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The Wolfsgrün Displaced Persons Camp: Mormon Relief Efforts in The Soviet Occupation Zone, 1945-47

By: Steve C - November 18, 2013

At the end of World War II, millions fled their homes in the eastern Germany in advance of the approaching Soviet army. Nearly all refugees endured great hardships; exposed to harsh weather conditions with little or no money, clothing, or possessions. They were homeless and in dire need. To aid the refugees, international relief organizations such as the Red Cross as well as major Christian churches set up refugee centers for the displaced.

Among those refugees were many Latter-day Saints. Their experience was little different than that of most other displaced persons. Many took with them what few belongings they possessed in small handcarts, some buried family members who had died due to harsh conditions. Mormon refugees often traveled together in small groups or as entire branches under extreme circumstances. Often they compared themselves to the Mormon exiles who had been driven from Nauvoo a century earlier.1

During the summer of 1945, the LDS church in Germany faced the daunting challenge of administering relief to its people. Initially, Mormon leaders sought to care for the war ravaged in the local congregations; however, this proved overwhelming. Assisted by Church headquarters and by the Soviet Military Administration of Germany (SMAD), LDS leadership in eastern Germany established a permanent refugee camp entirely for Mormons at Wolfsgrün in southern Saxony where a vast majority of Mormon refugees had converged. In August, Paul Langheinrich and Max Jeske of the East German mission presidency, along with Arnold Schmidt obtained a villa from the mayor of Wolfsgrün and Soviet officials to be used as a refugee camp. The villa, “built like a castle,” had been a former Lebensborn home,2 and was situated “in the midst of a beautiful park with paths, lawns, and ponds.” Since the home was former Nazi property, the Russians placed it at Mormon disposal with no strings attached. This camp served as the center for LDS relief operations in the Soviet occupation zone until July 1947, when international and ideological tensions forced the closure of the center.

After the villa had been obtained, the mission presidency appointed Arnold Schmidt and his wife, Gertrud, overseers of the Wolfsgrün center, now dubbed “Camp Waldfrieden.” The Schmidts were themselves displaced having fled their home in Kreuz in advance of the Red Army the previous January. Arnold Schmidt was no stranger to LDS leadership positions; he had served simultaneously as president of the Schneidemuhle district and the Kreuz branch. The Schmidts moved into the villa in September and within weeks refugees began to arrive. Soon the number of residents swelled to nearly 100 individuals. As director of Camp Waldfrieden, Schmidt oversaw the relief of the refugees, providing them with food, lodging and clothing. To care for their spiritual needs, Schmidt organized a branch at Wolfsgrün.

By the winter of 1945/46, displaced persons who had been residing at branch facilities around the mission were transferred to Wolfsgrün. Some who could locate relatives stayed at the camp from a few days to several weeks. Others without relatives nearby remained much longer. Commenting on the conditions of the displaced persons, Arnold Schmidt noted:

Most of the members who arrived…were mentally and physically exhausted and sick from the long flight, turmoils and frightful experiences. They came from the provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, [Pomerania], and [Silesia]. Often they had to walk a long way to get to the railroad station. At inspection stations usually everything was taken from them. A person with a good coat or dress, shoes or boots was forced to part with them. All these members were very happy and grateful for the home at Wolfsgrün. After a long time they were finally able to take a warm bath. They were fed and their worries were over.3

Camp Waldfrieden was based on the United Order. Those residing at the center were required to contribute to the overall operations of the camp. This necessitated a rigid schedule and discipline. Reveille was at 6:00 am (6:30 during the winter). Breakfast and a morning devotional followed. Work assignments were then made. Lunch was taken from noon to 2:00 pm followed by four more hours of work. The day’s chores ended with dinner, which was served at 6:30 pm sharp. Refugees participated in numerous activities including gardening, collecting edible grains, and making slippers that would then be used to barter for food off the open market. Unless there were physical impairments, refugees at the Wolfsgrün camp were expected to pull their share of the work or they would not be allowed to stay. Even those who could not participate in manual labor helped with cooking and childcare.

