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“When Baked Potatoes and Milk Are Needed” – 1945-46

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 01, 2008

That is, of course, a phrase from Brigham Young’s sermon in 1856 dispatching the people of Salt Lake City to take life-saving aid to the handcart pioneers stranded on the plains: “Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.”

Even as war raged in 1943 and 1944 and 1945, when some church members called for a relaxation of fast offerings and welfare work in light of wartime conditions, the church called on its members in the U.S. to increase the rate of contributions, and to accept additional assignments of quilt-making, sewing, and canning. Some of it was to meet immediate need, but much of it was deliberately stockpiled against the day when the war would end and church members overseas could be assisted, as they no doubt would need.

In May, 1945, as the war ended in Europe, church gears began turning. As best as could then be determined, based on the last available reports – 1938, for some countries – the church had nearly 30,000 members in Europe, in three classifications:

1. The liberated countries of Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia (7,245 members)

2. Germany and Austria (14,400 members)

3. Great Britain, Sweden, and Switzerland (8,145 members)

Saints in the third group, while in need of assistance, were receiving general American aid, and for the most part had retained their means of producing at least some food and clothing. Saints in the second group could not be reached until Allied authorities permitted access in mid-1946. Saints in the first group were in perhaps the worst need, yet could be most easily reached immediately, and to them the church turned first.

Shipping was the first hurdle – no facilities were available for shipping or distributing large amounts of goods. The parcel post system had been quickly re-established, however. Although shipments were limited to individual packages weighing no more than 11 pounds each, an unlimited number of packages could be mailed. The church decided, therefore, to mail two 11-pound packages (one of bedding and one of clothing) to every Latter-day Saint in the liberated countries.

The Relief Society went into overdrive. Between October 29, 1945, and March 31, 1946, they had sorted, wrapped, and shipped 14,679 packages from post offices throughout Utah, Idaho, and southern California. Packages were carefully weighed, with every ounce allowed – when bundles weighed slightly under the limit, they would be brought up to weight by the addition of a bar of soap, a can of food, even a package of sewing needles if that was all that could be added.

Relief Societies in other areas went into high production mode. Representative are those of the Northern and Northwestern States Missions, which produced baby layettes – not a layette consisting of a blanket and a couple of nightgowns, but mammoth layettes containing three dozen diapers, six gowns, four short jackets, three shirts, four pairs of bootees, four pairs of socks, six receiving blankets, a large blanket, a pair of wool bootees, a bonnet-and-jacket set, one rubber sheet, a bib, a sheet/blanket, and as much cotton, oil, powder, soap, and safety pins as could be squeezed in under the weight limit.

These packages were addressed to individuals where their names and addresses were known; the bulk of the packages, though, were addressed to mission homes and district presidents with the hope that they would reach members – or someone else in need.

(If the pixels on your screen start to run at this point, it’s because I can’t type without tearing up. Yesterday as I assembled the following letters, a librarian came over to see whether I was all right because he had noticed I kept wiping my eyes. Can’t help it. I’ve read these letters several times before, but they get to me every time.)

Recipients of the packages soon began writing thank you notes back to the Saints who had sent them:

From the non-member daughter of a member mother in France:

My mother, who doesn’t speak English, asked me to thank you for your parcels. It was a very good surprise for us – I say for us because I benefited by them, too. My mother gave me the dress, which fits me very well, the baby clothes, and a blanket. I recently married, and it’s very difficult in France to find any bedding. Before that we covered ourselves with our coats.

From Denmark:

We thank you very much for the packages which we received from America. My wife was so happy that she cried for joy, and jointly we send our heartiest thanks which we ask you to forward to the Church in America. My wife says it was the greatest joy she had since May 5th (the day of our liberation). We are happy and grateful to the Church.

From Holland:

The parcel sent by you October 29th has been received. Accept all of you who have contributed our sincere thanks. it was a very fine variety of goods, which enabled us to again really wash, and to sew with real thread, for we were not used to that in a great while. There has been a lot of good things gathered together by the saints in Zion and made us conscious of the unity in spirit and cause, which means to help those who belong to that same kingdom. We hope God will bless you all for what you have done for your fellow brethren and sisters.

Also from the Netherlands:

Sometime ago it came to my mind to write a letter to thank you for the box of clothes I received from the Church Welfare. I don’t know if this letter will come to the place where it belongs because I don’t know to whom to write, so I am addressing it to the address that was on the box. In the box sent to me was a lady’s coat, a dress, two suits underwear, a shirt, sweater, two pair stockings, and five bars of soap.

