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The Swiss Saints Contact the Church, 1944

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 13, 2010

When the Saints in continental Europe were isolated from Church headquarters by the events of World War II, even the Saints in neutral Switzerland were unable to correspond with Salt Lake – letters written to acting mission president Max Zimmer in Basle were returned to the senders; letters written by Bro. Zimmer and others to Church members in the U.S were likewise undeliverable.

Then in June, 1944, a letter from Bro. Zimmer miraculously made it through – the first word received directly from the Swiss Saints for more than two years. This long letter reported the trials and triumphs and plans of the church in Switzerland during those dark days:

Dear President [Thomas Gunn Evans] McKay,

Yesterday [March 26, 1944] there arrived in this office copies of the Church News of Oct. 16, 23, 30, Nov. 6, 13, and 27, 1943, coming through the British Mission Headquarters – the first thing we received from Utah since more than two years. You can hardly imagine how we felt and how happy we are, not only because of these most welcome News but on account of the prospect of coming again in contact with you, even if it be only indirectly. We hope and pray that this letter will reach you and not come back as those in the past did.

We felt rather lonesome at times but our work kept us so busy that we didn’t have much time to worry about it. To justify the sacred trust you put on us we tried to do our best in keeping the mission going on and helping the Saints and friends to the utmost of our ability. Those were eventful years which brought us many faith-promoting experiences and taught us many a valuable lesson. The Lord has been with us and has been kind to us, in spite of our weaknesses and shortcomings. We have seen his power manifested in behalf of his children and feel that we have come nearer to him.

We are happy to report that we are all safe and well and that the mission is in good condition. In the German-speaking part of Switzerland we still have our 18 branches going on with their priesthood and auxiliary work as before the war. The branches in Mulhausen and Strassburg are also functioning although they are taken care of by elders not belonging to our mission, but we change letters once in a while and keep posted on how they are getting along.

We continued to hold our regular meetings and also our spring and fall conferences as usual. We just had a most successful spring conference in Zurich last Sunday with a total attendance of over 600 in four meetings. And now we are preparing for another big event – spring conference of the Basle District to be held on Easter in the Basle Chapel in connection with a mission-wide elders’ convention. About two years ago we organized our 120 elders into a quorum, as fully organized as possible.

We have the four standing committees which are now in full operation, and the quorum activities and projects have done much to foster the brotherhood spirit among the elders. A number of inactive elders have been brought back into activity, unity and harmony prevail and the good influence of the quorum is felt throughout the mission.

We translated these chapters in priesthood and Church government and in the “Guide” as also quite a number of articles from the Melchizedek Priesthood Department in the Era, letters of instruction by the First Presidency and by President Rudger Clawson, etc., mimeographed them and sent them out to the elders in order to give them as clear and as complete an understanding what a quorum is and how it should work as possible. All this of course was done after considering this experiment in several meetings of the Mission board – the Board meets regularly as instructed by you – and in full cooperation with the three district presidents.

The fine influence of the Elders Quorum worked as a powerful stimulus on the Aaronic Priesthood and as a counterpoise against the many evil influences of the adversary. And the devil is surely trying to make mischief! During the more than thirty years of membership and activity in the Church I never have witnessed troubles and difficulties like those we had to fight within the last four years. Were it not for the help and the blessings of our Heavenly Father I’m sure we could not have overcome them.

The satisfying spiritual condition is reflected in the good financial situation of the mission. Tithes and fast offerings increased and so we have always been able to meet our obligations.

The welfare committee of the Elders Quorum has been a considerable help in this direction so far as families of elders are concerned.

In 1941 and 1942 we took over a number of those poor suffering Belgian children, for six months. The expenses were mostly paid by our saints and friends. As this has been stopped we sent 500 Swiss francs to Brother Devignez (through the Red Cross) for our needy Belgian Saints, in 1943. For the current year we decided to send another 1000 francs, that is in foodstuffs, shoes and clothing, 500 to be paid by the mission and 500 raised by our three biggest branches, Basle, Bern and Zurich.

