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Alfons Joseph Finck: Soldier and Missionary

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 15, 2013

Memoir written by Alfons Joseph Finck in November of 1972, with a few exceptions written in the early part of 1973, when he was in his 78th year. He composed and typed the entire manuscript himself, with no help of any kind, and did it for his family.

I, Alfons Joseph Finck, born on August 23, 1895, in the city of Hagenau, Alsace-Lorraine, Germany, will try to write down from memory, and whatever records I can find, a few facts starting with my earliest childhood. It is my hope that this record will be of interest and inspiration to some of my posterity. If I do not write these things now, they may soon be lost forever. These writings are naturally very spotty and incomplete. They are particularly from my father’s side. Hagenau, the city of my birth, was at this time a part of Alsace-Lorraine, and was under German occupation. Alsace-Lorraine is now French. I was the eldest of the seven children of Joseph Finck and Rosina Buehler Finck. Our father had settled in Hagenau and operated a barbershop, and in his spare time spent time and money in trying to perfect several inventions. He was also active in politics, as a Social Democrat, which at that time was frowned upon by the German Imperial Government. Father was always some kind of a radical, in the face of considerable opposition.

While yet a small child, growing up in Hagenau, I wandered down a cobblestone ramp into the river. My mother saw me and quickly waded into the river and saved me from drowning. But I contracted pneumonia, but did recover, but was saved through the radical method of rolling my feverish body in covers, frequently in sheets which had been immersed in ice cold water. On top of the shallow, slow river, was a concrete fish basin, where once a week live fish were kept and sold. One more detail which I remember, the ramp leading down to the river’s edge, also led to a wooden platform, a little above the level of the river, which was used by the women to wash their clothes and other things. odd, how one would remember such things of a lifetime ago. I regret that I cannot recall the name of the river, which eventually runs into the Rhine river, near the city of Strasbourg.

I recall further that the city of Hagenau was the base for three military camps, one infantry, one cavalry (dragoon), and one artillery. Father’s regular customers in the barbershop were soldiers from the infantry regiment, whose main portal was near the barbershop. In the military camp I witnessed militarism at its most imposing picture, with parades, goose step, and pomp, not realizing that some years later I would spend some of the best years of my youth, in World War I,.

In Hagenau father became dissatisfied with the Catholic Church. One reason was that he accepted a Catholic Bible, and started to read and study it. In his Bible study, he got tangled up with some of the Catholic priests who lived in back of our home. because of his search for truth, and his continuing Bible study, he soon contacted th Protestant ministry in the town of Erstein. how well I remember the days when on a Sunday, “the crazy Finck” went past the main entrance of the Catholic church, and attended the Protestant church with his family. But he soon was not satisfied with the Protestant church, and worked on a scheme to reorganize the original Christian Church. Later we moved to the city of Basel in Switzerland, which lay right on the border of Germany and Switzerland. In that city he found well-to-do friends, who wanted to set him up with a congregation of his own. His friend, Herr Stauber, assisted with the finances. However, the Lord decreed otherwise. I well remember that we attended, upon Herr Stauber’s invitation, a “Conference of the Mormon Missionaries” which was held in the heart of the city. I was too young to understand all about it. But I clearly remember that at the close of the conference, Father asked the missionaries for some printed material. He was soon converted and had the missionaries take him to his hometown of Erstein, Alsace-Lorraine, to be baptized. Mother was baptized a year later, in the Rhine River, at Basel, Switzerland. In this city, we all became active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now before I forget it all, I shall try to write some memories about our grandfather, to answer the request made by my wonderful sister, Ruth. … The temple work has been done for our grandparents and their family, and also for others of our forebears, and we continue to do research to find others of our progenitors, who have gone on.

I became closely associated with the Pfalz, which is a very beautiful country. During World War I, I was mustered into the German Army as physically fit for front line duty. My military training started in the city of Saarbruecken, as a member of the 174th infantry. During training marches I had the opportunity to walk the Palatinate (Pfalz), for many weary miles, hungry and footsore. Soon after my 20th birthday (Aug. 23, 1915) my regiment was ordered out into what we called the Eastern front, which at that time meant Russia. Before crossing the border from East Prussia into Poland, we were quartered in Tannenberg, the territory in which General Field Marshall von Hindenburg achieved his smashing victory over the Russian invaders. In my own memory, Von Hindenburg was a genuine old fashioned soldier, well liked and respected, by friend and foe.