We went on our knees with thankful hearts to our Heavenly Father for the things we needed so much. We thank the members of the Church that have done this for us. We thank the Church for this nice and wise plan and that you are mindful of us here in our so poor Netherland. Oh, how much happiness it will bring among God’s children, and what happiness to receive these things at this time.

As Elder Ezra Taft Benson progressed on his European tour assessing needs and re-establishing contact with the branches, he sent word of packages received:

From Belgium:

Over 600 Welfare packages have been received by the saints. All packages have been opened upon entering the country and some items have been removed by marauders, but the items received have in large measure taken care of their present clothing needs, and over 100 packages have been set aside by the saints for shipment to the members in Germany as soon as permission to do so is obtained.

From Finland:

The Church has one small branch in Finland. These saints have been grievously impoverished by the war and are finding the Welfare packages most helpful.

From Norway:

The people of Norway are quite run down physically because of the rigors of long enemy occupation of their land. Much of the need has been relieved through the assistance received from the saints in the Danish and Swedish missions and the present Welfare shipments are continuing to give them the more necessary items of food, clothing, and bedding.

From Czechoslovakia:

They had received only 30 packages, practically all of which had been opened and most of the readily edible food products removed.

Some officials were far more honest than those who raided the packages to Czechoslovakia and other places where Elder Benson reported pilfered goods. A postmaster in Amsterdam, not a Mormon, could not help but notice the supply of goods coming to his office from America, but he did not stoop to robbing someone else to meet his own great need. Instead, he wrote:

Being a postal official at the Central Station Post Office at Amsterdam, charged with the distribution and forwarding of postal parcels, I picked up your address among the senders. As many articles are very scant here in Holland or even not to be had at all, I kindly beg to request you to send me a postal parcel, if possible, containing some men’s and women’s underwear and textile goods. I should not have had the courage to ask you this favour, but as I told you already, I need it badly. I know that the remittance of money to your country is not yet allowed, but I assure you that I shall send you the amount due as soon as it will be permitted to remit money again, and I am gladly willing to do you a service in return.

The Relief Society reported that parcels were immediately dispatched to both the postmaster and his wife.

By the end of 1946, government regulations permitted the sending of similar parcels to Japan. Although the church had had no mission presence there since 1924, they were aware of 109 members on the rolls. In an effort to reach them, Relief Societies in Hawaii sent 200 11-pound packages to addresses they hoped would reach members, while an additional 154 bundles were sent from the storehouses in Salt Lake City. I have been unable to find any report on whether these packages reached Japanese Saints — presumably they would have been of use to anyone to whom they were delivered.

And thus went the first phase of a massive effort to send aid to the Saints in war districts in the months following the end of the war.



30 Comments »

  1. Dear Ardis,

    Thank you for these–the past brings perspective on the present, and is o so necessary. I love you.

    Coffinberry

    Comment by Coffinberry — October 1, 2008 @ 6:38 am

  2. I have a sneaking suspicion something like this will happen again.

    Comment by cadams — October 1, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  3. Nobody was here to watch me wiping my eyes–what a wonderful post, Ardis!

    My father was in Vienna from September 1945 to June 1946, so he was aware of the terrible challenges faced by all the Viennese, including the members of the Vienna branch. And, sadly, there was precious little that could be done, given the extent of the damage to the city and the utter lack of food, fuel, clothing, etc. (And, of course, Vienna was in much better shape than Berlin or Hamburg or Dresden or Tokyo or Osaka or Hiroshima.) A little food or firewood wouldn’t have replaced the broken windows or the leaking (or non-existent) roof. Nonetheless, any small help was a God-send to the suffering people.

    It’ll never make it into an Ensign or New Era story, but one thing the Mormon GIs in Vienna did to help the Viennese saints was to give them their weekly cigarette rations. In the utterly destroyed economy of postwar Austria, cigarettes were a favored (and sometimes the only) medium of exchange. A carton of cigarettes from each of the half-dozen or so Mormon GIs was a great help.

    And, as this article shows, there was one way to get parcels into Germany and Austria (and presumably, Italy and Japan)–parents of occupying Allied soldiers could send parcels to their sons (were there any daughters? I don’t know), who could share them with the local members.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 1, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  4. Aw, Mark, now I’m tearing up again! I wonder how many times some version of that story has played out?

    Thanks, Coffinberry — and cadams, on a much smaller scale, things like this happen almost routinely and constantly, don’t you think, in today’s war zones and hurricane zones and after housefires? We almost don’t notice when it’s on a small scale, but to the one who’s hungry or barefoot or has a toothache, relief is everything.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  5. Are you aware of the story about President George Albert Smith who went to Welfare Square to inspect the packages that were being sent to the Saints in Europe. While there ,he stood before an open parcel and took off his topcoat and put in the parcel so it could be shipped to a needy member in Europe.

