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A Cold War Incident in Czechoslovakia

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 18, 2012

One Latter-day Saint missionary, Thomas Biesinger, visited the territory of the present Czech Republic in the 19th century, as part of his effort to proselytize among the German people. We have no indication of further work among the Czechs until 1928, when Sister Frantiska Brodil, who had joined the Church in Austria in 1913 and later moved back to her native Czechoslovakia, successfully petitioned to have missionaries sent to Prague. Elder Biesinger, age 84, came back to Prague that year and laid the groundwork for the Church there. Other missionaries arrived in 1929; one of their first efforts was the production of a leaflet in Czech to introduce their message, along with the Articles of Faith.

During the 1930s, 57 missionaries labored in Czechoslovakia, establishing several branches, including one in Prague who posed for their branch picture on the eve of the Second World War:

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The Church survived during World War II, even grew a little, under the direction of local priesthood leaders. Missionaries returned in 1946. In 1950, however, escalating tensions between western governments and the Soviet Union resulted in the expulsion of all missionaries (they were all American), some of them after short imprisonments. Except for semi-clandestine visits by Church leaders from other parts of Europe, the Czech Saints would be on their own again until 1981, when changing political conditions greatly eased controls; since 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet system, Czech Saints have enjoyed full religious recognition.

This story, however, takes place in 1949, while missionaries still served in post-war Czechoslovakia, under the close scrutiny of the Communist government. Not only were elders stationed in that country, but other elders were able to visit on occasion. In February of that year, six elders of the British Mission, members of the mission’s exhibition basketball team, toured Czechoslovakia to play games against local teams and create greater public awareness of and goodwill toward the Church. I regret that I do not have full identification of the missionaries involved in this incident; perhaps a search of the Millennial Star will turn up articles about the team, and even a photograph.

The traveling elders learned to produce their identification quickly for border officials and others throughout the country when requested to do so. There was, therefore, nothing the slightest bit unusual about the entry of two stern young men in the elders’ train compartment one morning, one wearing a “furry Cossack cap,” the other with his bureaucratic papers and pencil. The British Mission elders were fortunately accompanied during that trip by Neil Keller, an assigned to the Czech Mission, who acted as interpreter when the strangers demanded to see the elders’ papers.

Elder Ronald Salo handed his passport to the fuzzy-hatted Cossack, who opened and inspected it. He frowned, then spoke quietly to his deputy, who made notes on his clipboard. Through Elder Keller, he informed Elder Salo that his passport bore an incorrect date stamp, and he would have to be questioned further. Elders Salo and Keller followed the grim-faced inspector to a private compartment.

The inspector demanded that Elder Salo surrender any money on his person, which he did. Then he began to question the young elder: “Have you ever been in jail?”

Stifling his impulse to protect himself by concealing the truth, Elder Salo stammered that he had, once, when he was a child, been held briefly by the Los Angeles police for having participated in some joke that had gotten out of hand. “The inspectors showed great concern” at this admission, according to the record of this incident, and replied that they would now have to search the elder’s luggage. They rifled through his bags and pulled out a camera, which they said they were confiscating along with Elder Salo’s passport and money. This greatly distressed the young missionary, who pleaded, to no avail, that the inspectors take the film but leave him the camera.

The two inspectors conversed quietly between themselves for some time, then told Elder Salo that he would be taken off the train at the next station; for the time being, though, he should return to his compartment. He rejoined his teammates, with what one described as such a “look of despair” that they would never forget it.

Elder Salo did not have to wait long to find out what was in store for him at the hands of the Czech government. He had barely had time to report the situation to his companions when the compartment door opened and the two inspectors returned. This time, they spoke perfect American English, laughing and introducing themselves as Elders Glazier and Baker, two missionaries of the Czech Mission, who had boarded the train at the previous stop to give the British Mission elders a welcome they would always remember.



7 Comments »

  1. What a great story! Thanks.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 18, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  2. Ha! Things never change.

    Comment by Carol — July 18, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  3. Heh. My brother was one of the first missionaries back in Czechoslovakia after the velvet revolution. Fun to see a connection to the the earlier missionaries.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 18, 2012 @ 10:23 am

  4. Gary, Carol, J., you three are the best. I got up at FOUR FREAKING THIRTY this morning to write something instead of simply posting a transcription … and *sob* you’re the only ones who laughed. Waaaaa…

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 18, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

  5. I don’t suppose there’s any record of how heartily Elder Salo laughed, is there?

    Comment by Alison — July 18, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

  6. Ok, Ardis. I laughed. Even before you begged. And I wondered if that Elder Salo were related, a grandfather perhaps, to a young woman of that name who was in Brooklyn for a short time.

    Speaking of Brooklyn, the stunt reminds me of one some of the young men used to pull on new missionaries–young Black/Hispanic toughs mug white boy from Utah. I don’t know if the elders laughed, but the rest of us did when the stories were told–usually the next Sunday in priesthood meeting.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 18, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  7. Hahahahaha!
    Love a good missionary pranking.

    Comment by Chad Too — July 19, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

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