acceptance of the Church in that corner of Europe in the years between the wars.



13 Comments »

  1. Wow. You keep coming up with these amazing, fascinating posts.

    I don’t have time to write a longer comment right now, but I will return and make some notes about some of the people I’ve known from Silesia, which is the area you’re speaking about.

    Comment by Researcher — July 21, 2008 @ 7:07 am

  2. Pretty dang cool. Thanks, as always.

    Comment by Edje — July 21, 2008 @ 7:33 am

  3. When I was in Berlin, I know some older people who were from Breslau. Maybe some of them attended this conference when they were children.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 21, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  4. The next day at sunset, twenty-three converts went with the elders to the banks of the Oder river for baptism.

    Brave souls! I think I’d pass on an outdoor baptism held at sunset in mid-December.

    Comment by Justin — July 21, 2008 @ 7:48 am

  5. Wow,

    That is quite the story. I wonder if the political unstability was the reason that the Germans were taking a look at Mormonism in such numbers.

    My mission exp is that when there is political uncertianty people were less likely to be interested in Mormonism. This comes from South Africa in 1994. Dring the the 4-5 months around the election of the ANC government we had maybe 10 convert baptisms.

    Comment by bbell — July 21, 2008 @ 8:16 am

  6. That line about the country being held together by well-trained police ready to use their rifles “at the slightest provocation” reminds me of that old joke that in hell the policemen will be German.

    And a great story, Ardis, about another branch of Zion in a place we’ve nearly forgotten. (Keeping Breslau and Wroclaw straight doesn’t help much, eh?)

    Comment by Mark B. — July 21, 2008 @ 9:56 am

  7. I didn’t know anything about Silesia before I served my mission in western central Germany, although it was undoubtedly mentioned in high school American history class as being one of the regions transferred out of Germany after World War II.

    This is rather a simple explanation, but there were a lot of German speaking people living in Poland and Czechoslovakia before the war. In many cases they had been there for generations. After the war, the four million Germans in Silesia had to leave Poland when it was turned over to Russian occupation. It adds something to the picture of the Saints in Breslau to think that within twenty years their families and church units would be ripped apart and dispersed by war and genocide and forced evacuation.

    “The Silesian people are perceived to traditionally exhibit exceptional working ethics, high technical aptitude, dedication to family, team-work orientation, and skepticism to politics and media.” (Wikipedia) As I found out on my mission, the former Silesian refugees I met also tended to be very sensitive to the spirit, which set them apart from many other people I worked with. [Some of the following details are from my missionary journal and several from memory, so certain of the details could need correction.]

    A couple of weeks into my mission, my companion and I met an older woman from Silesia named Frau W-. Why did we know she was from Silesia? For the same reason we heard from old men that they had participated in the siege of Leningrad. It was a defining moment in their lives. (We didn’t normally hear anything about the Nazis or the Holocaust, although sometimes we did.)

    We had an extremely remarkable experience working with Frau W- although I was transferred soon after and don’t know if the next missionaries kept up the contact. But this experience marked Silesia in my mind, and I found out that the Stake Patriarch, Johann Paul, also a remarkable person, was from Silesia. Several years ago I was happy to see his son Wolfgang called as one of the general authorities of the church.

    A member in my third area was a child of the refugees from Poland. In his case, his parents had joined the church after coming to West Germany (very interesting story). He told us their stories of the depredations as the Russians occupied Poland, including the shocking sight of Russian soldiers dragging pianos into the street to rot in the rain. I’m sure he spared our young ears some of the more awful memories (although we heard about them from other former refugees).

    I remember talking to an older woman one time outside a shop and as I started to discuss the church with her, felt the spirit very strongly. In surprise, I asked if she was from Silesia, which she was.

    I don’t know what or why it was; but after about a dozen similar experiences, I really had a soft spot in my heart for the Silesian people.

    My final experience was in my last area. I served in a small, struggling branch. Over the months I was there, I realized that one of the older sisters in the ward had managed to offend most members of the branch, some to the extent that they would not come back to church. I felt angry toward her as we saw efforts to bring members back to activity thwarted and efforts to introduce investigators hampered by the lack of a strong church unit.

    I had been home from Germany almost half a year when I was sitting together with a family home evening group at the university listening to general conference. As I listened to President Monson tell the story of the German refugee woman in his talk “The Fatherless and the Widows—Beloved of God,” I remembered that this sister had been one of those refugees and got the distinct impression that she had been through things that I could not even imagine and that I needed to repent of my hard feelings toward her. It was a very humbling experience.