    Comment by John Willis — October 1, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  6. No, I’m not familiar with that, John. Somehow I’m not at all surprised that he would do that. I’ll see if I can find a citation for that so that we can all quote it. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2008 @ 9:48 am

  7. A number of years ago my grandmother gave me a copy of On Wings of Faith, the Frederick Babbel book about Ezra Taft Benson’s mission to post-war Europe. It is a book that I reread every few years and always find amazingly touching, as I do these letters from the Saints in Europe.

    During World War II, soap was a rationed item in the United States, so sending soap in these packages was not the easy thing that it would be nowadays.

    Thank you for the beautiful post, Ardis.

    Comment by Researcher — October 1, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  8. Thank you again, Ardis. That first one from France was so poignant.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 1, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  9. Go to the book “Prophets I have known” by Joseph Anderson who was secretary to the First Presidency for many years.

    Comment by John Willis — October 1, 2008 @ 11:44 am

  10. Yesterday as I assembled the following letters, a librarian came over to see whether I was all right because he had noticed I kept wiping my eyes. Can’t help it.

    Me, too. Thanks, Ardis. Reminders of the past like this make me resolve to do more for humanitarian aid in my own area (and era).

    Comment by ZD Eve — October 1, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  11. This has been a very touching thread which I’ve enjoyed quite a bit. I am amazed at the development of the Church’s humanitarian efforts. I was very blessed to have been able to go to the Gulf after Huricane Katrina and help with the relief/clean-up. (Unfortunately, after Gustav and Ike there was so much volunteer efforts by Church members that they didn’t need our stake to help).

    The relief efforts in Europe after World War II were incredible. I’ve come across so many similar sentiments in my research. SLC was so well organized that when it was time to send goods over it went as well as could be expected. The parcels sent over by the Church during the summer/fall 1945 were not enough and for this reason, ET Benson was sent over to open up a relief effort on a much larger scale. (Even after his return in late 1946, he still worked on relief to Europe by arranging with the Canadian government to send wheat from Alberta to the European Saints). I am also impressed by the efforts of the European Saints to take care of themselves. They organized warehouses where they stocked goods which were distributed to those in distress and they also established refugee centers which served as bases of operations for Church relief from the USA.

    Sorry for getting long-winded with this, but it’s something I feel strongly about. Thanks for the post and the comments. Isn’t twentieth century LDS history great!

    Comment by Steve C. — October 1, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  12. It sure is. Steve, I’ve got some material on a drive in early December, 1945, where Saints in the U.S. contributed almost 600,000 pieces of good used clothing, and something like 40,000 pairs of shoes, for shipment to Europe. That call probably provided some of the mass shipments sent in the next year, arranged for by ETB, as you note.

    And I’m so impressed that the Belgian Saints set aside more than 100 of their own bundles to send into Germany as soon as it was possible. We hear about the Dutch Saints and their potatoes, part of which were saved by the Germans for their own cooperative welfare garden the next year — more evidence of what the European Saints did to take care of themselves. (I’ve got some pictures of the German Saints working in their garden — that may appear as a post sometime, too.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

  13. Jean Wunderlich, president of the West German mission after World War II tells of the clothing and shoes from the USA. He notes that the shape of Germans and Americans were slightly different (mainly because of different types of physical activities each was involved in shaped growing bodies differently). Anyway, the German RS mixed and matched clothing, took clothing apart and reconstructed it and so forth to fit the Germans. They even had pagents to show off what they were able to do with used clothing from the US. In transit, many shoes that had been donated in Utah got separated from their mates. President Wunderlich pondered this and finally the mission decided to send the mateless shoes to organizations that provided for those who had lost legs during the war. It was good PR for the Church.

    Once again, a very interesting thread.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 1, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  14. Thank you for this wonderful post. I was especially struck by the postmaster’s humble request. I’ve thought sometimes when I’m packing a Ziploc kit that it doesn’t seem like much (what? no chocolate?!) but it is more than zero and it does matter.

    Comment by Lupita — October 1, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  15. This was a truly wonderful post. It reminds me of the power of service.

    Comment by Tiffany — October 1, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

  16. This is going down as one of my favorite posts you have ever written, Ardis. I had a knot in my throat even before I got to the thank-you notes.

