Saints in Communist Czechoslovakia: Trial by Fire

Daniel Reeves, “Saints in Communist Czechoslovakia: Trial by Fire,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 159–174.

Saints in Communist Czechoslovakia: Trial by Fire

Daniel Reeves

While teaching the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord made the following comparison of His relationship with believers and truth seekers. “As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). Active disciples of Jesus Christ who understand God’s eternal purposes are molded in His hands to become the people He wants them to be. And just as the potter must put his creations of clay through a searing kiln to yield his final, perfected product, so the Lord allows His children to pass through fiery furnaces of affliction to become more perfect. A compelling example of this process is found in the experiences of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Czechoslovakia, who remained true to their faith while enduring forty years of repressive communist rule.

These saints emerged from behind the iron curtain with proven convictions and a firm foundation to support continued growth of the kingdom of God in their corner of the world. Not only did they remain true to their beliefs against incredible opposition, they found ways to share testimonies and true principles—potentially incriminating activities—finding converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ during the dark decades of communist Czechoslovakia. The experiences here described show how eternal truth and lives that are in harmony with that truth cannot be destroyed.

Prelude to Persecution

The Church first organized a mission in Czechoslovakia in 1929. Missionaries found early successes through media exposure and cultural activities. The Book of Mormon was translated into Czech and published in 1933. Information about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ was quickly becoming available to the people of Czechoslovakia. Opposition and obstacles surrounded these early missionary efforts. The Czech language was very difficult for missionaries to learn. [1] Czechs are a traditional people, and while many examined this new religion to satisfy their curiosity, few were willing to seriously consider changing their lives. Membership in the Church grew slowly but steadily through these years.

Throughout World War II, the mission in Czechoslovakia developed strong roots—roots that would be important in the difficult years ahead. As war broke out in Europe, missionaries were pulled out of German-occupied Czechoslovakia, and the operations of the mission were put on hold for more than six years. President Wallace Toronto, who presided over the mission before and after the war, was pleased to return to the country in 1946 and find a nucleus of loyal Saints. [2] Josef Roubícek, president of the Prague Branch, said of the eighty-six Czech members at the war’s end, “Their testimonies of the truthfulness of the gospel have not wavered even in the worst moments of this great conflict.” [3] The faithfulness of these wartime Saints became an inspiration to those who would cling to their faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ through forty dark years under a communist dictatorship.

Communism: Trial by Fire

By 1950 the iron curtain had descended over all of Eastern Europe, installing repressive communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. Communism restricted personal freedoms in pursuit of “the common good.” By eliminating divisive cultural elements—personal wealth, religion, and political views—communist leaders hoped to produce a homogenous population converted to the collective aspirations of a communist society. Atheism was made the official religion of the communists, and the government of each satellite state enforced this mandate to a differing degree.

The Communist Party initially took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948 and began the process of weeding out organizations that threatened their ideology. Although the Czechoslovak mission continued to function for a time, its operations were limited. [4] Every sermon had to be carefully written six weeks prior to its delivery and given to communist officials for approval. They eliminated ideas they didn’t like before the sermons could be given. Members of the secret police attended all gatherings to make certain that nothing inappropriate was said or done. Publication of Nový Hlas, the mission’s influential magazine, with a circulation of three thousand copies per month, was discontinued by a government order. [5]

Communist officials did not allow any more missionaries to enter Czechoslovakia, and they made it increasingly difficult for those who continued to proselyte in the country. In 1949 two missionaries were falsely accused of espionage and thrown in jail. In Plze?, the branch held weekly Tuesday night meetings that regularly attracted many nonmembers and that were regularly frowned upon by the Communist Party. In the fall of 1949, political leaders in Plze? put a stop to the English classes that were a mainstay of these Tuesday meetings. [6]

It is interesting to note the way Czechs reacted to the increasing restrictions imposed on them by the communist regime. As personal freedoms decreased in Czechoslovakia, the rate of convert baptisms into the Church increased. Recognizing the needs of this rapidly growing Church membership and anticipating the expulsion of all missionaries from communist countries, President Toronto again worked to organize and train local leadership. [7] No one knew how long the Czech Saints would need to sustain themselves without the organizational support of a mission.

