Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Missionary Evacuation, 1939: A First-Person Account

Missionary Evacuation, 1939: A First-Person Account

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 29, 2009

Elder Joseph Fielding Smith
47 East South Temple Street
Salt Lake City, Utah.

Dear Brother Smith:

Some time ago it came to my attention that you would be interested in hearing the story of the departure from Germany of some of the missionaries whom you took care of during the “evacuation” of two years ago. Probably this would be a good time to give you my “story.”

I glanced into my diary for two years ago today and found:

“Donnerstag, den 31. August, 1939; Kopenhagen: We learn today that we are to leave for America. We have had a wonderful experience in all here, and have been blessed. Now we must leave these good people and goodly lands to what Shicksal neither we nor they know; we return unto our own homeland, and peace. I am thankful for what I have.”

Today I feel more significance in this entry than a year ago, or two years ago. “A wonderful experience in all” – indeed there was cause to make us full of wonder at times; yet I remember that always at the crucial moment, at the time when we wondered most and knew of nothing we could do to help ourselves, something unpredicted occurred to relieve us. that’s the significant part of the experience.

For instance, I recall now how we felt about midnight of August 25, just before the war. Ten minutes late for the last train north or west, and under the stimulus of a score of newly published Flugblatter announcing that all railroads 48 hours hence would be put at the primary disposal of the rapidly mobilizing army, my companion and I checked our baggage and sat down on the leeward side of a little wind-shelter out of Bahnsteig 2 of the main station at Weimar to try to figure out what to do. Trains east, trains east, but none north.

Well, that wasn’t so difficult: we simply took a train east, to Halle, where we walked about the streets until 8:30 a.m., bought us a camera, and caught a main-liner out for Hanover and the Holland border. That camera was a good idea; we could take it with us, but couldn’t have taken the money which we paid for it. The cash invested might be of use to use; – later on we wished we had the cash.

I recall too how the early morning market-goers that day congested the sidewalks about the print-shops of Halle. “Drang nach Osten! … Auch Dirchau befreit!” Eastward the armies were racing, pushing, blasting their way to “free” the “oppressed” Germans of the Corridor. “Der Hitler, der kann Alles!” – he can do any and everything, some of the market-goers were muttering. Others didn’t say much; didn’t even shake their heads. Maybe they recalled the other war; we had been well acquainted with quite a number of folks who did, vividly, and not pleasantly, and who said wishfully if not confidently, “Der fuhrer will kein Krieg!” – he knew what war was; he would bring them into no war!

Thinking of them and the whole bloody mess coming on, we saw but pathos in the tranquil country scenes we traversed; in the mother and her babe scratching about the cabbages near their frugal little Gartenhaus, waving to us, or to the train that roared westward by. We felt it pathetic that she alone and her babe should seem symbolic to us of the coming loneness many were probably to suffer. Another young mother in our compartment in the train was taking her babe to grandma’s. Yes, he had left last night, she answered the woman next to her; and they said little more – just looked out the window, but none of the swift-rotating landscape caught their attention. We supposed they were just looking because they were expected to impress us, whoever we might be, that they were proud their men had gone.

From Hannover, where we first were able to find seats, or even to crowd into a compartment out of the hallway of the car, we listened to young men talk. But they didn’t say much either; they didn’t even ask us where we were going, or where we had come from. Most everyone did that, at least, over there.

We rolled on toward Holland, hardly feeling we were leaving it all. We ate a luxuriant omelet in the diner; a mark and thirty-five pfennigs wasn’t many cents at our exchange. Weren’t many omelets being served, though.

At Bentheim, all went well. It was our last stop in Germany, and we now had six other missionaries as companions: Among the group now were Elders Rayo Parker, William Thayne, Claytor Larsen, W. Haws, and Frank Knutti. We checked over our surplus cash (everything above ten marks); sent it back to someone to hold it for us for a time; perhaps we’d be back to use it later. Some of the brethren sent all they had, thinking it would be useless in Holland anyway.

