'That's America': Former German soldier builds new life in U.S. after World War II

Published: Monday, Dec. 31 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Louis and Helene Gellersen owned a gas station/bike shop in Stade, a town in the north of Germany near Hamburg. During the Depression, they joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "When times are bad, you listen," says Gellersen. The Stade branch of the LDS Church met for a time in the back room of a bar for their Sunday meetings. Gellersen has vivid memories of walking past the glaring bartender for church services. Later, Sunday meetings were held on the main floor of a city building while the Nazis used the upstairs as their local headquarters.

In Roger Minert's "Under the Gun" — a book that chronicles the history of West German and Austrian Mormons during the war — Gellersen's sister Inge, now an 84-year-old Bountiful resident, notes that on one wall there was a photo of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith next to one of Hitler. Inge recalls that one Sunday, government officials sat in on a church meeting. "The first person to get up was Brother (Christian) Tiedemann, and he bore a strong testimony and even said something nice about the Nazis — how well they treated us Mormons. Before they left, they clicked their heels and said, 'Heil Hitler!' They told us to be careful what we said and did, but after that meeting they left us alone."

"We were in the same building as the Nazis, but there was no problem," says Gellersen. "We were singing. Nobody kicked in our door. They didn't like religion, but they never bothered us."

Louis, the father of three sons and a daughter, would serve as the branch president for 35 years, overseeing a wartime flock that ranged from 10 to 18 people. Helene served many roles for the branch, including the cleaning of the "church." One day she was scrubbing floors in the meetinghouse when a Nazi general stopped by and asked her if she wanted a job doing the same thing in his office. She told him, "This is my church and I do this for nothing." He apologized and left.

The war

Swept up by nationalism and the excitement of early German conquests, Gellersen wanted to volunteer for the army. His father, who had seen the horrors of World War I, told him to wait until he was drafted. His three sons would be scattered throughout Europe during the war. Manfred was drafted at 18, shortly after completing a 31/2-year apprenticeship as an auto mechanic. He was assigned to a tank division as a mechanic on the Eastern front in Russia. His brothers were sent to France and Finland.

"I liked it at first," Gellersen says, "because I was 18 years old and we had all new tanks." His enthusiasm quickly waned in the sub-zero temperatures. The Germans moved to within 30 miles of Moscow, but that was as close as they got. The tanks got stuck in the mud and froze, their oil turning into a thick sludge, and then the gas ran out. Forced to abandon their tanks, the Germans destroyed them rather than leave them for the enemy.

"We would have won the war against the Russians," says Gellersen, "but the Lord interferes with guys like Hitler." It was the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front. Gellersen entered the war at Smolensk, about 200 miles west of Moscow, in 1942. The German army moved south to the Black Sea, where they ran out of gas again, then to the high mountains near the Turkish border in that summer.

After a year as a mechanic, Gellersen was given a new assignment, indirectly because of his religious beliefs. As a Mormon, Gellersen was the only man out of the 150 in his company who abstained from drinking alcohol. One night a general needed a driver and woke up Manfred because he was the only one who was sober. It became his assignment for the remainder of the war.

Gellersen's unit was shipped back toward Stalingrad to aid German forces, which were being overrun by the Russians. They painted their tanks white and went into battle for days, but, badly outnumbered, they were driven back to Romania and Hungary and eventually Germany. After being given two weeks off, they took a train to Lithuania for more battle, but by then the German cause was lost.

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