In February 1950 the last of the missionaries were forced to leave Czechoslovakia, which had officially become the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. By Easter of the same year, the Church was formally outlawed in the Republic and all meetings were forbidden. In the words of Sister Jaroslava Kaderábková, “Even though according to the constitution, to which every Communist president swore allegiance, every citizen had freedom of religion, they [the Communists] made opposing laws that suited their ideologies and had greater validity than the [Czechoslovak] Constitution.” [8] About two hundred Latter-day Saints were left on their own to face these oppressive restrictions. [9]

Sister Saints in Plze?

The experiences of two close friends in Plze? help to illustrate the conditions of this difficult time. Jaroslava Kade?ábková and Jaroslava Marková were college-age women in the summer of 1948 when they began attending English classes and activities hosted by the missionaries. Both were baptized in the winter months of 1948 and 1949 as two of the early members in the Plze? Branch, a branch that within a year had grown to include forty-five members. [10] Over the next couple of years, both women lost their jobs as a result of their membership in the Church. Local government officials saw them as a threat. Kade?ábková was labeled an American spy, and Marková was named an enemy to the state. Both were ostracized by neighbors and acquaintances who feared the consequences of associating with people who had been blacklisted by the communist regime. [11]

Church members in Plze? continued to meet for a time, but they gradually stopped meeting and in many cases lost contact with one another. Young men were required to join the army and move to different cities. Other young Saints, including both Kade?ábková and Marková, married people with different religious backgrounds, making it even harder to live according to their beliefs. Still others became less active in maintaining their convictions. They sought to avoid the extra difficulties their faith would incur on families and friends, who were already experiencing the harsh realities of communist rule. Known members of the Church were carefully monitored by the Czechoslovak Secret Police to make sure they did not do anything “un-socialistic.” The best way to avoid problems with the oppressive regime was to do exactly what the Communist Party wanted them to do: to simply blend in with the common people and draw no attention to themselves. Czechs learned to put up an outward front of living in accordance with communist policies while their hearts and minds yearned for something better. [12]

Kade?ábková spoke more of the trials she endured at the hands of a repressive government as a result of her faith in Christ: “I was persecuted in every possible way. I did nothing wrong to the communists; I only had my own philosophy on life, and that was a crime. They didn’t leave me in peace. Twice the police brought me in for interrogation. Each time it lasted five hours.” [13]

Such interrogations were common under socialist rule. Czechoslovak secret police brought Marková in for questioning when they found out about her active involvement with an “American” church. They asked her many questions about the Church’s doctrines and goals. The police then asked Sister Marková to become an informant for them by attending all Church gatherings in Plze? and reporting back to them. She was to give detailed information about these meetings and the people who attended them. In her own words: “This work with the police I, of course, very decidedly refused to do and they told me I was not a patriot.” [14] The secret police also forced her to promise that she would tell no one of their meeting or what had been said. Sister Marková broke her mandatory promise that same day and warned the missionaries of the dangers they faced by continuing to proselyte in Czechoslovakia. [15]

“To this day, I don’t know who told the police, but from that moment on I was evidently an enemy to the state—written down on a card as a criminal with all ten of my fingerprints!” [16] Marková’s choice to be true to her convictions and to God had a great impact on the rest of her life and the lives of her family members. She was interrogated a number of times and was never given a job or benefits that reflected her education and training. “The worst thing for me was that they carried that [punishment] on to both of my children, who had nothing to do with it.” [17] Years later, when Marková’s daughter—who was never a member of the Church—wanted to become a schoolteacher, it was nearly impossible for her to be admitted to a university and become qualified as a teacher because of her mother’s “record.”

The trials and hardships faced by these women and other faithful Saints in communist Czechoslovakia consistently reminded them of their need for faith and hope in a better world. As they lost freedoms to openly worship God and practice their religion, these Saints found ways to “feast upon the words of Christ” and to keep their convictions bright. When asked about how she kept her faith alive during the communist regime, Kade?ábková replied: “Throughout this whole evil period, I kept my faith by praying and studying the scriptures. Each member can do that himself, even if he is separated from the Church and cannot attend meetings. I fully relied on the Lord and He never left me. Through all those hard years He was with me and strengthened me.” [18] She also wrote one of her favorite verses from the Bible, a verse that helped her retain faith and hope through the most difficult times: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). Marková wrote of her experiences, “I am glad that I lived through it all [communism]. How else can a person show that his faith is true than by overcoming something?” [19]

