Researching Family History: Gathering the genealogy records in Germany that survived World War II
Near the end of World War II in a salt mine near Strassfurt, Germany, Elder Rudolph K. Poecker, a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put on a miner’s outfit. He accompanied the mine engineer all the way down to the floor some 1,312 feet or 400 meter, as is told in "Hearts Turned to the Fathers," Vol. 34, No. 2, by James B. Allen, Jessie L. Embrey and Kahlile B. Mehr and published by BYU Studies.
There was a large cache of books containing genealogical records waiting for them, according to Kahlie Mehr's article in June 1981 Ensign article titled "The Langheinrich Legacy: Record-Gathering in Post-War Germany."
Upon arriving, they went to work immediately, assessing the amount of records and taking measurements of the collection. Poecker and the engineer requested permission from a Russian officer to bring out the collection and put it on a train destined for Berlin. It would be a year before the collection would be removed from the mine.
By this time, from mission headquarters, Poecker had received a copy of a letter from the Russian commander of East Germany, Gen. Vasily Sokolovsky, and the assignment to go in search of every mining village and castle looking for stashed genealogical records, as is told in "Hearts Turned to the Fathers." Other missionaries called to do the same were Erich Sellner and Gerhard Kupitz.
Going back a few years earlier, Elder Paul Langheinrich, a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an avid genealogist, did genealogical research for the German government, according to Mehr's article in the Ensign. Moving to Berlin in 1937, he did volunteer work for the LDS Church’s German Mission genealogical department. Late into the war, he was called as a counselor in the mission presidency and given access to all German archives and church record offices. He took a personal responsibility to see that the stored records and film would have further protection from Allied bombings and book burnings of the Third Reich, which was collapsing.
After the war, Langheinrich wrote a letter to Russian Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, dated Aug. 9, 1945, asking permission to provide food and clothing for LDS Church members and also to search for German genealogical materials. Zhukov passed the letter onto his successor, Gen. Sokolovsky, who quickly responded by giving Langheinrich permission to do everything he could for the members and keep any genealogical records he could find, according to "Hearts Turned to the Fathers."
The next year, Langheinrich and another Mormon missionary tried to retrieve the records from the Strassfurt mine but were arrested by another Russian general who reluctantly cleared them. Once the records were loaded into the train car, the general assumed the collection might contain documents of military significance, according to "Hearts Turned to the Fathers." He seized the car, but Langheinrich chided him, simply stepping forward and closing the car door. The general drove away in a rage thinking he could stop the shipment. Immediately, Langheinrich used the mine office telephone. "There is a loaded car here which must be picked up immediately and taken to Berlin," he is quoted as saying in "Hearts Turned to the Fathers." The car arrived before Langheinrich did.
In February 1946, Langheinrich was assisted by 16 other missionaries in retrieving records that were stored in castles on the mountains in Thuringia. A rented pickup truck with a trailer was used to bring out the records from the castles to the train car. However, slick, icy roads were an obstacle to getting to the castles and loading the records into the truck and trailer. They prayed for help, and soon rain fell, melting the ice and snow, Mehr relates in "The Langheinrich Legacy: Record-Gathering in Post-War Germany."
On the second day, the truck and trailer made its way to the castles where the records were loaded by the missionaries. The third day, the train car arrived, one day late, with Langheinrich and the others getting all the records to the car in time. That night it snowed and the following day the roads were iced over as before, as related in "Hearts Turned to the Fathers." They knew the Lord was watching out for them and opened the way to accomplish this.
A few weeks later, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, met with some of the workers at the mission home in Berlin. He was taken to the building’s basement where he saw 5,000 books stacked one upon another and many scrolls. As Mehr notes, after Elder Bensen's inspection of them, he declared in a moving statement, "Wonderful!"
Langheinrich was given permission and funding by the German government to build an archive for the records, as detailed in "Hearts Turned to the Fathers."
As soon as he set up a microfilming program, he started providing films to the Genealogical Society. He later estimated he put more than 100 million names on film, not to mention his tireless efforts and the dedication of all the missionaries who worked with him, as recorded in "Hearts Turned to the Fathers."
These and other records ended up being moved around Germany and ended up in Potsdam, Germany, Mehr writes in "The Langheinrich Legacy: Record-Gathering in Post-War Germany." Right after the war, a vast treasure house of genealogical information was preserved for future generations.
These records are helping researchers and descendants today find ancestors and do for them what they cannot do for themselves.
Genealogy graduate Russell Bangerter is president of Ancestral Connections Inc., at ancestralconnect.com. He is a professional genealogist, author and speaker and adviser to Treasured Souls to Keep, at treasuredsoulstokeep.com.
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