We looked for the border as we passed, but saw little to mark it. There was a visible line of barbed-wire barricade with little concrete obstructions meant to stop tanks – such as I had earlier seen on the former boundary between Austria and Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.

Our baggage passed inspection – they merely asked most of us what was in it – and was loaded on for Rotterdam. Then came our first occasion to wonder. The man that had taken our passports out a mile from the Dutch station came with them and told us to follow him. We followed him through our Schnellzug, out the other side, and into a little motor-train beyond, where he gave us back our passports and we started east. Didn’t he know who we were? Hadn’t someone told him we would be cared for by the church if necessary and that we didn’t intend to stay long in Holland? We tried to learn the cause of our “deportation” back to Germany; best we could find was that some sort of blanket-rule prohibited us from coming in to Holland unless we had steamer tickets to take us on out. Well, we would get steamer tickets if necessary! No use; we were no exception.

Back in Bentheim we chose a spokesman to call The Hague and ask president Murdock of the Dutch Mission whether we were the last left in Germany and what we should do. He wasn’t in, but would call when he came. We waited. Night came on. 24 hours had passed – and we heard nothing from anyone. We “pooled” our souvenir marks and took rooms in a hotel for the night, as border police didn’t like us around the station waiting-room. We left instructions to forward our awaited telephone call.

Next morning we played it was Fast Day and saved our waning money for emergency use. No call. We wandered down to town about noon and bought a bag of Brochten and a jar of jam. Served up with Hitler-Jugend knives for cutlery, it filled the hungry spot a while. Still no call. We decided to go down and try the border again. We didn’t know, of course, that Elder Kest of the Dutch Mission had been trying all day to do something for us on the other side, for the station attendant on our side hadn’t reported that a call had come for us. We couldn’t cross the border, we couldn’t go back; we couldn’t call Frankfurt; we knew of nothing we could do. But then, there had been other missionaries in more difficult spots, as we knew; we thought quite a bit about some of the brethren who had been called to foreign lands and of the promises made to them, according to our Doctrine and Covenants. Well, it came. Just as we were about to leave, in walked Elder Kest. I must leave you to his story as to how he crossed the border without a German visa in his passport, passed inspection without surrendering the tickets he was bringing to us, and arrived at the crucial moment. We didn’t even learn how he did it then; he had about a half-hour to get back and didn’t feel too well in Germany without his passport to prove he was an American and of good standing.

Then I recall studying a Kursbuch of all the train schedules in Germany in hopes of finding a train on which we could proceed inland and toward Denmark. Elder Kest merely explained that few of the Brethren were in Holland and that no more could come in, as no foreigners were being admitted. We hoped Denmark wouldn’t be that way!

All I got from the Kursbuch and the information desk was that the last through train had left for the day. That night, our forty-eight hours were up. So we decided to try a local train to Salzbergen, and hope for something thereafter. That would take us toward our destination anyway, if our Dutch tickets were valid at all. Again, there was nothing we could do. Someone said, just hope and pray, which we did. Elder Thayne told me a few months ago when I met him again that he remembered me because I had quoted from somewhere that the Lord had sent us over and the Lord would help us out.

The gate-man at the tracks asked us where we were going. “Nach Osnabruck.” He said, “Not with this ticket!” Not with that? how then? He looked the booklet of tickets over, turned the leaf that said “Oldenzahl to Bentheim” and punched the next one, passed.

The next unpredicted occurrence to relieve us was a waiting train in Salbergen. The conductor of our train told us there might be one that should have met the last train out of Bentheim, but possibly had been held to meet our train as well. He would show it to us if it were there, so that we could make our Umsteig quickly. It was there, he pointed it out, and we made it.

On to Osnabruck, transferred again, and due in Hamburg by 9:30 p.m. Deadline announced on the red-colored Flugblatter was 10:00. But everyone seemed to be going somewhere. And mainliners, freights, flat cars, cars loaded with horses, cars with tanks and trucks and armoured cars and men, were all going eastward. So our train was late into Hamburg.

