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REUNION REVIVES ‘SPIRIT OF SELBONGEN’
POTATOES AND FAITH SUSTAINED MEMBERS IN ‘OBSCURE LITTLE TOWN’ AFTER WORLD WARII

SHARE REUNION REVIVES ‘SPIRIT OF SELBONGEN’
POTATOES AND FAITH SUSTAINED MEMBERS IN ‘OBSCURE LITTLE TOWN’ AFTER WORLD WARII

A casual remark several years ago by President Thomas S. Monson set in motion plans that eventually brought together 150 former residents of Selbongen, "an obscure little town" in what was a part of Germany before World War II, and is now the town of Zelbak, Poland.

President Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency, had suggested to Renate George of the Kaysville 20th Ward, Kaysville Utah Crestwood Stake, and a native of Selbongen, that "somebody ought to organize a reunion" for the Selbongen members.Sister George and her husband, Carter George, began planning the reunion, which took place in Krefeld, Germany, last June. It brought together old friends and became the catalyst through which acquaintances could be renewed. Former branch members, neighbors and friends are now corresponding regularly, exchanging letters and photographs in efforts to fill a void created by more than 30 years of separation.

Selbongen occupies an important place in the history of the Church in Europe. The Selbongen Branch meetinghouse, built in 1928 was the first LDS building to have been erected specifically for the Church in Germany.

After World War II, the town of Selbongen was part of the area ceded to Poland; its name was changed to Zelbak.

President Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, was the first priesthood leader to visit Selbongen after the war. He was accompanied by Fred Babbel, who, in his book, On Wings of Faith, wrote of that visit:

"We had spotted aT woman hiding behind a large tree. Her expression was one of fear as we stopped, but upon learning who we were she greeted us with tears of gratitude and joy. She was one of our refugee members. . . .

"Within minutes the cry went from house to house, `The brethren are here! The brethren are here!' Soon we found ourselves surrounded by about 50 of the happiest people we had ever seen."

More than 100 members and friends gathered in a quickly convened meeting to bear their testimonies, and to sing and pray. As soon as the meeting ended, the members "called out as with one voice, `Let's hold another meeting!' " wrote Babbel. "What a wonderful spirit."

While the branch struggled to stay alive during the subsequent years, the spirit of the Selbongen saints did not falter. In 1947, government officials ordered the Selbongen meetings discontinued on the grounds that only the Polish language could be spoken in public meetings of any kind. Three years later, the branch was re-opened. "With the help of the Lord, we learned the Polish tongue," recalled then-Branch Pres. Erich Konietz, who was among those attending the reunion in Krefeld in June.

The branch continued until 1978, when Pres. Koneitz and mission leaders finally determined it had to be closed. He, as did most German members in Selbongen, emigrated. The Selbongen Branch meetinghouse still stands, but is no longer used for LDS functions.

President Monson was well aware of the history of the Selbongen Branch and the faithfulness of its members when he suggested that a reunion be held. In his October 1986 general conference address, he spoke of Pres. Konietz, who had been promised in a patriarchal blessing that his family would enjoy temple blessings, and missions would be served. The patriarch, in visiting with President Monson, expressed concern that he had promised blessings that could not be fulfilled.

President Monson said that in a few years the Koenitz family moved to Germany. President Monson ordained the father a bishop in the Dortmund stake of the Church, and the family then went to the temple in Switzerland.

At the reunion, members recounted many similar blessings. Numerous of them have received the blessings of the temple, have children or grandchildren who have served or are now serving as missionaries, and hold positions of responsibility in wards and stakes.

Nearly half of the 150 people who attended the reunion were non-LDS friends and neighbors to the Selbongen saints. "Many of them had come to Sunday School and to youth activities with us when we were young," said Sister George. "They said they felt they belonged, that they wanted to be with us again."

Christa Nielsen, Sister George's sister, also attended the reunion, as did their mother, Emma Krisch, now a member of the Bountiful 10th Ward, Bountiful Utah North Stake.

"We were very close as branch members," said Sister Nielsen, a member of the Farmington 6th Ward, Farmington North Stake. "We relied on each other to survive spiritually and emotionally as well as physically. For a long time after the war, we lived on potatoes and each other's faith.

"The testimony meeting at our reunion reminded me so much of the testimony meetings we attended in Selbongen. Everyone always stood up and bore his or her testimony, even the young children. There was never any pause between people standing. Those testimonies sustained us. The members were very faithful, very devoted to the gospel, and many suffered a lot, but they never lost their faith or their belief in God.

"I think the reunion was a good idea. It has helped revive some of those memories."

The reunion was scheduled to last only four hours, but it lasted 11. After the meeting in the chapel, friends, relatives and fellow Church members from Selbongen went into the cultural hall for several hours of singing and dancing. Members of the Krefeld Ward served a lunch and snacks, and several played accordions to accompany old German folk songs and dances.

"All invariably expressed gratitude for the gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives," said Sister George. "Although these families' roots came from an obscure little town, the gospel taught there has had an influence on hundreds of lives because of the faith of a few families who joined the Church in the 1920s. Only a handful of the original members remain, but their posterity will be forever indebted to them for their courage and dedication."