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Guest Post: Herbert Klopfer and the East German Mission During World War II

By: john f - November 25, 2013

Seventy years ago yesterday on Totensonntag, November 24, 1943, a Mormon hero of the same caliber as our very finest historical figures in the Church was visiting his family for what would be the last time in his life on a hard-earned furlough from the Wehrmacht, where he served as an Unteroffizier (a “junior officer,” or “corporal”) in Hitler’s war machine.[1]

East German Mission Leadership, 1940, in front of the Mission Home at Händelallee 6 in Berlin Tiergarten near the Victory Column. Front row from left: missionaries Erika Fassmann, Johanna Berger, and Ilse Reimer. Back row from left: first counselor Richard Ranglack, "mission supervisor" Herbert Klopfer, and second counselor Paul Langheinrich. Source: Roger P. Minert, In Harm's Way: East German Latter-day Saints in World War II (Brigham Young University: Religious Studies Center, 2009), p.26.

East German Mission Leadership, 1940, in front of the Mission Home at Händelallee 6 in Berlin Tiergarten near the Victory Column. Front row from left: missionaries Erika Fassmann, Johanna Berger, and Ilse Reimer. Back row from left: first counselor Richard Ranglack, “mission supervisor” Herbert Klopfer, and second counselor Paul Langheinrich. Source: Roger P. Minert, In Harm’s Way: East German Latter-day Saints in World War II (Brigham Young University: Religious Studies Center, 2009), p. 26.

Born on April 14, 1911[2], Herbert Klopfer was assigned the responsibility of presiding over the East German Mission as Missionsleiter, or “mission supervisor,” at the end of August 1939 by departing Mission President Thomas E. McKay, just before President McKay left Berlin to return to Basel, Switzerland in the run-up to war.[3] After Klopfer was drafted into the German army on February 20, 1940[4], he was initially stationed in Fürstenwalde[5], a small town just 40 miles east of Berlin, which allowed him to manage the affairs of the mission while on active military duty, though with increasing difficulty beginning in 1943 when he was transferred to Denmark, France, and then Italy.[6] He was then transferred to the dreaded “eastern front” in March 1944[7] and went missing in action on July 22, 1944 after his company had been surrounded by the advancing Red Army on July 17.[8] Three years after the end of the war, Klopfer’s family learned that he had starved to death[9] on March 19, 1945 as a prisoner of war in the appalling conditions of a Russian field hospital near Kiev, Ukraine.[10]

Herbert Klopfer giving a sermon on a visit about 1940 to Schneidemühl. Source: Minert, p. 398.

Herbert Klopfer giving a sermon on a visit about 1940 to Schneidemühl. Source: Minert, p. 398.

During the years between 1939 and March 1944, when Klopfer was transferred to the Eastern Front, Klopfer and his counselors, Richard Ranglack and Paul Langheinrich effectively and admirably managed the affairs of the East German Mission.[11] It is difficult to comprehend the difficulties of maintaining the full program of the Church, and the spiritual well-being and safety of the members, at that time and under the circumstances of Nazi rule, in the many far-flung branches and groups of one of the largest missions in the world at the time, with 7,601 members in districts comprising “all of Germany east of the Elbe River and portions of Saxony to the southeast of the river.”[12] Herbert Klopfer’s achievement, and that of his counselors, in doing so, is nothing short of heroic. They did so with Klopfer in active military duty, only able to devote about two weekends per month to meetings with his counselors and visits to districts, branches, and groups throughout the mission.[13] Yet he still made these crucial visits at a time when religious freedom was greatly curtailed, the Church itself was being monitored by the Gestapo,[14] and the difficulties posed by transportation and communication shortages are difficult to exaggerate as a function of the progressing war.