The good work of the auxiliaries is also going on. It is of course not easy to keep it on the same level as in normal times but we try to do our best. We have at present 10 Relief Societies, 18 Sunday Schools, 15 Mutuals and in 12 branches we have a genealogical committee which is helping the Saints in research work and in filling out temple sheets. Basle, Zurich and Bern have still their choirs and Basle and Zurich their fine orchestras, in spite of the many handicaps they have to overcome.

For the fall conference this year we plan to sing “The Martyrs” by Evan Stephens as a part of a special program in commemoration of the martyred prophet and patriarch. We would have preferred to hold it at the spring conference but could not do it because there are so many brethren in military service.

The proselyting work must of course be done on a smaller scale than in prewar time when we had about 80 missionaries. Nevertheless we have tried to make the best of our limited opportunities and forces. We have called four brethren on short term missions.

Two years ago we made an appeal to our Saints to devote at least two hours a week to special work in spreading the message of the Church and winning friends, out of thankfulness to our Heavenly Father for His protecting care. The saints responded in a wonderful way. During the last four years we had an average of 30 to 40 baptisms a year.

At the same time we have been rather conservative in accepting people for baptism. The greatest opportunities for reaching thousands with the message of the restored Gospel however gave us the Brigham Young film, which reached Switzerland in the fall of 1941 and has since been shown in about 40 Swiss cities. The movies were crowded and the reviews as a rule favorable and friendly. This film was a very effective help to remove the prejudice against Mormonism. Of course many came out of curiosity. The Fox Film Agency gave it the German title “Das Geheimnis der Mormonen,” “The Secret of the Mormons,” and this made much for sensation. A few may have left the movie somewhat disappointed but nevertheless it taught them a good lesson. A day or two after this film we gave a public illustrated lecture on the Mormons and Mormonism, using that splendid slide film, “In the Tops of the Mountains”: which arrived here just in time and delivered the message of our Church to thousands of people. Up to now we have given this lecture in 26 places, bearing testimony before about 10,000 people, distributing tracts and pamphlets and selling and loaning books.

In regard to our literature we are almost sold out of the Standard Works. We should print a new edition of Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon. We have used up our stock and now comes Handelstrasse (Headquarters of the German Mission in Berlin) with urgent requests for books, manuals, report blanks, etc. because their office has been destroyed entirely. Unfortunately they had moved in 1940 all their stocks from the different printers to Berlin, so that nothing is left. We will do our best to help them out.

The year 1944 we will make a Joseph Smith year. We will try to emphasize the necessity for a personal testimony of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. A considerable part of our lesson work, our programs, our preaching throughout the year will be devoted to the mission of Joseph Smith and the restoration of the Gospel and related subjects.

The last Eras, Relief Society Magazines, Instructors, Children’s Friends we received were those of January 1942; we also lack the Church News Sections before oct. 16, 1943 back to January, 1942.

I can’t close this without telling you that we have now four elders from the Western states as internees in Switzerland, American flyers who were forced to land in Switzerland: 1st Lt. Keith W. Rich from Montpelier, Idaho; Fl. O. Barlow D. Brown from Seattle, Washington (his father is stake president there), a Brother Harper from Brigham City and an elder whose name we were not yet told. The last two came down a few days ago when 12 American bombers landed on Swiss soil on the same day.

Most of these men are still in quarantine; in a few weeks we will know if there are more Mormon boys among them. I have visited Rich and Brown in Adelboden where they are interned since last fall. They are all right and feeling fine. It was rather strange how we learned about them. Last summer the Swiss-American Society for Cultural Relations (an organization founded in 1940, of which the Swiss Mission is a member) started a collection of English books and magazines. Of course the mission-stamp was put on every book and magazine, for we did hope and pray that some of this reading material might come into the hands of Mormon boys who in this way might come in contact with this headquarters, giving us the opportunity to be of further service to them. Last fall we received word from Brother Rich, thanking us for our books and magazines he had received through the European Student Relief Fund, and later on we found Brother Brown in the same way.