The camp also provided recreation. To keep the refugees’ morale up, Schmidt organized dramatic productions. Those at the center produced and starred in plays that were presented to the rest of the camp. During the winter, many engaged in various winter sports. Given the suffering that many of the refugees had endured, this was a welcomed relief.

A persistent problem faced by Arnold and Gertrud Schmidt was lack of food. For all their enterprising work and gardening, Camp Waldfrieden still relied on the outside sources for food. For example, many residents lacked food ration cards. When trying to obtain ration cards for the refugees Schmidt found the German officials to be uncooperative and hostile. It was only by appealing to Soviet authorities that the Wolfgrün refugees finally received their ration cards. Occasionally, the East German mission presidency smuggled food supplies to the camp. It was also common for residents, including Gertrud Schmidt, to solicit area farms for food for the center. The food shortages finally improved when supplies sent from the United States began to trickle in by June 1946.

Although Camp Waldfrieden served the needs of refugees its days were numbered. By late 1946 and early 1947 the post-war cooperation between the western Allies and the Soviet Union was falling apart. It was at this time that SMAD began turning more of the administration of eastern Germany over to the German communists who limited supplies coming in from the United States. Furthermore, in 1947, German officials served expulsion orders to the camp. To complicate matters, Schmidt found less support from Church authorities. While administering relief to Europe, Ezra Taft Benson, known for his hostile views on communism, opposed the communal arrangements of the camp. Under such conditions the camp closed in July 1947.

Mormon aid to the refugees was a small but vital chapter in the overall relief efforts in post-war Germany. By establishing Camp Waldfrieden, though, the LDS Church was able to administer to the physical needs of hundreds of their co-religionists. Many years later, Arnold Schmidt summed up the experience of the Wolfsgrün refugee camps as follows: “The Mormon-home was at best only a transitory arrangement to house the homeless Saints, the victims of an unfortunate war. The home fulfilled this purpose. Throughout this arrangement the leaders of the mission were able to take care of the many distressed, suffering and hungry Saints. The Saints in the home were very grateful.”

 

Steve Carter is an Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University in Arkansas, with a specialty in Modern Europe and Germany. For more reading on the Church in Germany during the mid-20th century, see his papers, “The Rise of the Nazi Dictatorship and its Relationship with the Mormon Church in Germany, 1933–1939,” and “Patriotism and Resistance, Brotherhood and Bombs: The Experience of the German Saints and World War II” in the International Journal of Mormon Studies.

 

Notes.

  1. Gilbert Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany (Salt Lake City, Utah:  Deseret Book Company, 1970), 129. []
  2. The Lebensborn program was set up by the SS to provide support for “Aryan” women and their children. Lebensborn homes for the mothers were established in Germany and several occupied countries such as Norway. []
  3. East German MSS History, “An Account of the Mormon Home in Wolfsgrün 1945-1947,” entry for 14 September 1945. []


18 Comments »

  1. Wolfsgrün is a small enough village that there’s probably only one option for this building. Now the Hotel Wolfsgrüner Schlößchen, it really was a spectacular place for these Saints to try and recuperate and regroup after the war. (Click on “Bilder” to see pictures of the interior.)

    If you consider the Wolfsgrün Displaced Persons Camp a United Order, it is definitely had the most luxurious accommodations of any of them, even if the food situation was similar.

    Comment by Amy T — November 18, 2013 @ 8:44 am

  2. What a remarkable story! I suspect that things weren’t quite as luxurious in 1945-47 as they are today, but to have a roof overhead and a bed to sleep in must have been wonderful for the German saints who had been driven from their homes in those eastern German provinces that had become Russian or Polish territory.

    I would be interested in learning more about the decision to close down the “camp.” It seems odd that, in a Europe that was suffering so terribly in those early post-war years, disagreement about the arrangements for housing and feeding refugees would have led to the closing of the site. By the time it closed, how many were still living there? Had it changed from being a temporary way station into something more permanent, or was it being touted (by the Soviets or the German Communists) as a model for the new economy of what would become the DDR?