Klopfer communicated by telephone or correspondence, when possible, in addition to his efforts to visit branches and his counselors in the acting mission leadership in person.[15] On September 5, 1941, for instance, Klopfer sent correspondence with the following guidance to district and branch leaders on specific issues that “he and his counselors encountered as they traveled through the mission”:

We consider it necessary to correct several false opinions within the mission.
1. Little children should be brought to the branch soon after their birth to receive from the authorized elder a blessing and a name chosen by their parents. . . . Neither the child nor the parents suffer any disadvantage if a child must leave this earth prior to receiving that priesthood blessing.
2. The opinion is heard at times, that greater blessings derive from holding a higher position in the priesthood. That is true only to the degree in which, for example, an elder faithfully carries out his assigned duties and responsibilities, but no greater blessings are received solely by advancing from priest to elder.
3. Relief society meetings have not been held at times when no priesthood holder was present, although the sisters were present and prepared. The opinion that sisters can meet only in the presence of a priesthood holder is incorrect. The branch president should be informed about the activity of the Relief Society, like every other auxiliary organization, but neither he nor his representative must necessarily be present when the sisters come together, although it is desirable that the priesthood holders support the sisters in their assignments.
4. Some branch presidents hold firmly to the false belief that only brothers may be asked to pray in sacrament meetings or that a priesthood holder must give the opening prayer in Sunday School. Although priesthood holders should be fully involved in giving prayers in the meetings of the Church, our sisters should not be excluded or restricted in such callings. They are just as worthy as the brothers to be the voice of the entire branch in prayers to the Lord. . . .[16]

Roger P. Minert’s remarkable, impressive, and essential study of the experiences of individual Latter-day Saints in all of the branches of the East German Mission captures further powerful snapshots of Klopfer’s somewhat miraculous involvement in mission leadership, given his active, full-time military status, as he surfaces from time to time in discussions about people in branches all across the mission.[17]

The "villa" at Wolfsgrün, also referred to as a castle. Source: Minert, p. 527.

The “villa” at Wolfsgrün, also referred to as a castle. Source: Minert, p. 527.

Richard Ranglack, Klopfer’s first counselor, assumed duties as the acting mission supervisor in Klopfer’s absence once he was sent to the Eastern Front. Max Jeske became his counselor together with Paul Langheinrich.[18] These three continued the excellent work begun by Klopfer, Ranglack, and Langheinrich in shepherding the mission through extraordinarily difficult circumstances, particularly as the Red Army advanced through the eastern stretches of the mission and into Berlin as 1945 wore on. In fact, Langheinrich was instrumental in communicating with the Russian occupiers to navigate the complex and confusing bureaucracy of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany to obtain the “villa” at Wolfsgrün that Steve C. wrote about last week, food for the refugees there and at numerous other locations in the Soviet Occupied Zone (i.e. what would become East Germany), and, astonishingly, access to genealogical records that had been confiscated by the Nazis as well as railroad cars in which to transport them.[19]

Given the amazing things that this group accomplished in leading the mission throughout the entire war and immediate post-war horrors and deprivations, Ranglack was surprised to learn after emigrating to the United States in the 1950s that there seemed to be little to no awareness of the work and successes of the local mission leadership during those difficult years. Preston Nibley had published a history of the East German Mission in the Relief Society Magazine in August 1956 that “made no mention of the local leadership whatsoever and implied that the mission had been leaderless during those years.”[20] He therefore wrote a report for Elder Ezra Taft Benson summarizing “the extensive activities of the local leaders and expressed his hope that this information would ‘fill the gap’ in Nibley’s article. ‘I would also like to ask,’ he wrote, ‘how it was possible to have such a gap in our Church history.’”[21]

Kuehne’s and Minert’s work go some distance in filling that gap. Kuehne’s research gives insight into the lives of Latter-day Saints during the long, arduous, and, at times, seemingly hopeless 40 year period of Communist rule in East Germany following World War II. But Minert’s invaluable books document the harrowing experiences of Latter-day Saints during the war, many of whom died as soldiers in Hitler’s armed forces, and many of whom suffered incredibly as the war came to a close. Most students of scripture wonder to themselves what it would (or will) be like to live through the calamities prophesied in Matthew 24 and elsewhere in the Bible, The Book of Mormon, and The Doctrine and Covenants. “[W]oe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!”, warns Jesus in Matthew 24:19. “But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:20-21). Minert’s work provides a glimpse of what this must be like as he relates the terror and peril in which the East German Latter-day Saints found themselves as Hitler’s empire began to crumble and the Red Army pressed into German territory, driving German nationals before it. I personally know some of these Latter-day Saints, have heard their own first-hand accounts of being driven out of their hometowns (like Königsberg, Stettin, even Danzig, not to mention Silesia and other such areas) in the middle of wintry weather, having to push handcarts, or other makeshift methods of bringing a few valuables and small children with them, as far as 1,000 miles in some cases to find refuge in areas that would then simply fall under Communist control in the state of East Germany, precipitating further suffering. Babies died on the way. Many women were raped, often gang-raped, by companies of Russian soldiers. Latter-day Saints were not spared this suffering, though Minert documents episode after episode of miraculous deliverance for many women and girls scattered throughout the branches of the East German Mission. Though they suffered terribly for the hubris and aggression of their political regime under Hitler, and then later under the oppressive Communist rule, many of these Latter-day Saints gained a testimony of God’s deliverance. I have personally heard many of the same people who surface in Minert’s book say

