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Church members in Czechoslovakia worked hard to survive Cold War

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Besides being the year the LDS Church dedicated its first temple inside the former Soviet Union, 2010 marks several key LDS anniversaries in countries once behind the Iron Curtain — the 25th anniversary of the Freiberg Germany Temple, and the 20th anniversaries of missions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and the first branch in Russia. Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor is taking a look at the LDS Church’s past, present and future in these countries in a series of stories.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Four decades of strong-armed Communist rule in Czechoslovakia soon after World War II forced local Czech Latter-day Saints to go underground to worship and practice their religion.

That meant secret church meetings of usually no more than six to eight people at a time in a member's apartment as well as never telling relatives — sometimes even parents or children — of one's church membership.

It meant constantly worrying about government spies and the possibility of arrest and interrogation.

It meant hiding any church literature and painstakingly writing by hand, typing out or — only in the later years — photocopying smuggled scriptures and church manuals.

In the end, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints survived — and even thrived in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War era because of clandestine nighttime baptisms in the backwoods, small copies of the Book of Mormon mistaken for Karl Marx writings and a makeshift yoga education program that doubled as a proselytizing tool.

* * *

The LDS Church's heritage in what constitutes present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia (the two nations peacefully separated in 1993) dates back to 1929, when Czechoslovakia was dedicated for missionary work by Elder John A. Widtsoe at Priests Hill near Karlstejn Castle.

The creation of the Czechoslovakia Mission followed that same year, with missionaries in the country for 10 years until having to leave at the advent of World War II. Missionaries resumed their work briefly beginning in 1946, adding new members to those war survivors who stayed put on their native soil.

Jaroslava Kaderabkova was one of the early post-war converts, as the missionaries met the 20-year-old woman and her friend in Plzen and invited them to a film about Mormon temples and eternal marriage.

\"So, I learned the gospel,\" said Kaderabkova, now 82, of her 1949 conversion. \"My girlfriend didn't accept it — she went away — and I became the third member of the Plzen branch.\"

That branch totaled 45 members by the end of '49. But by then, the LDS Church was already under intense scrutiny following a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Trying to discredit the church and its local membership, the new regime unleashed a flurry of restrictions and accusations against missionaries, leaders and believers.

Sometimes members responded bravely rather than recoil in fear. Gad Vojkuvka of Brno recalled how his father, Otokar, helped organize a large-scale church conference in a local stadium, dropping promotional leaflets from an airplane. Some 1,800 attended, but the elder Vojkuvka was arrested on trumped-up charges, had his factory seized and was imprisoned in a work camp.

In 1950, after a pair of missionaries were jailed for several weeks on charges of spying, all missionaries were forced out of the country as the Communist regime disallowed the LDS Church. An added insult: The announcement came on April 6 — on the 120th anniversary of the LDS Church's organization and during Easter Week.

Minus the missionaries, the Czech Saints lost considerable Melchizedek Priesthood leadership and organization. Also lacking was any contact with church headquarters in Utah because mail and printed materials were intercepted and either censored or simply destroyed.

The Communist government wrote letters to all Czech church members, citing their own 12th Article of Faith in honoring and obeying the law of the land.

\"We were asked to promise to give up all religious activities,\" said Gad Vojkuvka, 66, a third-generation Latter-day Saint. \"All church members had to sign it and return it. I believe my parents were the only ones who didn't sign it — I still have the letter at home.\"

Czech Latter-day Saints learned to worship in stealth and in silence, meeting together a handful at a time in a rotation of member apartments and on any day of the week. Thin apartment walls required messages to be spoken softly and hymns sung very quietly.

\"We couldn't meet openly and publicly,\" Kaderabkova recalled. \"We could only meet in secret, and everything was dangerous. We were taken to the police for interrogation — they wanted to make spies out of us.\"

She was questioned on two occasions, both times for four hours. Czech authorities considered the LDS Church and its missionaries a front for American spies, so they hoped to turn the tables and have Czech members spy for them.

Some church members fell away into inactivity after the 1950 crackdown.

\"Young men went into military service, young girls got married. Many of them didn't wish to come any more,\" Kaderabkova said.

Yet some kept the faith and persevered, like the Vojkuvka family, with young Gad baptized in 1955. \"A member dug a hole in his garden and made a great baptismal font,\" he said. \"We baptized 25 to 30 people in that font, mostly children of members.\"

* * *

An already difficult situation became even worse when the 1968 Soviet invasion squelched a short-lived Czechoslovakian liberalization. Many long-standing Czech Latter-day Saints — including a good share of the local leaders — opted to immigrate west.

Those who remained needed resolve — and creativity — to continue their religious commitments.

In 1970, the Vojkuvkas were among those creating a system of yoga classes and camps as a vehicle to spread the gospel and recruit — over periods of months and years — prospective members of the church who could maintain a quiet observance of the LDS faith.

\"We said to ourselves, if we can't have missionaries come here, then we will have missionaries who were born here,\" Gad Vojkuvka said of what became the Czech trademark of member-missionary work.

In cities throughout Czechoslovakia, the weekly \"yoga class\" began first with an hour of physical exercise but followed with a focus on mental and spiritual well-being.

Participants were taught about ethics, health, a journey to happiness and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and coffee. Then came seven daily \"vitamins\" such as respect, gratitude, happiness and love, along with 10 rules of happiness from a man named David O. McKay.

