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