LDS leader served behind Iron Curtain

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 7 2010 12:55 a.m. MDT

FREIBERG, Germany — The years of successive LDS Church service from Henry Burkhardt are impressive enough — more than three years as a full-time missionary, 17 as a counselor in a mission presidency, 14 as mission president and nearly seven more as temple president.

What makes it all the more remarkable is where Burkhardt served — in eastern Germany, practically all in the former Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic.

When it comes to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the GDR, the lanky, 79-year-old Burkhardt could easily say, "Been there, done that" — or at least helped, witnessed or supervised it.

The third-generation Latter-day Saint from Chemnitz, Germany, was 3 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power and 8 when forced to become a member of the German Youth Movement. As it transformed into Hitler's Youth, Burkhardt got his first taste of unsavory political agendas.

A Mormon missionary beginning in 1950, he was called a year later as a district president and asked the following year by President David O. McKay to be a counselor in the mission presidency.

During a 1954 interview, then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve was shocked to learn Burkhardt had been a missionary for 3½ years, telling him he would be released immediately but was to continue as mission presidency counselor.

During his 17 years as a counselor, he pestered the GDR hierarchy with requests to allow LDS Church members to leave the country and attend temples in either Switzerland or England. He and his wife, Inge, had obtained a rare allowance in 1955 to go to the Swiss Temple.

He also resolved a naming issue, when officials complained about the mission's East German title, bestowed back in 1937. They wanted GDR in the name but accepted his offer of Berlin, since the country's headquarters were in the east side of the divided German city.

In 1969, Burkhardt was called as president of the new Dresden Mission, which incorporated all church and missionary matters in East Germany. He worked weekdays in the Dresden office and spent weekends presiding at conferences throughout the region, since each of the mission's seven districts held quarterly conferences back then.

"I came home Friday nights so my kids would know I was their father," he said.

At one point, East Germany had some 8,000 church members, but about half eventually immigrated to West Germany before the stricter controls and the Berlin Wall of the early 1960s. Burkhardt remained — and paid the price of being the local LDS leader in the GDR.

"Many times I was captured and imprisoned," he recalled. "They were always looking for a reason to forbid me and the church. They wanted to say I was an agent of the American government. But my intention was only to preach the gospel."

Burkhardt calls his several general conference trips to Utah in 1969 and 1975 "miracles" since East Germans were very rarely allowed to leave. The first time, he could only travel alone; the second, his wife was allowed to join him, but his children were required to stay.

In an interview during the '75 visit, President Spencer W. Kimball asked Burkhardt to create a good relationship with the East German government.

"I didn't have the courage to tell President Kimball my true feeling about this: 'President Kimball, you have no idea about the communists — you cannot have a good relationship,' " he recalled.

"President Kimball knew these people much better than I did. The reason is he saw these people as children of God. I saw them as politicians. After two years, I was converted. I told myself, 'If the prophet gives you this job, you should finish it.' "

The relationships got better — and Burkhardt got bolder in asking allowance for members to travel to temples beyond the borders. GDR officials often laughed off the requests.

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