\"We talked to these people about the purpose of life,\" Vojkuvka said. \"We were not talking about the church but about principles of the church.\"

Those interested in learning more were then invited to attend monthly meetings for a \"School of Wisdom.\"

Weeklong summer yoga camps were conducted each July and August, where those from all across Czechoslovakia came together to continue to learn. Each weekly camp drew 65 to 100 people, who stayed in their own tents, recalled Josef Podlipny of Jicin.

Each day opened and closed with prayer, with additional prayers said before meals. And at the end of the camp, participants tearfully sang a song titled \"God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again.\"

These large-group gatherings were flexible out of necessity. Leaders scuttled camp once under the guise of a bogus \"hepatitis outbreak\" after suspicious Communist officials became too interested. Another time, organizers lost their campsite when it was turned into a Czech national park.

* * *

For those Czechs ready to be baptized in the LDS Church at that time, there were no font, no changing rooms, no chapel, no formal services — and for many, no sunshine. Baptisms usually were done under the cloak of dead-of-night darkness, with a full moon or distant lightning a welcome light.

\"There was no place to be baptized,\" said Marie Cankova of Prague, Radovan Canek's wife and a 1989 convert.

Her baptism was representative of so many Czech converts during those days — a 14-kilometer car ride, then a 2-kilometer walk to the lake, trying to be as quiet and unnoticeable as possible. There gathered some three-dozen people, the male baptismal candidates changing clothes behind the brush on one side and the females on another.

The baptisms were quickly performed, and converts — still in their wet clothes — walked back to the cars with the witnesses to return to the city, still hoping to avoid unwanted attention.

When Kaderabkova's husband, Jan Kaderabek, finally joined the church in 1975, a military helicopter showed up just before the baptism in a pond near Plzen, sending people scattering for cover — but not until they had thrown coats and clothes over car license plates in order to avoid identification. After hovering for 10 minutes, the helicopter finally left, and the baptism was quickly performed.

Podlipny and his wife, Jirina Podlipna, enjoyed a Czech rarity — a daytime baptism, on July 15, 1987.

\"I was the first member baptized at midday, because all people were at home for lunch,\" Podlipny said. \"It was several years before the revolution, and it was really dangerous. My wife was a member of the Communist Party. We couldn't tell anybody, not even our parents.\"

Podlipna added, \"When we came home from the yoga camp after our baptisms, we went to visit my parents. My mom said, 'You're different.' And I couldn't tell her why.\"

* * *

Just as creative as the yoga classes and camps were the ways the Czech members obtained — and retained — scriptures and printed religious literature during their four decades of isolation.

Such material was kept well-hidden. Some publications were either copied by hand or typewriter as to not draw suspicion.

On rare occasions, some scriptures, books and handbooks were smuggled into the country by visitors aware of the Czechs' thirst for such materials.

Manuals for priesthood holders and Relief Society members were created annually when possible — tediously rewritten page by page using typewriters and carbon paper.

When photocopying was available later, government restrictions required signed receipts acknowledging who did the copying and for what purpose, Canek said, adding that Vojkuvka eventually was in a government-trusted position where he didn't have to record copier use and was able to more quickly produce copied church material.

And then there was the Czech Book of Mormon.

\"When we received our first Book of Mormon, we got one for both of us, and we were told not to talk about it and to keep it a secret,\" Podlipna said.

And the Czechs committed its efficient utilization. \"We promised that for every Book of Mormon sent to us, that we would have one baptism,\" Vojkuvka said.

In the Czech language, the two-letter acronym for \"Book of Mormon\" is \"KM.\"

Members inside the country and book publishers outside quickly realized that those letters could also represent the name of revolutionary communist Karl Marx — and soon pocket-sized Books of Mormon became available, bearing the \"KM\" title on the red-colored cover, Cankova said.

When stopped by border guards and military police, members weren't about to correct the misconception that they were toting small booklets either written by or about Marx.

* * *

Czechoslovakia's \"Velvet Revolution\" began in 1989, and by 1990, the country's new government had restored many freedoms, including freedom of religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints returned in the country in short order and in full fashion.

Key LDS Church officials involved included Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Hans B. Ringger, formerly of the Quorums of the Seventy, along with longtime local leader Jiri Snedefler. The latter risked his life during a time when known religious leaders were imprisoned or executed by agreeing to serve as the Czechoslovakian representative required to push through church-recognition papers, which took nearly three years.

In February 1990, Czech deputy prime minister Joseph Hromadka met with the LDS leaders and promised full recognition for the LDS Church — not as a new church but as one that had been established 60 years earlier.

At the time of recognition, the LDS Church counted six branches and some 200 members residing in Czechoslovakia. Missionaries could return, and LDS members could worship freely and speak openly about their beliefs.

Heading up the new Czechoslovakia Prague Mission formed several months later was President Richard W. Winder, one of the same missionaries forced out in 1939 before World War II.

Podlipna remember her first two acts with the newfound freedom — to denounce her membership in the Communist Party and to tell her mother of her LDS membership.

\"We wanted to tell people about the church, but nobody responded,\" recalled Stephan Lendel, a 1991 LDS convert who now serves as a district president in Jicin. \"Some did later, but nobody really wished to hear about it.\"

Hynec Renza, a 15-year convert from Prague, summed up the ironies about religion and beliefs following the newfound freedoms, saying the Czech people struggle with authority and organization, with leanings toward atheism and apathy.

\"We are more jeopardized now by the worldly attitudes and worldly thoughts — there's no sense of righteousness,\" he said. \"And freedom, nowadays they think simply it is that you are free to do anything you want to do.\"

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com