    This:

    Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.

    reminded me a bit of what Pres. Uchtdorf talked about when saying that being an answer to prayers may be more important than any prayers we offer. (Or something like that.)

    For me, the timing of this post made it all the more poignant and powerful after our RS broadcast this past weekend.

    And I loved your point about how small scale stuff happens all the time, and I think sometimes we just don’t know how much it can matter. I just got a note from my visiting teachee, someone who seems like she doesn’t need much. All I did was take a couple of things over the week after she had a bad bike accident. I didn’t think it mattered much, but her note let me know otherwise. (Hm. That reminds me of hints of other things I think I heard at the RS meeting…that sometimes it’s just little things.)

    Anyway, you have me in a reflective mood now. Thank you so much for the time you take to compile things like this. Wow. This was a wonderful way to end my stressful day.

    Comment by m&m — October 2, 2008 @ 12:44 am

  17. Beautiful, Ardis. I also found myself wiping my eyes. The postmaster’s note really touched me, as well.

    Just so you know, I have decided to link to posts that I find particularly moving or profound around the Bloggernacle on the “off days” when I don’t have a personally written post. I have scheduled the “old” ones from my journal entries, and this will be the first “new” one.

    Comment by Ray — October 2, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  18. Yeah, I linked to this one, too.

    And emailed it. :)

    Comment by m&m — October 2, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  19. I have some pictures that I’ve tried to insert — women folding layettes, and sorting and packing, but even though they look fine on my laptop screen, they post too grainy on the blog. I wish you could see them. The women look like they have just stepped out of the kitchen, with their aprons and headscarves. Just ordinary people, doing another extraordinary thing.

    (I did put up one of them — it works better in a larger size than I could use to embed them in the text.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  20. OK, Ardis, grainy or not, my vote is:
    MORE! MORE! I LOVE seeing pics like that. :)

    Comment by m&m — October 2, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  21. Okay, just for you …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  22. Very nice photos. Particularly in the third photo, they all look very happy to be involved in the project.

    Comment by Researcher — October 2, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  23. Those workers are somewhere in the Northwestern States Mission, Researcher. The top two photos are in Salt Lake, and the bottom is somewhere in the Northern States Mission.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

  24. These efforts must have continued through the late 1940s. I have a picture of myself on the first day of first grade wearing a brand new red sweater with a border of white swans. I loved that sweater. But the other thing I remember about it was that (probably in 1948) my mother told me about the children of Europe who didn’t have clothes and asked me to give my red sweater. I remember it was hard to put it on the pile and walk away. I always hoped a little girl who loved it as much as I did got it. It made this whole effort very personal to me. Also for several years in grade schools we were each to fill a box (smaller than an shoe box) from the Red Cross with school things and candy for another child just our age.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — October 3, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

  25. Marjorie:
    You are quite right; LDS relief efforts continued in Europe until the end of the decade when it began to taper off. By the last couple of years of the decade, Western Europe was beginning to recover with the Marshall Plan and the Soviet Union was closing off Eastern Europe.

    That is very interesting (and moving) about your red sweater. I’m sure that it went to someone who loved/needed it.

    Comment by Steve C — October 4, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  26. This is such a wonderful post! This history makes me feel a part of something that’s bigger than I realize, bigger than our here-and-now church, even. I feel like part of some great sweep of history, of God’s work going forward across time and space. It sounds corny but it feels true to me.

    Comment by Tatiana — October 6, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  27. Here in the Uk some primary schools still have a christmas box program which is sent to Africa-we provide school items and a small toy.It’s been a real joy thinking through what we can get in and what it might mean to a child in the developing world.I also have two colleagues,both very moderate earners,who have started projects in the developing world,the first providing clean drinking water-usually sinking a simple well,not expensive,and the second has set up a school with her husband.Each of their holidays is spent out there but their cash goes a long way over there and they are working with the community.Amazingly effective small acts of humanity which inspire me and help me to know we are not helpless but can all be part of the solution.

    Comment by wayfarer — November 20, 2008 @ 4:07 am

  28. This past week I took my children and parents to the Warhawk WWII Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho. This museum is full of local stories and artifacts from WWII (my favorite being a wedding dress made from an unused Japanese silk parachute). As we wandered the aisles, my parents told the stories their parents told them about living during that era. I am so grateful to have found this article so that I may share it with my children. Thank you for such a great piece.

    Comment by Scarehaircare — August 5, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

  29. Thanks, Scare– I’m glad you found it, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 6, 2009 @ 4:27 am

  30. When we’re helping, we’re happy….

    Comment by S. Taylor — August 6, 2009 @ 10:12 am

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