I would that ye should do as I have done, in remembering [our] captivity . . .; for [we] were in bondage, and none could deliver [us] except it was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he surely did deliver [us] in [our] afflictions. (Alma 36:2)

This is why the experiences of German Latter-day Saints, particularly in the East German Mission, are of biblical proportions and should be widely known in the Church, just as Ranglack sensed when he realized that very few knew anything about it. Klopfer was a leader for that time, for those circumstances. We can hardly measure up.

 

Notes.

[1] Roger P. Minert, In Harm’s Way: East German Latter-day Saints in World War II (Brigham Young University: Religious Studies Center, 2009), p.32, available online at BYU Religious Studies Center.

[2] Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V.

[3] Raymond Kuehne, Mormons as Citizens of a Communist State: A Documentary History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945-1990 (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2010), p. 3-4. When he assigned Klopfer as mission supervisor, President Thomas E. McKay gave him a letter of authority “to be sent to the Saints in the mission” (Minert, p. 27). The purpose of the letter was to notify members of Klopfer’s calling as mission supervisor in President McKay’s absence and the authority that had been delegated to him — “They will then know that you are acting in complete co-ordination with the authorities here and that what you do and say is official” (Ibid., quoting Letter from President Thomas E. McKay).

[4] Letter from Richard Ranglack to Elder Ezra Taft Benson, August 31, 1956, East German Mission, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Call Number LR 2428 2, quoted in Kuehne, p. 8.

[5] Minert, 29. I was privileged to work as a missionary in Fürstenwalde 55 years later!

[6] Kuehne, p. 8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Letter from company commander to Herbert Klopfer’s wife Erna Klopfer, September 27, 1944, quoted in Minert, p. 33.

[9] W. Herbert Klopfer, “Enemy Soldier at the Pulpit,” Ensign, June 1990.

[10] Minert, p. 33. The details of Klopfer’s death are known because a comrade in arms who had been with Klopfer as a prisoner of war went out of his way to find Klopfer’s family, whom he miraculously found in September 1948 in Werdau where they had moved from Berlin, after he was released from prisoner-of-war camp in the Ukraine in 1948. The former soldier reported that Klopfer had been wounded in battle, taken prisoner with the rest of the company, and experienced a deterioration of his health that resulted in his death as a result of hard labor in a salt mine (Minert, p. 92).

[11] See Letter from Richard Ranglack to Elder Ezra Taft Benson, August 31, 1956, East German Mission, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Call Number LR 2428 2, quoted in Kuehne, p. 8.

[12] Minert, p. 23. See also the map of the East German Mission on page 24 — it is worth noting that before the outbreak of World War II Germany was far larger than it is now, extending as far east as Königsberg (present day Kaliningrad, Russia). The borders of Germany were reduced in the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919) officially ending the First World War, but Germany was still considerably larger than today. (This map shows the borders of Germany in 1939 before Hitler began his aggression; see this map for the additional territorial losses by Germany as a result of defeat in World War II; by contrast, Germany’s current borders, consisting of the united countries of West and East Germany with their 1949 borders, can be seen on this map.)

[13] Letter from Erna Klopfer, December 1957, East German Mission, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Call Number LR 2428 2, quoted in Kuehne, p. 4.