Slovakia’s Lone Latter-day Saint

In general, the repressive conditions that persisted through the 1950s and most of the 1960s were some of the darkest times for the faithful Czech Saints. Otakar Vojk?vka, a branch president in Brno when the communists came to power, lost his business and was sentenced to two years in a forced labor camp because of his religious convictions. Although he was released after serving six months of the sentence, he and his family were carefully watched by the secret police for the duration of communist Czechoslovakia. [20]

One of Otakar Vojk?vka’s children, Valerie Žišková, was the only Latter-day Saint in Slovakia during the communist years. Born and raised in Brno, she was baptized at the age of eight, only a day before missionaries were expelled from the country on July 20, 1939, because of World War II. Because she married a Slovak who was not a member of the Church and moved to Slovakia, Žišková had a slightly different experience than the Czech Saints. As the only Latter-day Saint in a city of five hundred thousand, she was monitored by the secret police but not as closely as Church members in Czech cities seemed to be. [21] She had fewer opportunities to communicate or meet with the Czech Saints.

When her father was sent to the communist labor camp for being a “Capitalist and President of the Church,” Žišková was brought in to the police for questioning. Speaking of this interrogation, she said, “They were interested in my attitude towards the communist regime. I showed them the twelfth article of faith and that seemed to satisfy them.” [22] Žišková also described how she had to be careful about what she would say to her family members over the phone, for fear of tapped phone lines. This fear of being overheard or watched seemed to permeate a lot of the experiences reported by these Latter-day Saints. Sister Žišková put it this way: “The worst thing was the feeling of captivity and the loss of trust in others, to be afraid to openly say one’s opinions and outlooks.” [23]

Žišková spoke of the effects of communism on her faith: “It forced us as members to study the scriptures more often, and in this way we strengthened our faith in a better future. I think that nothing can break a good member of the Church. What is a moment of communism in comparison to eternal life?”

Renewed Hope

After the initial difficult years, visits from former missionaries and other Latter-day Saints from outside Czechoslovakia became more common. After being denied a visa for years because he was a “threat” to the country, President Toronto was finally able to reenter Czechoslovakia in 1964. In July 1965 Toronto tried to gain official permission from the government for the Church to exist as it did in communist East Germany. He was unable to persuade the Czech communists and was even arrested and escorted to the border. In 1972 President Henry Burkhardt of the Germany Dresden Mission—the only Latter-day Saint mission established behind the iron curtain—appointed Ji?í Šnederfler, a faithful Saint in Prague, to preside over the Church in Czechoslovakia. Šnederfler contacted all the members he could. He began organizing them and helping them strengthen one another in their faith. [24]

Conditions had improved for members of the Church in Czechoslovakia. Government officials and the secret police did not seem to be as adamant about squelching Mormonism. [25] Church members were overcoming their fears and gaining confidence in the power of the truths they understood. Despite the fact that the government in Czechoslovakia remained the most repressive of any in the Soviet Bloc, Czech Saints found ways to strengthen one another and even to share the gospel with close friends and family members. [26] They began meeting weekly or biweekly in their own apartments. In most cases they would take turns hosting the meetings and space out their arrival times to avoid unwanted attention from the secret police. When they sang hymns together, they would do it in a whisper so that neighbors would not become suspicious. [27]

Church materials, though difficult to acquire, were a great help to the Czech Saints in enduring their trials. A simple talk from general conference or news about growth of the Church in other parts of the world was a spiritual treasure for these Saints. Faithful Church members worked out a system that when one person received some new spiritual information or news of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Czech language, he or she would retype the talk or article and make nine carbon copies—the most it was possible to make at one time on their typewriters. These nine copies would be distributed to other members, who would then make and distribute nine more copies until the spiritual nourishment had spread through the underground Mormon population.

Visitors to the Czech Saints from outside the country smuggled in scriptures and Church literature to give them more opportunities for studying the gospel. Ed and Shauna Strobel, from Rexburg, Idaho, were given a unique and unofficial Church calling, which they fulfilled through the 1980s: They visited members of the Church in Czechoslovakia each year, bringing them copies of the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and Church magazines and encouraging them to continue enduring the trials of their faith. Because his father was Czech, it was easier for Ed Strobel to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia. Before Strobel was asked to do this work for the Church, Jane and Frances Brodilová (maiden names) and their husbands, William South and Calvin McOmber respectively, both of whom had served missions in Czechoslovakia, had made these annual visits to the Czech Saints until they became too old and turned the job over to the Strobels. These sisters, Jane and Frances, were the two daughters of Františka Brodilová, who had been one of the nation’s first converts and had played an important role in the establishment of the Church in Czechoslovakia. [28] Although they carried a large number of books and materials across the Czechoslovak border, neither the Strobels’ true intentions nor their precious cargo were ever discovered. Their car and luggage were often searched at the borders of Czechoslovakia, but the guards never searched the right suitcase or bag to find the stockpiles of Church literature. [29]