“Es muss doch einen Zug geben!” I argued with one of the station attendants; but there wasn’t any train going north, or anywhere else for us, he insisted. What to do? We knew of nothing we could do about it. And then – someone heard of a train leaving Hamburg-Altoona for points north, due out about 1:30 a.m. We rushed to Altoona; some of the brethren didn’t have tickets for Altoona, but no one bothered us about that. At Osnabruck we had met another group coming from another border station where President Wood (of our Mission) had sent a man to intercept any coming that way and bring them to Denmark. We all took the train northward, as far as Neumunster. From there it went to Kiel, and we could have bought steamer tickets from Kiel to Copenhagen but little easier than we could have taken the station-man’s advice at Hamburg, to buy us a ticket and sail away to America!

At Neumunster again we knew of no train, but hoped for one to come and take us northward. We bought a glass of warm milk apiece, and a long Frankfurterwurstchen with a little roll to eat, and had a combined Sunday supper and Monday breakfast. They didn’t object to our staying in the waiting-room there; so we laid our heads down and slept a bit over the tables.

Next morning we learned of a possible “Bumblezug” which was to go north about 10:30 a.m. We wandered about the streets, passing the time away, looking at the soldiers and supply-wagons, the shops, all the sights – the last we would see in Germany. Not one of us but would gladly return again, as some of us had done the year before, to finish our work in peace among the good people who didn’t want war, and among the others, who had need certainly of the gospel of Peace.

Our slow-train came in, and we climbed aboard; but it didn’t leave. So we inquired about the cause, and learned of a fast train due any time. It was “aussteigen” again and another wait.

It came, we climbed aboard, met the German Grenzpolizei for the last time, heard with thankful ears a Danish “Welbekommen,” sent a telegram to Copenhagen that the lost were found, and chatted easily as we sped over prosperous Danish terrain, rolling dairy country, farms, waterways – tranquil, prosperous, then.

You know the rest, Brother Smith. I often think of the lovely Mission Home and Meeting House in Copenhagen where we met for discussions, instructions, and daily news. Two years ago today you told us we would prepare to go back – to America.

We had a wonderful experience in all. The more I think about it, the more significant I find it. I am thankful for it. Especially when I think that always in what has gone before lies a promise of what may be. Of course there is a condition upon which confidence in that “something unpredictable” must be based; otherwise we may come another time to the “crucial moment” and remain helpless. May we do what He directs, that we may have His promise!

Sincerely your brother,

Ellis T. Rasmussen
Weston, Ida.
Aug. 31, 1941.



  1. Denmark was a remarkable place during the war. Even after the occupation it was a haven from much of the horror perpetrated by the Nazis. What relief it must have been to cross that frontier! I can only imagine their sorrow, though at leaving the Saints of Germany and their investigators behind to face the consequences of their nations evil and reckless assaults on their neighbors.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — July 29, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  2. nation’s

    Comment by Eric Boysen — July 29, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  3. I haven’t finished reading this letter yet, but I find the use of “missionary German” rather endearing.

    Here are some translations. Donnerstag is Thursday. Schicksal is fate. Flugblätter are leaflets. Bahnsteig is a train platform. Schnellzug is an express train. Brochten is Brötchen or a hard roll. Kursbuch is a railway timetable. Nach Osnabruck means toward Osnabrück. Umsteig is a missionary abbreviation of Umsteigen, or a change of trains. “Es muss doch einen Zug geben!” “There must be another train!” Frankfurterwürstchen: a type of sausage. Bumblezug would be “Bummelzug”, a slow train. Aussteigen means disembark.

    Thank you for the account. It seems a charming mix of a realization of the seriousness of their situation and naiveté. Plus plenty of faith in their calling and blessings associated with that calling.

    Comment by Researcher — July 29, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  4. Researcher, what about “Schicksal” (as in “goodly lands to what Shicksal neither we nor they know”)?