In the same way we came to know about 18 elders being in a prisoners camp in Germany, among them William E. McKell from Spanish Fork, B.H. Hinckley from Rigby, Idaho, D. Farrell from Santa Ana, California, H.P. Anderson from Salt Lake City, and F.K. Watson from Reno, Nevada. We have written to these brethren and sent them Eras and other Church literature.

I talked to Hauptmann Kramer, the Swiss officer in charge of the camp in Adelboden, and also to Captain Free and asked them for permission for Rich and Brown to come to Basle on Easter and visit our spring conference and mission-wide Elders’ convention, and these gentlemen kindly granted this leave of absence of four days. What a surprise it will be for our saints at the conference seeing two lieutenants in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Corps sitting on the stand. Brother Rich and Brother Brown didn’t have an opportunity to attend an L.D.S. service and partaking of the Sacrament since almost three years.

Perhaps you have already learned that our dear friend, Brother Biehl, died at the eastern front about a year ago. Brother Heck has been called into military service and Brother Huck is now in charge. …

Max Zimmer



16 Comments »

  1. Brother Zimmer’s letter is filled with wonderful details even while sometimes being a little vague. For example, he names dozens of people, but unless I missed one, none of them are local Swiss members. I’m guessing this is a product of the war. But overall it is an inspiring read. Thank you.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 13, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  2. The version of the letter I have was edited, but I don’t know how much or in what places. It’s possible that Bro. Zimmer only mentioned men who were known to Pres. McKay (or in the case of POWs, whose families would want to know the local church was in touch with their sons), or local names could have been edited out as not of interest to the audience with whom the letter was shared — or, they could simply not have been mentioned as all. It wouldn’t be the first time that wonderful Church history materials were marred by the omission of “little” people not connected with mission work!

    I am struck by the fact that Bro. Zimmer wrote such a long and detailed letter without knowing whether this one would go through where earlier letters had not. That’s quite an effort.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  3. It is totally interesting to me to see the work going on in Switzerland while having no contact with Church headquarters for so long.

    Comment by Maurine — July 13, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  4. Yeah. Like me, you probably have heard rumors that the Saints in Europe, cut off from Salt Lake, corrupted the church and introduced all kinds of alien (sometimes Catholic, sometimes pagan) features to church services, and it was only the arrival of the elders at the end of the war, who showed up in the very nick of time, that saved the church from destruction there. There may have been isolated cases of practices that needed correction, although I haven’t seen a single authenticated account of any such thing. I think the behavior of the Swiss Saints as reported here was the norm — they carried on as Latter-day Saints, did missionary work, taught and worshiped regularly, did what welfare work they could. Except for the physical consequences of war, returning missionaries found Saints who believed and functioned just as they had before the war.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  5. This is terrific, Ardis!

    I was going to blame your spelling of the city’s name on your French connection, but it appears that the French name for the city is Bâle. I can’t find any clue about the origin of the “Basle” spelling–it doesn’t match the German pronunciation, so I was puzzled that Bruder Zimmer wrote it that way–unless, of course, it was the editor who made the change.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 13, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  6. Yeah, I corrected it to Basel the first time as I typed it, but he was so consistent that I decided to maintain the alternate spelling of Basle.

    In French, the circumflex (the carat over a vowel) almost but not quite always indicates that a silent “s” used in very old written French has been omitted: Old French forest and modern French forêt, for instance. Those orthographic changes were made by the French Academy and were not recognized by the Swiss, who maintained the older spellings for generations, until modern communications and standardization caused them to adopt standard French — this is one of the reasons why I have so much fun with the documents left by the French-speaking Swiss Mormons I study (see all the Keepa stuff on the Desaules family, for instance): their letters are written in Swiss French, not French French.