Edwin Morrell, president of the Austrian Mission in the early 1980s and a former missionary in Czechoslovakia, was instrumental in arranging the printing of a special edition of the Czech Book of Mormon. The book was printed in a smaller size with a soft but durable binding, making it pocket-size. The cover was red with the letters KM on the cover for Kniha Mormon (Book of Mormon). At first glance this small, red book looked like a book of communist theory, perhaps written by Karl Marx. This unique Book of Mormon was easier to bring into the country and much safer for Czech Saints to carry with them than larger books of scripture had been. [30]

A New Generation: Converts during Communism

Otakar Vojk?vka, the same man that had served time in a communist labor camp, discovered an interesting way to spread the gospel message in the late 1970s. Recognizing the spiritual possibilities as well as the practical applications of yoga, Vojk?vka and his son Gád studied and became instructors of this eastern philosophy. The father and son realized that yoga could be seen as a benefit to communists because of its potential to help workers relax and develop better concentration and more confidence. At the same time, yoga could be used to encourage others to question the meaning of life and to seek inner peace and joy. [31]

Radován ?an?k, one of Vojk?vka’s early yoga pupils, began asking his instructor questions about life and true happiness. ?an?k found the answers he had been searching for as he learned about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. He was baptized in the middle of the night on May 16, 1981, in Brno. Like many Czechs at this time, ?an?k was searching for answers and truths that communism could not give him. Because he lived outside of Brno and wanted to spend time with his family, ?an?k only attended Church meetings every other week. He studied the scriptures often, though, and sincerely lived according to his new convictions. ?an?k’s wife did not understand his devotion to the Church, however, and the two eventually divorced. The commitment of ?an?k and his fellow Saints to the truth and the sacrifices that accompanied such commitment were truly great. After communism ended in Czechoslovakia, ?an?k married a fellow member of the Church who had also learned of the gospel through yoga. [32]

This woman, Marie ?a?ková, was baptized on June 17, 1989, also in the middle of the night, near Uherské Hradišt?, a small city near Slovakia and Austria. She learned of the message of the restored gospel through the oraganized yoga camps that were administered by Czech Saints nearly every summer through the 1980s. Although she was baptized only five months before the Velvet Revolution—liberation of Czechoslovakia from its communist regime—?a?ková had no way of knowing this and moved to Brno to be nearer other Saints and away from acquaintances that might turn her in to the police. [33]

Another convert to the Church during these yoga years—one who was influential in the conversion of Sister ?a?ková—was Olga Ková?ová (now Campora) from Uherské Hradišt?. Before she knew anything of the Church or of yoga, Ková?ová longed to study at a university and become a teacher. Despite excellent scores on her entrance exams, she was not admitted to a university because her parents were not communists, and one of her grandfathers, who had owned a prosperous business, had been labeled a capitalist. By changing her major to a less popular field of study, one that pleased the communists, civics and physical education, and retaking the exams, Ková?ová was able to go to the university in Brno. There she began to take an interest in yoga and met Otakar Vojk?vka, who introduced her to the gospel. She was also baptized in the cover of darkness at a reservoir in the outskirts of Brno. On the night of Ková?ová’s baptism, she and the small group of Saints attending had to wait in hiding for several late-night fishermen to leave the lakeshore. [34]

Born in 1960 and raised completely in a communist society, Ková?ová gives us some insight into the ingrained philosophies she—and many like her—had to overcome in order to accept the gospel of Christ and understand its reality and power. As a youth, Ková?ová had attended a protestant church with her grandmother and had thought often about God. She never really talked about the reality of God’s existence though, until she met Otakar Vojk?vka in Brno.