    Comment by Mark B. — November 18, 2013 @ 9:25 am

  3. This is one of the most heartening things I’ve read in a while, Steve (well, up until the part of disbanding it all). Besides the sheer human drama of coping so well under stress, I love the way they seem to have turned to scripture and history for a model to follow, rather than political or economic theory. Mostly I just love the way they cooperated to take care of each other.

    Thanks for this whole post.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 18, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  4. Thanks Ardis.

    Amy, thanks for providing the link. It’s nice to get a visual.

    Mark B.: I guess “luxurious” is a relative term. That the villa had been a Lebensborn meant that it would have been quite nice. And given that Wolfsgrün was not a major target during the war by any stretch of the imagination, I’m sure the villa was in pretty nice shape. I would suspect that it had been looted at the end of the way though. But with the emphasis on work while it was the DP camp it probably remained in pretty good shape even with nearly 100 residents. (I actually would like to stay there if I ever make it to that section of Germany.)

    As far as the camp’s closure, that is a complicated story. I wanted to focus on the activities of Camp Waldrieden rather than the closure of the camp. But to be brief, there was a number of things that contributed to its closure. While just two years from war’s end, conditions in Germany were showing signs of improving. By that I mean things were not as dire. The Soviets (SMAD) were turning over the eastern zone to the German Communists (SED). Where SMAD had been pragmatic in its administration of eastern Germany, the SED was ideological. Sure the United Order aspect might be seen as a model (and to an extent was seen that way by SMAD) but the SED tried to minimize western influence in eastern Germany. The SED also opposed religion in general (though it tolerated the LDS.) It became more difficult to get LDS welfare supplies into the future DDR. Communist officials banned the direct shipment of relief supplies to the eastern zone in 1946. As a result, President Walter Stover of the East German mission had to have the supplies sent to Switzerland where they were then sent to West Berlin. Stover then slipped the supplies into East Berlin. Distributing them further to Wolfsgrün was quite difficult and as a result by late 1946/early 1947 the center of LDS relief in eastern Germany was shifting back to Berlin.

    One other consideration I would mention was the camp itself. Schmidt found it more difficult to superintend the camp due to internal dissensions among the resident. Some began to feel resentful of other. Some felt they were not being treated equally with other based on work assignments and food rations. As a result there was quite a bit of infighting prior to the closing of the camp.

    In all, by the summer of 1947 the necessity of Camp Waldfrieden and the desire to keep it going had diminished.

    The story, however, is quite interesting.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 18, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

  5. Thanks, Steve, for that added information. You’re right–it’s an interesting story. And the difficulties in the camp toward the end seem a lot like the difficulties the Saints had in living the United Order in the U.S. 100 years earlier.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 18, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  6. Mark B. I thought the same thing about the United Order and the early Saints.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 18, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

  7. Please forgive the ignoramus question– but this sentence confuses me: “Since the home was former Nazi property, the Russians placed it at Mormon disposal with no strings attached.” What kinds of strings might have been attached had it formerly belonged to someone other than the Nazis? Was it just because the Nazis were so out of power that they were not there to contend ownership? But surely not ALL former Nazi possessions were just given to the first asker– were they?

    Comment by S — November 18, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

  8. This is something that I was not familiar with, so I really appreciate Steve for providing it for us. It was good to see the visuals, also.

    Comment by Maurine — November 18, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

  9. Thank you for this article!

    I am the granddaughter of Margarete Damasch (Dombrowski) Eichler, and the daughter of Lilly Love. I grew up hearing my Omi (Margarete Eichler) tell stories of how she and her children (my mom and aunts/uncles) survived the war. They lived in Danzig and when the war started, they first traveled to Berlin (enduring terrible hardships along the way), then to what our family simply calls Wolfsgruen (and what you refer to here as “Camp Waldrieden”). They were some of the first refugees to move into the home and they lived there for 6 months before moving to Langen(Hessen).