    Comment by Hunter — July 29, 2009 @ 8:56 am

  5. Very helpful, Researcher — some were obvious in context, but some completely mystified me. (“Schicksal” = fate, in Researcher’s first line.)

    His missionary adoption of local language terms goes far beyond my mission’s use, I’m sure.

    Thanks, Eric. When he wrote this, things hadn’t even begun to get as terrible as they would — I wonder how much worse their leavetaking would have been, had they had any real idea of what was coming. Somewhere I have a letter of a former missionary in the U.S. military forces, one of the first into Berlin, who divided his time between his official duties and trying to establish contact with any local members. I’m not so sure he didn’t think his obligations as a former missionary weren’t more important than as an officer, although his letter doesn’t give any hint that he ever shirked those responsibilities.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  6. Besides the extraordinary story (thanks again Ardis for a wonderful addition to the canon!), I found his use of what Researcher calls “missionary German” awfully familiar. Missionaries in Japan talked exactly the same way, with Japanese words (or altered versions of Japanese words that only missionaries could have understood) mixed liberally with English.

    It’s a little surprising that he was still writing this way two years later. I think I had begun speaking English again after a month back home. That first month was a painful transition–if I wasn’t careful nobody (except other Nihon kara kaetta senkyoshi) could understand what I was saying.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 29, 2009 @ 9:35 am

  7. Mark B.: It appears from my reading that he has copied from his missionary journal from when he was in-country. Thus the missionary German.

    I know what you mean about missionary Japanese, or “senkyoshi-go.” I got stuck in the middle of my homecoming talk because I realized I didn’t know the English words for “dendo shunin.” I understood the concept as plain as day, but I had never had any experience with a “dendo shunin” in English.

    A former companion who had been home for a few months called up “ward mission leader” from the congregation and I was able to move on.

    Comment by Chad Too — July 29, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  8. The hybrid of English and Mission language matches my experience too. We affectionately called it Chinglish (I went to Hong Kong).

    I must show this to my sister, who served in Munich. She would love it.

    I’m just glad we never had to evacuate.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 29, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  9. the ‘Meeting house in Copenhagen’ served as a meeting house until 1999 (apart from being used as a bomb shelter during the war!) when it was renovated, and reopened in 2004 as the Copenhagen Temple. The original 1931 meetinghouse building had been built to the exact measurements of Solomon’s Temple, and despite the fact it was reduced to just one wall during renovations, retains the same dimensions today. Or so I was told when visiting.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — July 29, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  10. I had no idea!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 29, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  11. Very interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje — July 30, 2009 @ 12:03 am

  12. Great stuff. As a former missionary to Germany, I always love reading this kind of story.

    These days, there is a ward building in Hamburg Altona, an old beautiful villa that has been converted for use as a ward house. I should post the history of the acquisition and use of the building, as I did a bit of research on that when my wife and I were living in Hamburg in 2002.

    Comment by john f. — July 30, 2009 @ 5:25 am

  13. Thanks for rescuing this from the archives!

    Comment by Rob — July 30, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  14. Can anybody tell me where this story came from? The last comment said thanks for rescuing this from the archives…what archives was it from originally? Joseph Fielding Smith’s journal perhaps?

    My companion on my mission told me this story, and I thought I remembered him saying it was from a book called “A Historia da Igreja” (Church history…or something…). I really wanted to read the book, if it exists. It might just have been a story he heard or something. Thanks so much for the help!!!

    Comment by Brad — October 1, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  15. never mind….lol. turns out it was a different story after all.

    Comment by Brad — October 2, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  16. The evacuation of the missionaries at the beginning of WWII was such a dramatic story, experienced in different ways and places by so many missionaries, that lots of individual accounts have been given in one place or another. This specific one did come from a collection of letters written to JFSjr, housed at LDS Archives (which the Church would like now to be referred to as Church History Library — but old habits die hard; I may have to call it both, as I do here, for a while before I can really make the switch).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2009 @ 7:52 am