After marching into Poland, I experienced all the ugliness of war, and this continued for the rest of my membership in the German army, until the bitter end of World War I. We learned to march with very little rest, day or night, and learned to live on what we could find, which the enemy failed to destroy. We camped in the lice infested cities of Kowno and East Wilna. The houses were shells and ruins of human dwellings. our food was mostly requisitioned, or more correctly stated, plundered from the unfortunate people who had failed to get away in time. We ourselves, the conquering victors, were never again fully nourished for the rest of the bitter war. Yet often we divided our meager supplies with the starving population. All the way into the country, we marched without stopping, through burning villages. Our clothes and shoes rotted on our bodies and feet. We had no opportunity to clean or wash ourselves, as we were always afraid of retreating Russian soldiers who easily picked off stragglers. We always had our rifles within reach, fully loaded, and ready for instant attack and defense. It was in that period when we learned how to be hungry, and yet keep up the executing demands of kill or be killed. In that way we advanced to the famous river of Beresina, where the Russian armies of one hundred years before had to stop their advance and the trench warfare.

During the winter of 1916-1917, I was given a furlough to visit some of my relatives in Alsace, which part of the country was in the war zone, except for the fortified city of Belfort, which resisted the German advance, and was never taken by the Germans. After two happy weeks, it was back to the front in Poland, and living in wet dugouts, without heat or protection against the bitter cold. In thinking back to those days, it seems impossible that anybody could survive the endless hardships, the danger of infection by body lice, which caused everybody to live with sores all over the body. But all the soldiers were young men in their early twenties, with vitality to overcome the almost insurmountable physical dangers. During the advance into the enemy country, we were always in danger of being surprised and left to die, or to be found and killed by the straggling retreating Russians. Our advance sometimes was at a faster pace than that of the rear guard Germans, and they could not catch up with us. Again we learned to live on emergency rations, and beets and potatoes left over by the hastily fleeing Russians. To get a hold of an old dry piece of bread, without anything to go with it, was indeed a godsend. Until we entered fixed positions, we had no bath, shave or haircut, and we looked like wild animals, which we actually were. During that period I had the good fortune to receive a package of cookies from an aunt in Switzerland. I hoped that the cookies would stretch my skimpy food, but I ate all the cookies in a few minutes, and felt good about it. At another time, the Alsace people sent me a dozen eggs, which miraculously arrived, most of them broken, but they went into my stomach, disregarding the spoiled condition. I have never forgotten what it is to be hungry, without any hope of relief. My mother sent many, many packages from Switzerland but very few ever got to me. Mother wrote directly to Field Marshall von Hindenburg, and then the packages got to me, for a short time.

When in 1917 the Russian Front collapsed, we were transferred to the “Western Front.” It was winter time, and we were transported in unheated cars with broken windows. Our destination was Flanders, near the Dutch border. Many German soldiers deserted across the Dutch border into Holland, and were safe for the duration of the war. I stuck it out. While in Russia, we lived in well established foxholes, but Flanders did not offer any such luxuries. It rained for days without stopping, and we were soaked for days on end, without any relief and without food. On the 21st day of April, 1918, the last fierce offensive of World War I started, and came close to “winning” for the Kaiser’s Army. but, thank God, it turned out the other way. But just before that on the 10th of April, during our attack on the enemy trenches, I was cut down by a British machine gun. One shot pierced my right shoulder, without shattering any bones. The second bullet went through my knapsack, and the third bullet pierced my steel helmet, again without serious damage. But the force of the bullet dropped me, in the face of an English machine gun, into a shell-hole, just big enough to crouch into, where I stayed until the German advance resumed, and I could make my way across a flaming battle field, littered with the dead and dying of several nations – German, English, French, and maybe others. Finally, without knowing it, I had crossed the border of Holland into France, where I received preliminary treatment, finding that my shirt had soaked up the bleeding of my shoulder. After picking up several wounded soldiers, receiving a shot against lock-jaw, all of us who could walk, lined up and were loaded into open boxcars, and were transported into the nearest city which had a hospital which could give us more expert treatment. I could write a lot about being finally taken, in a special train for the wounded, back into Germany, where after many stops in several cities I was unloaded with the very last occupants in the Baltic city of Rostock, Mecklenburg, and placed into a school building which had been requisitioned to be used as a hospital, and there received care under doctors and nurses. From Rostock I notified my folks in Basel, Switzerland, so that they could write to me, after finding out that I was all right. it was while in that hospital that I was given the Iron Cross Second Class. I never displayed it until I got back into Switzerland. Father regretted that his son failed to advertise it. To my knowledge, I have never killed or wounded any man while in the service of what was then my country, and I would have had many occasions to do so.