[14] Klopfer’s first counselor, Richard Ranglack, reported that he

had to go almost every month or two to the police headquarters in Berlin, department Geheime Staatspolizei [GeStaPo, or "secret police"], to answer questions on church matters. I was especially asked about our Tenth Article of Faith, our position concerning membership in the NSDAP [the Nazi Party], Hitler youth, bearers of the Knight’s cross, etc. The singing of songs that contained the word “Zion” was prohibited. I was also asked concerning our meeting halls, conference mottos, the gathering of Israel, the American church, and our views about the war. I had the responsibility that all the sermons given were of purely religious nature. (Letter from Richard Ranglack to Elder Ezra Taft Benson, August 31, 1956, East German Mission, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Call Number LR 2428 2, quoted in Kuehne, p. 8.)

Ranglack reported that “Heavenly Father put the words in my mouth so that I was able to answer questions concerning our church” during these interrogations by the Gestapo (Richard Ranglack, Unpublished Private History in possession of Roger P. Minert, quoted in Minert, p. 29).

[15] Letter from Erna Klopfer, December 1957, East German Mission, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Call Number LR 2428 2, quoted in Kuehne, p. 4.

[16] Alfred Paul Schulz Papers, 1921-1950, LDS Church Archives, Archive File Number MS 8242, quoted in Kuehne, p. 8-9.

[17] Minert’s In Harm’s Way catalogues with immense care and detail the experiences of East German Latter-day Saints during World War II. His companion volume, Under the Gun: West German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II (Brigham Young University: Religious Studies Center, 2010) provides the same service for Latter-day Saints in the West German Mission. I cannot emphasize enough the value I see in Minert’s project and I salute him for taking it on and doing such excellent and important work with it. This would have been the project that I would have done if I had the background and were in the field. It will be a source of inspiration and historical knowledge for generations to come and, in some senses, approaches the scriptural in its subject matter: the inspired guidance, protection, and experience of Mormons during one of the most horrific experiences imaginable — being caught in Hitler’s war machine and, particularly for Latter-day Saints in the East German Mission, facing the collapse of Hitler’s insane vision as the Red Army advanced as an occupying force of terrible brutality (particularly towards women).

[18] Minert, In Harm’s Way, 33.

[19] Kuehne, pp. 12-28.

[20] Ibid., p. 4.

[21] Ibid., quoting Letter from Richard Ranglack to Elder Ezra Taft Benson, August 31, 1956, East German Mission, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Call Number LR 2428 2.

John F. is a lawyer interested in literature, foreign languages, history, theory, and comparative religion. He recently walked The Way of St. James with his brother Jordan and a motley crew of Mormons living in four different countries and then promptly founded the Mormon Confraternity of St. James together with pilgrimaging partner Ronan upon returning. All are welcome; none are denied.



5 Comments »

  1. Thanks, John, for this picture of a terribly difficult time in our history–but one in which individuals rose up in the face of extreme difficulties to fulfill their calls to serve and love their fellow saints.

    One minor note: the quotation from Minert at footnote 12 is accurate, but I think he meant (since it’s the only logical way to interpret the map of the mission territory) “all of Germany east of the Elbe River and portions of Saxony to the southwest of the river.”

    Comment by Mark B. — November 25, 2013 @ 8:55 am

  2. The name Herbert Klopfer was familiar, and it looks like he’s been mentioned before on Keepa (here and here). Additionally, his son and daughter-in-law wrote one of the hymns in the 1985 LDS Hymnbook.

    This is a great write-up and tribute to these Saints and also to those who have kept their memory alive. Thank you, John.

    Comment by Amy T — November 25, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  3. Thanks, john f, for a great summary of the story. Puts my home teaching problems in perspective, to say the least. You are right in calling these men heroes of the same stature as Lot Smith or Jacob Hamblin. I also appreciated that Klopfer dealt with some of the same issues that we have had difficulty with, such as women praying in church and the like and handled it with apparent grace and ease.

    Comment by kevinf — November 25, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

  4. I really appreciate your post, john f, because most of this information is new to me. I love learning stories and history of the church in various locations. It is interesting to see how some of the circumstances are similar to what we have seen here locally, but in much more difficult situations.

    Comment by Maurine — November 25, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

  5. Well done! This is such an inspiring story.Brother Klopfer’s son, daughter-in-law and grandson are in my Stake, formerly in my ward. The son’s story of escape from East Germany is as harrowing and dramatic as any I have heard.

    Comment by Lonn L — November 26, 2013 @ 9:12 am

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