    So, those are my rather lengthy notes on some of the Silesians I’ve met.

    Comment by Researcher — July 22, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  8. You would have had a remarkable history teacher, indeed, if in high school you ever heard the word “Silesia,” or if you had heard about the redrawing of Poland’s boundaries about 200 miles to the west of where they had been before the war, and the accompanying forced resettlement of millions.

    Regarding the German population of Wroclaw/Breslau: The settling of Germans (Saxons and Bavarians, to be more precise) in Wroclaw/Breslau began in earnest in the middle of the 13th century, after the Mongol invasion of Europe. By the early 20th century, the census showed a population of nearly 500,000, including 20,536 Jews, 6,020 Poles and 3,752 “others.” For nearly 600 years, Breslau had been part of Germanic states, including Bohemia, Austria and Prussia, and finally the German Reich after 1871.

    I’m not trying to settle the argument about whether Silesia or Wroclaw is properly German or Polish. (Couldn’t do it, even if I wanted to–especially since most of what I know on the subject I learned from Wikipedia, and the few lines that most WW2 histories devote to the boundary changes and resettlement that resulted from the Yalta Conference, etc.) It is helpful to understand, though, that the Germanic communities in what is now western Poland (Pomerania and Silesia, mainly), had what is by American standards, a very long history, and that history was uprooted violently by the Soviet army’s conquering of that area in 1945 and the conquerers’ drawing of new national boundary lines thereafter.

    (On a tangent: my junior high school orchestra teacher, John (Johann?) Hilgendorff, was from Stettin–a German city on the Baltic, not far from Danzig (Gdansk). He was part of that great gathering of the saints from eastern Germany.)

    Comment by Mark B. — July 22, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  9. Actually I didn’t have a remarkable history teacher in high school. I had two, one year after the other. I also had a remarkable government teacher, a super remarkable English teacher and ditto for physics. I took a general history class in college and it was no where near as good as either of my high school classes. Sometimes public education works.

    Comment by Researcher — July 22, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  10. That is very interesting about Breslau, though not as uncommon as one might think. The Weimar era (1919-1933) was really a “golden” era for the Church in Germany. The Weimar constitution garanteed religious freedom that Germany had not enjoyed in the past. Many Germans were disillusioned with the mainstream churches (Catholic and Evangelical Protestant) and, in the liberal environment of Weimar, many turned to the non-traditional religions. Not only did the LDS Church grow rapidly during this time, so did other small denomination such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. By 1930, Germany boasted the largest LDS population outside the United States (even larger than in Canada). To be sure, the total number of German Mormons was around 13,000. In the mid-1920s the Swiss-German mission was split into the S-G and German-Austrian missions. Again, the missions were divided in 1938–West German, East German and Swiss-Austrian (later just Swiss). There was substantial growth in the eastern portions of Germany at this time with large pockets in what became Poland and the German Democratic Republic (E. Germany).

    Comment by Steve C — July 22, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  11. I’m slow getting back due to work deadlines, but I want to thank everybody for comments, especially Researcher for sharing her explanation and experience with Silesians. As I was working on this post I thought about how the lives of the Saints in the choir picture would be disrupted by the war, but I didn’t know about the forced migration.

    Steve C and I worked at the same library table yesterday and I know something of his interests and expertise. I hope you’ll share some of that with us, Steve, if you have time to drop by again.

    And Mark B, my knowledge of the geography and politics comes from pretty much the same sources and ends at pretty much the same point! But now that I’m learning about the Saints, in whom I have a real interest, I won’t have much trouble learning and remembering more.

    Thanks to all of you who have read this and left comments.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  12. Really great information. I would like to get a permision from the owner of these pictures to use them in a publication that I work on in Poland. I am LDS :)

    Please contact me directly.

    Regards,

    Urszula

    Comment by Urszula Czesak — June 6, 2012 @ 3:25 am

  13. I just checked membership records from Breslau Conference. There is no sign about baptism in December 1923. I would like to check some newspapers in Breslau University Library, but need to have 100% correct date.

    As a member of Wroclaw (Breslau) and profesional genealogist I’m very interested in erly LDS history in Silesia.

    Comment by Radoslaw Zan — August 25, 2012 @ 3:28 am

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