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The LDS Church and the Berlin Wall: President Uchtdorf recalls escape from East Germany, life with the wall

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I always knew that Germany one day would be united again, but in my heart and mind I always thought, ‘Well, it won’t be in my lifetime, and it won’t be in the lifetime of my children, but perhaps during the lifetime of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren.’ But I knew it would happen, someday. And then it was there. – President Dieter F. Uchtdorf

SALT LAKE CITY — The 11-year-old boy watched terror storm across his mother's face.

He saw the horror elbow aside her exhaustion. They had been unpacking a little cake to eat, happy because friends said when they reached this hill they would be safely across the border. But now as they sat on the hill, she had spotted a border crossing bar farther up the path.

The crossing arm was painted with communist colors.

"She realized where we were," the boy recalled this week, 62 years later. Sitting in his pristine, first-floor corner office in the LDS Church Administration Building, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf remembered his mother's face on that hill in 1952.

"I could see her fear all of a sudden," said the second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "and despair all of a sudden."

They still were on the wrong side of the East German border. She knew from their informants that Soviet border soldiers were due any minute.

"Wir müssen gehen," she told her son. "We need to go."

Dieter Uchtdorf helped his mother repack their little cake. They scrambled to their feet. He had carried their only bag for hours because she couldn't.

Now she ran. They ran.

They ran for the hills. To the west. Toward young Dieter's father, who would escape through West Berlin. For his brothers, who fled north together. For his sister, who jumped from a moving train after paying a conductor to unlock the door while it passed through a sliver of West Germany.

"The consequences would have been horrible for anyone left behind," President Uchtdorf said. Communist retribution awaited any captured family member. Schooling would be withheld, professional advancement stunted. His father faced an even worse fate.

So, alone in the hills at the edge of the Green Border — they prayed they were alone — his mother ran, as fast as she could manage, to protect young Dieter's future.

"We didn't stop for a long time after we passed that crossing bar," he said.

A wall's fall

The fall of the Berlin Wall came as a complete shock 25 years ago today. There were signs of a real thaw in the Cold War, but the wall fell suddenly on Nov. 9, 1989, due to a miscommunication and momentum, not any grand vision.

President Uchtdorf recalled that day during an hourlong interview Wednesday with the Deseret News. The story that emerged was one of a boy and man swept up by the Cold War — a young boy who escaped East Germany and became a West German fighter pilot and church leader with a front-row seat to history.

"I always knew that Germany one day would be united again," President Uchtdorf said, "but in my heart and mind I always thought, 'Well, it won't be in my lifetime, and it won't be in the lifetime of my children, but perhaps during the lifetime of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren.' But I knew it would happen, someday.

"And then it was there. And then it was there, just like that."

In 1989, President Uchtdorf was a senior vice president for the West German airline Lufthansa and an LDS stake president responsible for multiple congregations in the Frankfurt area. The Uchtdorfs were at home in Darmstadt on the night of Nov. 9, when news of the wall's opening flashed across the world.

"My son, who was a teenager, and I decided to go and drive to Berlin and see it," President Uchtdorf said. "Unfortunately, things came up in church and business, and we didn't go. But that was our immediate response, was to drive to Berlin and see it. ...

"I still regret that we didn't go."

Instead, the Uchtdorfs hugged each other and talked about what it meant.

"It was a really heartwarming moment," he said. "I immediately thought of our extended family in the east. Our thoughts went to the church members, I must say. We had had district presidents and other leaders of the church stay in our home. Our hearts went out to them immediately. 'What will they do?'"

Taking flight

Karl Uchtdorf was working as a German customs officer on the Czech border in November 1940, when his youngest son, Dieter, was born. The events of World War II forced the family to flee to the German city of Zwickau, where U.S. forces arrived in 1945.

The three Uchtdorf boys — Wolfgang, Karl-Heinze and 4-year-old Dieter — took turns peeking through the keyhole in their front door to watch the American soldiers resting on the front steps of their home.

The Americans had rushed east across Germany as the war was ending, like a wave dashing up a beach, only to recede like the tide when politicians divided the country. The Green Border cleaved Germany in two along a meandering 850-mile front and would last 44 years.

The Soviets moved into Zwickau. The Uchtdorfs found themselves on the east side of the border.

By 1952, Karl Uchtdorf was a driver for the commanding Soviet officer in Zwickau, a direct conflict with his activity in what was then called the Liberal party in East Germany.

"He heard through channels that the time was approaching that they would take him in," President Uchtdorf said. "That meant normally they would deport him to Siberia. He was warned a couple of times."

The family carefully prepared their escape. They left everything behind.

"We went one after the other so it wasn't all at once," President Uchtdorf said. "My sister, Christel, stayed longest."

Karl Uchtdorf drove to Berlin in the Soviet officer's car, which allowed him to move through checkpoints. He parked the car in front of a Russian building and walked into West Berlin.

"He just barely made it," President Uchtdorf said. "The problem in these political situations was that you were guilty by association, especially his family."

Hildegard Else Uchtdorf and her son Dieter crossed the Green Border, then hitchhiked on trucks to a suburb of Frankfurt. They reunited there with the two oldest boys and Christel and Karl.

The Uchtdorfs were six of an estimated 3.5 million East Germans — one-sixth of the population — who escaped to the west between 1949 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

A church divided

"The worst thing was actually in '61 when the wall came up, when people all of sudden couldn't see each other anymore," President Uchtdorf said.

He recalled driving to a Lufthansa stockholder meeting in Berlin.