Rostock proved to be a happy time for me for the rest of my life, because in that city I met my dear wife, Paula. It happened this way. When my mother got the word of my being wounded, she immediately contacted the Relief Society sisters in Rostock, there being about a dozen members in that place. They sent young Paula Gadau to the hospital to visit me and to see what they could do for me. Paula lived with her father and mother at Margarethenstrasse 2. After that there occurred a happy period in my stay. I was able to visit the Gadau and Schmuhl families frequent. In the Gadau home we held testimony meetings, where I could administer the Sacrament to those faithful Latter-day Saints, who had no Priesthood among them. I also was able to share with them some of the food which my folks in Basel sent me, after they smuggled it out of Switzerland, as my mother had a special pass to cross the Swiss border.

After I was sufficiently recovered, I was ordered back to Saarbruecken to report for duty. On the way I had the happy opportunity to stop over in Hamburg, where I had another happy period with some of the Saints there. In Saarbruecken I attended meetings with the few Saints who were there, and performed the first ordinance as an Elder, by ordaining a Brother Hust to the Melchizedek Priesthood, by permission and under the direction of President Hyrum J. Valentine of the Swiss-German Mission, with headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.

Ordered back to the front, I found myself in Northern France, and experienced the declaration of the Armistice. On this famous eleventh day, in the eleventh month, and at the eleventh hour of November 11, 1918, I found myself with the retreating German armies. When this fateful hour struck, and the eternal BOOM, BOOM, BOOM finally stopped, we headed toward Germany and “Home.” it would take many more words to describe the well organized orderly retreat which led me in many odd ways through Belgium, into Germany, finally to the city of Bonn, which is now the government seat of West Germany. here I caught the last train which made its way down the Rhine valley to the borders of Switzerland. But I was not permitted to enter, but notified my parents who came to the border to meet me, and after being investigated and “deloused” I was allowed to enter, and went home with the glorious feeling of freedom with all military restrictions having been lifted.

In the meantime, Angus J. Cannon had been appointed president of the Swiss-German Mission, a wonderful man whom I loved, and still do. It was President Cannon who called me to go on a mission in Switzerland and Germany, without even asking me if I accepted. But I gladly did, and left for my first field of labor in St. Gallen, Switzerland, on the first Sunday in 1920. I was one of about a dozen brethren, called from the Swiss-German Mission, to go without purse and scrip. All of these were ex-servicemen from Germany and Switzerland. Two other brethren were also from the Basel Branch, Herman Mueller and Alfred Niederhauser. Brother Niederhauser is still alive at this time (1973), a wonderful man of faith, who at that time left a family of several children to serve the Lord, and who became Conference President of Vienna, Austria. Herman Mueller was appointed Conference President of the French part of Switzerland. Once again I learned to go hungry for several days, but the Good Lord, my Master, always provided me with the needs of everyday life. This missionary time would provide another large chapter of my life’s story, and if I live long enough, I shall write about that also. Later, although I had shed my blood for Germany, I had to apply for special German citizenship papers, before I could re-enter Germany. Upon receiving them I was transferred to Germany as President of the Hamburg Conference. I could not take formal leave from my people in Switzerland, but somehow the Swiss Saints sent me enough money to pay for my long railroad trip to hamburg. I traveled by way of the city of Leipzig, where I met with all the missionaries, about 50, of what was then Germany and Austria, and with the President of the European Mission, President George Albert Smith. I felt like a lost soul at this time, with all the new responsibilities loaded on my inexperienced shoulders.