    So Bâle is really just a more modern way of writing the Old French Basle. Bro. Zimmer had probably seen it spelled Basle countless times in documents coming from Basel itself.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  7. And so, on this day of days, my oldest daughter’s 31st birthday, right between Orangemen’s Day and Bastille Day, I learn something new.

    Thanks as always, Ardis!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 13, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  8. Wonderful post! I’m a long-time lurker, but I think some of my stake and family members can fill in parts of this story:

    My father stayed with the Zimmer family on at least two occasions while he was waiting to return home from WWII. (I’ve emailed two photos he took of the Zimmers; unfortunately Brother Zimmer was very camera shy and refused to be photographed.) In March, 1946, Brother Zimmer asked my father to transport a duffel of Church materials to the Saints in Germany, which he agreed to do. My father handed over one of his military duffels, which Brother Zimmer returned to him so full and heavy that he could hardly carry it. My father was met in Strasbourg by the designated pick-up man. He said the whole experience was very “cloak and dagger.”

    Before being sent overseas, my father was set apart by his uncle, David O. McKay, to be a sort of undercover home teacher: he was given a list of Saints to visit throughout Germany. It would have been too dangerous to smuggle religious materials to them at that time, but he was instructed to meet with them and then report back on how the Saints were doing.

    The “dear friend Brother Biehl” mentioned at the end of Brother Zimmer’s letter was the uncle to a Fred Biehl in my stake (Seattle North). The Biehl family, five brothers and two sisters, lived in Essen, Germany. The two oldest brothers, Walter and Fritz, were actively involved in church leadership before and during the war. Walter was a branch president. This article from Meridian Magazine tells the story of how he and his brothers helped an American sister missionary serving in Germany escape to Holland:
    http://www.meridianmagazine.com/turninghearts/030826dead.html

    Fred writes, “What is so nostalgic about this particular article is the reference to the whistling of DO WHAT IS RIGHT, the 1st several notes as a signal to other members of the church that may be listening. My father continued that throughout our lives, whenever we were in crowded surroundings, whenever we were out camping, out playing in the neighborhood and he wanted us to come we would hear those notes and come running.”

    Walter and Fritz Biehl never came home from the war, either dying or missing in action. Kurt (Fred’s father) and Alfred were both wounded in the war, each coming home with shrapnel in the leg. John was too young to be in the service.
    Kurt, his wife and sons, and younger brother John later immigrated to the United States, settling in Seattle, Washington, where many of their descendants still live and serve in the church today.

    Comment by Heather Laurence — July 14, 2010 @ 1:49 am

  9. I appreciated the observation of Ardis E. Parshall about how well the Saints coped with the disruption of communication between them and headquarters. My father, Frederick W. Babbel (author of On Wings of Faith, missionary companion to Elder Ezra Taft Benson) often expressed dismay about the notions of widespread apostasy that occurred in Europe during the war. He and Elder Benson visited all of the countries involved and met with the members in each place they visited, and they observed no such thing.
    Sure, there could have been an isolated incident or two, but the Saints thrived in whatever way they could, led solely by their prayers and the Holy Spirit. God did not let them down.

    Comment by David Frederick Babbel — July 17, 2010 @ 6:01 am

  10. DFB, it’s a pleasure to have you comment here. Your father, his mission, and his book have been mentioned several times on posts with WWII themes. Your corroboration of his statements that the European Saints remained faithful is very welcome.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 17, 2010 @ 6:28 am

  11. The Brother Devignez spoken of in this article is my father, Paul Joseph Devignez/d’Evegnee. He was acting Mission President for Southern Belgium during WW2. You had written an article about his father, Charles Devignez and his service to the Saints in Liege, Belgium during WW1 along with Brothers Huysecom and Horbach. Paul and family moved to the states in 1949 and settled in Danbury, CT where he eventually became Bishop of the Trumbull, Ct Ward. He serve on the then Manhatten Stake High Council for the remaining years of his working life. He died in Clearwater, Florida in 1992.

