Meet the German woman whose resilient refugee story weaves through the third volume of ‘Saints’
Church historian and recorder says his ‘faith has been strengthened’ by the stories of people in the latest volume of the new narrative history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When we first meet Helga Meiszus Meyer, she is a 9-year-old girl attending the Tilsit Latter-day Saint branch in East Germany in 1929.
As the pages turn, she participates in the Young Women program and experiences bullying and ostracism for her faith.
Her young husband dies in battle and close family members are killed by an Allied bomb during World War II.
Despite destruction and constant hunger, the young widow shows courage by ministering to others and helps to keep a small branch of the church going during tumultuous times.
Eventually Meyer remarries, has four children and escapes East Germany before construction of the Berlin Wall. She immigrates to Utah and learns English.
Meyer is one of the most compelling female characters featured in “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3: Boldly, Nobly and Independent, 1893-1955,” released April 21.
“I just know she was a very brave woman,” said Heidy Couch, Meyer’s daughter. “I realized it before, but now it seems even more so. She’s important to other people, not just us.”
Meyer’s three daughters and other family members attended a launch event with volume editors and Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy who serves as Church Historian and Recorder, where they celebrated the release of the third volume in the series on April 21.
Finding Helga Meyer’s unique story
One of the common questions “Saints” volume editors are asked is how they decide which stories to include in the series?
As a character-driven, narrative history, it means telling the story through the perspectives of the people who lived it, said Lisa Olsen Tait, a historian and “Saints” general editor.
“We look for people who can anchor the narrative through stories from their lives,” Tait said. “In some cases, it is relatively clear that we need to include certain people — leaders of the church, for example, or members who were key players in important events. Other times we are looking for less visible characters whose stories may not be well known but who can show us important events and changes from less prominent perspectives.”
As volume editors searched for a female character who could tell the experiences of church members in Germany during this time period, “Saints” Managing Historian Jed Woodworth found Meyer’s memoir, “Under a Leafless Tree: The Story of Helga Meyer, a Mormon Girl from East Prussia,” in the BYU library.
Woodworth reached out to Lark Evans Galli, a co-author who encouraged Meyer to write her story and helped her record, transcribe, edit and publish her memoir. He assumed Meyer was deceased, but learned from Galli that the 96-year-old Meyer was still alive.
For the next two years they worked together to fully record Meyer’s story before her death at age 98 in 2018.
‘I’m honored to be her daughter’
Meyer’s daughters — Couch, Nia Maksymiw and Chris Farnsworth — are grateful to see their mother’s memory preserved and shared in “Saints.”
“I’ve always been proud of her and thankful for her, but even more so now,” Maksymiw said.
“I’m honored to be her daughter,” Farnsworth said.
“I think it’s pretty incredible,” said Jessica Couch, a granddaughter. “She was an incredible woman and it’s nice to know that other people are going to know her story.”
It took Galli nine years to convince Meyer to write her story because Meyer didn’t consider her story valuable. Galli didn’t give up.
“‘Helga, thousands of people will know your story.’ I said that over and over and over,” said Galli, who was “elated” to see Meyer’s story in “Saints, Vol. 3.” “I didn’t know how but I knew it was a very engaging story, a story of lost community. It didn’t just represent Helga, but also her relatives and friends who died in the war. Many of them didn’t have descendants. So I felt like it was a super important story. She was my visiting teacher. I just knew I had her.”
‘These were her people’
What makes Meyer’s story so compelling?
On personal level, readers can see her grow up and get to know her over time. Her story also demonstrates the feeling of being part of a community of Latter-day Saints, Tait said.
“When we follow her through the war and the terrible losses and traumas she experiences, we are deeply invested in her story,” Tait said. “But on another level, Helga’s story is powerful because it is representative of so many others who went through similar ordeals.”
Tait’s favorite moment with Meyer in “Saints” comes in the last chapter when she travels to West Berlin to see the Tabernacle Choir perform in 1955. For many like Meyer, hearing the Tabernacle Choir sing was the experience of a lifetime. She attended two concerts.
“Helga did not understand the English words of the hymns, but as the singers’ voices filled the space with joyous sound, her heart soared,” the narrative reads in “Saints.” “The Spirit of the Lord enveloped her, and she and those around her could not stop the tears from flowing. It felt like heaven on earth.”
As Meyer listened and rejoiced, she reflected: “These were her people ... come from far away.”
“Helga’s story, above all, shows the power of being part of the community of the Saints,” Tait said.
Pieter Vlam’s act of Christian charity
Pieter Vlam is another Latter-day Saint who featured in the third volume of “Saints.”
Vlam lived in the Netherlands and was a former Dutch military officer. After the Nazis took over the Netherlands, he was requested to travel to a nearby city and register with the government. He said farewell to his family, expecting to return the next day, but was arrested and taken to Germany as a prisoner of war. He was held in various prisoner camps where he suffered harsh and difficult conditions. Vlam eventually did return but not until near the end of the war in Europe when he was able to escape.
Economic conditions were harsh following the war, especially in Germany. It was difficult for the Dutch Saints to want to share their food with the German Saints because they had been enemies.
Despite what he had suffered at the hands of the Germans, Vlam urged the Dutch Saints to forgive and help the Germans. He was instrumental in convincing church leaders in the Netherlands to send their potato harvest to Germany after World War II. The Dutch Saints sent 10 trucks with more than 70 tons of potatoes to the German Saints.
When President David O. McKay learned of this act of charity he called it one of the greatest acts of true Christian conduct ever brought to his attention, Elder Curtis said.
Vlam’s 91-year-old daughter, Grace Vlam, attended the launch event. It was special for her to see her father’s life experiences represented in the new volume.
“It’s a wonderful occasion,” she said.
Audience reach of ‘Saints’ series
The third volume’s release comes after remarkable success with the first two volumes, “really beyond what we might have expected,” Elder Curtis told an audience at an event celebrating the volume’s launch.
The church’s historian and recorder described the reach of the first two volumes like this:
- More than 1 million copies sold.
- More than 1.25 million digital readers.
- More than 500,000 audio book listeners.
“Over 1 million copies have been sold, which is all the more remarkable because you can get it for free,” Elder Curtis said with a smile. “The church offers it for free in many ways.”
‘My faith has been strengthened’
Most of the stories featured in the book take place outside the United States. Here is a snapshot of what readers will find in “Saints, Vol. 3”:
- Covers church history from 1893 to 1955, under the leadership of six church presidents.
- World War I.
- The Great Depression.
- World War II and rebuilding after the war
- The international growth of the church and the building of temples outside the United States and North America.
- Five temples were built during this period, including Laie, Hawaii; Cardston, Alberta; Mesa, Arizona (first temple to provide temple ceremonies in Spanish); Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Bern, Switzerland (first temple to use film and provide temple ceremonies in several languages).
“‘Saints Vol. 3’ is a remarkable book that does a masterful job of telling important stories about a very interesting transitional time for the church,” Elder Curtis said. “I think you will will find from the whisperings of heaven that it is pleasing to God that we are retelling these stories of valued and remarkable Saints. ... My faith has been strengthened as I have learned about the remarkable Saints whose stories are featured in this book.”
The digital version of volume 3 is available for free on the church website and in the Church History section of the Gospel Library app. Printed copies will be available in English in the coming weeks in the church’s online store and at retail outlets. The third volume is available in 14 languages and other languages will follow in coming months.