    My Omi wrote a very moving autobiography which is cherished in our family. She has a whole chapter about their time at Wolfsgruen, and it is so interesting for me to read your article here about the official history of this place. So thank you! I thought you might enjoy reading what my Omi had to say about arriving at Wolfsgruen. From her (unpublished) autobiography:

    “It was a long way from Berlin to Erzgebirge. I still wonder how we made the long trip without any food; God gave us the strength to endure. The hope to soon arrive at a place where we were to find shelter and food made us press on.

    In Wolfsgruen the train stopped at a tiny station. We got off the train. A warm feeling came over me when I saw the peaceful small village spread before us. No bombed houses, no rubble, not even any broken windows.

    Brother Langheinrich had told us to ask for the Mothers’ Convalescence Home; it would not be difficult to find. The sandy path was mostly uphill, and we had to carry Oma again. When we reached the home, we were awestruck: It looked like a quaint castle, surrounded by forest. The fresh air was priceless.

    As we reached the door, we rang the bell. An electric bell, I thought; there is electricity in this home, something we had not had for about a year. The door opened and before us stood Brother and Sister Schmidt. We recognized them immediately from the description Brother Langheinrich had given us. Ernst introduced us and handed Brother Schmidt the permit for the refugee home. We were invited in. I felt wonderful; I cannot describe my feelings. Peace and calmness came over me – the surety not to be harassed anymore. The belief that I would finally get some food made me immensely happy.”

    Comment by Heidi Love — December 18, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

  10. PS: How do I get a copy of your 3rd reference? I would really like to read that.

    East German MSS History, “An Account of the Mormon Home in Wolfsgrün 1945-1947,” entry for 14 September 1945.

    Comment by Heidi Love — December 18, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

  11. Heidi — thanks for commenting and for the additional information. We’ll make sure Steve sees your comment and question. What an experience your family had!

    Make sure you don’t miss John F.’s article, also on this blog, “Herbert Klopfer and the East German Mission During World War II.” He also mentions a number of sources.

    Comment by Amy T — December 18, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

  12. I have a minor correction to make to my daughter Heidi Love’s remarks in Comment #9. She said that we traveled to Berlin when the war started; we actually traveled from Danzig to Berlin in September of 1945, six months or so after the Russians had invaded our part of Danzig, not at the beginning of the war.

    Thanks for this report; it brought back a lot of memory to the six months we spent in Wolfsgruen. I was almost 14 when I was given the assignment of child care in a local well-to-do family with two young children.

    Comment by Llilly Love — December 18, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

  13. Thanks for your comment, Heidi Love. Your grandmother’s account really adds a layer of perspective to the research I’ve done. This is a condensed version of a longer paper I worked on several years ago. And the paper was a small portion of what I was able to find. I’ll see what call I can pull up for you.

    Once again, thanks for your commentary.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 18, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

  14. Thanks Steve!

    and thanks Amy! I will check out that article.

    and thank you mama for the correction! I always think of the beginning of ww2 as when things started getting terrible for you, which was actually closer to the end of the war.

    Comment by Heidi Love — December 18, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

  15. I celebrated my 4th birthday in Wolfsgruen. I was allowed to be first in line to our classroom, that day in Oktober, and the teacher had a tiny little cup of sugar for me as a birthday present. Even though I was only 4, I still remember many things.

    Comment by Ellen Toth — December 19, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  16. Assuming Lilly is the same wonderful senior missionary I had the privilege of serving alongside in Mülheim/Oberhausen, Hi Lilly! Die Kirche ist wirklich ein Dorf, und besonders so mit dem Internet.

    Comment by Mike Stanger — December 19, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

  17. Well, well, it’s a small world! You saw me on crutches then, Elder Stanger.

    Comment by Llilly Love — December 19, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

  18. My father is German and was 13 when the war ended, although he wasn’t LDS at the time. His family lived in Augsburg. He said that Christmas 1945 was the best Christmas he had had up to that point and then when things started to bounce back in ’47 it got better. I owuld be interested to know how other Germans felt about Christmas when the war ended and things got a little better for all

    Comment by Cameron — December 19, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

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