    Comment by Francis d'Evegnee/Devignez — July 21, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  12. Dear Friends,

    Several reader comments indicate the possibility that church practices in Europe during the war might have been altered or perverted due to the isolation from Salt Lake City. Please do not circulate such rumors. In my study of the LDS Germans in World War II (see the new book “In Harm’s Way: East German Latter-day Saints in World War II”), I have come across not one such incident, while debunking many myths. Those myths I will not mention here because they might be forwarded as truths. The German LDS worked miracles in preserving the programs and practices of the Church. When the foreign missionaries returned, they found no inappropriate practices. Thanks for the story. For more contemporary information about U.S. airmen interned in Switzerland in World War II (as required by international law), you will find several interesting articles in the Deseret News beginning in about 1944.

    Comment by Roger P. Minert — July 24, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  13. I forgot to ask: what is the source of the Zimmer letter?

    Comment by Roger P. Minert — July 24, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  14. Thanks for your comment, Roger; this is the first I’ve heard of your new book, but it’s a topic that interests a lot of readers, including me, so I’ll watch for it.

    I think we’ve been pretty good at Keepa to keep the rumors down. Sometimes, as in this case, you have to mention the existence of such rumors in order to say “but they aren’t true; rather, *this* is true.” As you and I and others have noted in this thread and through other posts, the Saints in Europe did remarkably well at maintaining church doctrine and practice, and very often went to heroic measures to minister to each other in the midst of the chaos. Read about Gertruida Lodder Zippro, for instance, or Steve C.’s post on the state of the church in Germany in July 1942. The Saints in wartime Europe provide models for us in so many ways.

    Please excuse me for not citing sources. I do historical research (church and Utah history) for a living, and guarding my sources is the only workable way I’ve found to balance both sharing stories with readers and protecting my own investment in time and effort.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

  15. This article has been forwarded to me by a good friend. Thank you for publishing that letter. It is very interesting; from several of the conferences that Brother Zimmer mentions in his letter I have detailed reports, because my grandfather at that time was called as a secretary for such conferences, hold in Zurich; he was baptized in 1942 but had been an investigator of the Church since he met my grandmother around 1937 in St. Gallen. The first member of the Church in my family was the grandmother of my grandmother, and she was baptized 1897 in St. Margrethen near the Austrian border.

    So, when my grandfather got that first calling, he thought that he had to report as he had done in his business all the time and noted not only the speakers, numbers of persons attending the meeting, Hymns that where sung a.s.f, but wrote down every single word that had been spoken on each conference session. So it came that we still have very detailed records of conferences hold in Zurich in 1943 and 1944 and it is awesome to read now the talks of the Swiss leaders in those days, also the testimonies of “normal” members, given at these conferences.

    Then, the brethren told my grandfather that they don’t expect such a detailed report and he then just noted what was expected.

    I can confirm from my own family history, that there was never a “great apostasy” here in Switzerland and in whole Europe during WWII. Contrariwise the members where stronger in faith and had more unity in these dark days than ever before. Such rumors are not just not true, I think they are abusive for all the Saints who brought forth the work in Europe even in the times of war.

    I’m sorry that this is not written in perfect English since my first language is German.

    Comment by Christian Gräub — September 7, 2010 @ 1:04 am

  16. You write English beautifully, Christian; thanks for your comment.

    What a treasure for church history and for the Saints in Switzerland that your grandfather made such a detailed record! I wish I read German so that I could read your reports. The testimonies of “normal” members as you call them, especially given during such difficult times, must be inspiring to read.

    I also appreciate your confirmation that the Saints were faithful during those days — I have no doubt of that — and that they were so unified.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 7, 2010 @ 4:40 am

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