I must retrace my steps to the city of Basel, where I had my earliest training in the Church. I was ordained a deacon, a priest, and an elder. After coming home after four years in World War I, I was called on a mission, as outlined above. After two and one-half years, I was honorably released. With my wife, Paula, I emigrated to the United States, where my parents had previously emigrated while I was still a missionary. Our first residence was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where we stayed for just one year, and then moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple, for time and all eternity. This was in the year 1922, and this is where we have lived ever since, until now, 1973. Mother (Paula) has been president and counselor in the 26th Ward Relief Society. Our three sons, Hyrum, Wilford and Angus, were all born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. All have been married in the Salt Lake Temple, and had their children here, except for Hyrum who has made his home in Glendale, California. At this time, 1973, we have one great grandson, Robert Joseph Finck.

In closing, I want to bear a humble but heartfelt testimony, that I know with every fiber of my being, that what the world calls “Mormonism” is indeed the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that it contains all the rights, gifts, powers, and blessings which our Heavenly Father can give to His children on the earth. I know that the Church has been and is being led, by true Prophets of God, beginning with the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was the instrument in the Lord’s hands to restore the Gospel and open up this last dispensation, the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, until this very day. My greatest wish is that my posterity might be faithful and true, that they might ever hold fast to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and be valiant members of His Church and Kingdom here on earth. For in this way only will they have peace and happiness here, and exaltation in the Kingdom of our Heavenly Father hereafter, to enjoy all the glories of eternity through countless ages. May we be united in this way as a family, with all those who have one before us, and also with those who will come after us. I give thanks for the many choice blessings which have been ours, all the days of our lives, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Alfons Joseph Finck

-ooOoo-

Months ago, Amy T. translated a great deal of German language material for me. One name that appeared several times was Alfons Finck. I knew that name … but how? Finally it came to me, and a quick check of census records confirmed my memory. Alfons and Paula Finck lived across the street from my grandmother on Arapahoe Avenue in Salt Lake City. In the year I was four, my family lived with my grandmother for a few weeks, and I met the Fincks. I was four, and somehow I retain a memory of meeting them.



4 Comments »

  1. What a story. Turning to Google, I see a picture of him in the Church News. It’s an article about Welfare Square, so I just opened my copy of the amazing book, Pure Religion: The History of Church Welfare Since 1930 (Glen L. Rudd).

    Alfons Finck was a member of the Pioneer Stake, which pioneered the modern church welfare system under the direction of its president Harold B. Lee. Alfons Finck was one of the original members of the committee overseeing the work. He was a high councilor for the stake and served as the secretary and accountant for the committee. He then went on to work for the Bishop’s Storehouse at Welfare Square for over 40 years, I assume in a financial capacity, but the book doesn’t say.

    A manuscript history Alfons wrote of the early efforts was one of the sources used to write the book Pure Religion.

    Comment by Amy T — November 15, 2013 @ 7:18 am

  2. This is amazing! Thank you, Ardis!

    A little searching turns up the name of that river in Hagenau–it’s the Moder, and it flows in an easterly direction to its union with the Rhine.

    Hagenau (Haguenau in its French version) is about as far east as one can get in France, just 20 km or so west of the Rhine, the border with Germany, and about 30 km south of the border with the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate), with which Brother Finck became so well acquainted during his early days in the army.

    Political boundaries aside, the mixed history of Alsace can be seen in the names of the towns, some German, some French, some German with French spellings (Strasbourg) and some wonderful combinations, such as Niederbronn-les-Bains and La Wantzenau.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 15, 2013 @ 7:53 am

  3. Wonderful story and additions from Amy (and Mark)! Thank you

    Comment by Grant — November 15, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  4. This is incredibly fascinating! Thank you so much for posting it, Ardis. (And thanks, Amy and Mark, for the added info.) Many of my ancestors hailed from Rheinland-Pfalz and Alsace, though generally a century or so before Alfons’ time; a few came from a village just ten miles from Hagenau. I really must go visit the region one of these days…

    Comment by JB — November 15, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

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