"When I saw these circumstances and knew there were people living there from the same family who couldn't get together...," he said, his voice trailing off and then filling with emotion.

German LDS families lived and worshipped for decades without being able to see loved ones on the opposite side of the border.

The separation created odd, uncomfortable circumstances. The Berlin Wall rose while President Uchtdorf was training as a West German fighter pilot in Texas. When he returned, he was trained to hit Warsaw Pact targets in case war broke out, "including," he said, "targets in East Germany."

The Uchtdorfs joined the LDS Church in East Germany, in Zwickau, in 1947, but they were an exception. Church membership declined throughout the history of secular, communist East Germany.

"Marxism-Leninism was the official new 'religion,'" historian Douglas Tobler wrote, "and the 'enlightened' were not only to believe it but to promote it."

Latter-day Saints suffered for decades because their faith was seen as American. The Stasi, the East German secret police, infiltrated their meetings and tracked Mormon leaders, including visits by President David O. McKay and future church President Thomas S. Monson.

Some left the church when the government demanded it so they could attend college, find a better job, or get an apartment or car sooner. Church supplies were scarce. "During the '50s ... copies of the Book of Mormon were passed around so much that they looked soiled and embarrassed the members," Tobler wrote in Dialogue.

"(Church members) were so faithful," President Uchtdorf said. "They stuck together, to their principles. They had faith despite making sacrifices in their personal lives. Promotions didn't come as hoped for and as their qualification and their education would have invited because of church membership."

Religious thaw

LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball told Henry J. Burkhardt, who was designated as the church president in East Germany, that political solutions were ineffective, Raymond M. Kuehne wrote in Dialogue.

"It must begin with you because you are the leader of the Saints there, and you must have a change of heart, which means you must force yourself to befriend the communists. You cannot hold any grudges against them. You must change your whole outlook and attitude."

Burkhardt said miracle after miracle took place when he finally managed to follow that advice.

One was the 1975 visit by President Monson, then a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, who dedicated the country for missionary work.

"That was a tipping point," said President Uchtdorf, who earlier this year said, "There seemed no possible way that these beautiful promises to our people could happen in their lifetime, if ever. How could a temple be built and operated in East Germany?"

He said he felt like the man who cried out, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief," but he kept a copy of the blessing and ticked off each item as it came true.

Burkhardt pressed the government to allow Mormons to travel to Switzerland to attend the temple there, only to be astounded in 1978 when the East German government provided "a different suggestion, namely, to build a temple" in East Germany.

The church paid for the land with local funds and built the temple with Western currency, as required by the government.

"The construction of the Freiberg Temple is one of the great miracles in the history of the church in Europe," President Uchtdorf said in March at the BYU Church History Symposium. "It is a wonderful example of how God can make the impossible possible in any part of the world. ...

"It is my conviction that those who disregard the reality of heaven will ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of history."

In 1988, East Germany allowed LDS missionaries into the country. "The church grew fast," President Uchtdorf said.

In fact, there were 650 baptisms in the first year of the Dresden Mission, said Garold Davis, author of "Behind the Iron Curtain: Recollections of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945-89."

"With President Monson's blessing and with the faithfulness of the Saints over there — President Monson always called it 'Faith Rewarded' — things grew," President Uchtdorf said.

"They stayed true and faithful, and when it opened up, a multitude of blessings came to these faithful Saints who were living there. So there are many personal examples of how people were blessed for staying there and blessing the church and not leaving."

Tumbling down

Most East Germans didn't know what had happened at the wall on Nov. 9 until the next day. Dresden, for example, had no access to Western television. "They called us the City of the Naive," said Davis, then a senior missionary working in the new Dresden mission. "There was a lot of joy, but I don't think most people understood what it would mean."

Many immediately packed gas cans with proprietary eastern fuel into their Trabants, their tiny communist-built automobiles, and headed west to see family.

"For a while, it was disruptive to the church in a wonderful way," said Elder Spencer J. Condie, an emeritus LDS general authority who was serving in the Europe Area Presidency at the time and watched the events of Nov. 9 unfold on television from a hotel room in Madrid.

"So many people hadn't been out of East Germany in 45 years that they wanted to see their families in Stuttgart or Frankfurt."

Soon, the church realigned stakes to include congregations from the east and west.

But for President Uchtdorf, the real accomplishment was not the fall of the wall but the reunification of Germany, made official on Oct. 3, 1990. He held a special meeting of the Frankfurt Stake that day.

"It was to celebrate that day of unification because there were a lot of people living there who came from the east, including ourselves," he said.

It was the first time in his life that a German congregation sang the German national anthem.

"That was with all of our hearts," he said, pausing as tears formed in his eyes. "It was a touching moment. That time a lot of tears were flowing."

Big lessons

A piece of the Berlin Wall sits in President Uchtdorf's office, the work of a Mauerspecht, or "wall-pecker."

Earlier this year, he called the wall a symbol of the Cold War that "served as a metaphor for the separation and division of the communist world and the democratic Western world."

On Wednesday he said its fall "shows that freedom always wins. It may take a while, but walls cannot hold back the expansion of freedom. I think this piece of concrete has a wonderful symbolic meaning to me, that even in our personal lives we sometimes have to be careful we are not building walls that will keep us from expanding our blessings.

"We think that only our way at the moment is the right way, and we know there is only one right way, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's why the church (exercises) political neutrality."

German unification, he said, "reminds us to not build walls but use the gospel to unite the people, who are all children of our Heavenly Father."

It also "shows wars won't make the change. It is the hearts, it's the minds, it's ideas, it's principles, it's values that make the difference."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com