“As I left Mr Vojk?vka’s house, I marveled at the fact that someone had actually asked me a serious question about my life and its meaning—and had asked in a very different way than I was used to hearing from Communists, school, newspapers, and even my church. He was serious and didn’t laugh, and he wasn’t cynical or sarcastic as my school or university teachers or my schoolmates were when asked similar questions. With most people I knew, a question about the meaning of life was not even taken seriously—just answered hastily and on the surface.” [35]

Ková?ová had some difficulties accepting God from an intellectual standpoint. After being fed Marxist-Leninist theories her whole life, it was very hard for her to digest ideas about a loving and merciful God without obvious, scientific proof. She kept trying however, and began to see great changes in her outlook on life and her ability to be truly happy. Reading the words “men are, that they might have joy” in the Book of Mormon was a turning point for her. “I was deeply moved. Here in this book I had at last found an answer to my long-held question, somehow, deep in my soul, I believed the statement that the purpose of human life was to have joy.” [36]

Her powerful conversion and her enthusiasm for the gospel soon led Ková?ová to become a great missionary to her family and friends. With help from the Vojk?vkas, she became a yoga instructor and began teaching and lecturing in her hometown and in Brno. Yoga was a big hit among the Czech and Slovak people, and each new class was soon filled. The gospel was not openly taught, but when yoga students continued to ask questions of their Latter-day Saint teachers, at the right moment and in a one-on-one setting they often heard answers of a religious nature and were encouraged to seek spiritual guidance.

Ková?ová was able to share the gospel with hundreds of people through yoga classes and to see both her parents baptized before the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. Between 1974 and 1989 Church membership in Czechoslovakia had grown from about one hundred to nearly three hundred. [37] Behind the iron curtain, a growing number of Czech and Slovak Saints were embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ and living its principles despite intense political and social opposition. They were finding answers to questions that had been bottled-up under communist-induced facades for decades.

The foundation laid by these faithful Saints continues to be built upon today. There are now more than two thousand members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Those who struggled to maintain their faith through communism are getting older. Many of them have died. Their legacy of faith and their powerful examples remain an inspiration to younger generations of Saints in their native lands and throughout the world.

Through a fiery furnace of trials under communist rule, these Czech and Slovak Saints remained true to the truths they had found. As clay pots put through a scorching kiln emerge stronger and more useful, the Saints of communist Czechoslovakia emerged from their trials with powerful testimonies. Their convictions and faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ grew as a result of the repressive conditions they experienced on a daily basis. The Master Potter had been molding them to become the men and women He wanted them to be. As Marková stated: “How else can a person show that his faith is true than by overcoming something?” [38]

Notes

[1] Kahlile B. Mehr, Mormon Missionaries Enter Eastern Europe (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 40–50.

[2] Toronto, called as mission president in 1936, was never released from this calling and died in 1968. His tenure of thirty-two years as president of the Czechoslovak mission is the longest of any mission president in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 40–50).

[3] “First Report Comes from Czechoslovakia,” Church News, July 21, 1945, 9.

[4] See Bruce A. Van Orden, Building Zion: The Latter-day Saints in Europe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 207.

[5] See Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 40–50.

[6] See Jaroslava Kaderábková questionnaire, 2002; all of the selections from questionnaires were translated into English by the author.

[7] See Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 84.

[8] Kaderábková questionnaire.

[9] See Van Orden, Building Zion, 207.

[10] See Kaderábková and Jaroslava Marková questionnaire, 2002.

[11] See Marková questionnaire.

[12] See Olga Kovárová Campora, Saint Behind Enemy Lines (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 14.

[13] Kaderábková questionnaire.

[14] Marková questionnaire.

[15] See Marková questionnaire.

[16] Marková questionnaire.

[17] Marková questionnaire.

[18] Kaderábková questionnaire.

[19] Marková questionnaire.

[20] See Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 83.

[21] Valerie Žišková questionnaire, 2002. Žišková lived in Bratislava—Slovakia’s capital. While Czechoslovakia was a single nation, Slovakia was still viewed as a separate region. Slovaks speak a different, although very similar, language than the Czechs and have a different culture and history.

[22] Žišková questionnaire.

[23] Žišková questionnaire.

[24] See Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 90–92.

[25] Kaderábková questionnaire.

[26] See Focus on Eastern Europe, unreleased video.

[27] See Kaderábková questionnaire.

[28] See Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 95.

[29] Ed Strobel, conversation with author, 2001.

[30] See Campora, Saint Behind Enemy Lines.

[31] See Campora, Saint Behind Enemy Lines.

[32] See Radován Canek questionnaire, 2002.

[33] See Marie Canková questionnaire, 2002.

[34] See Campora, Saint Behind Enemy Lines.

[35] Campora, Saint Behind Enemy Lines, 55.

[36] Campora, Saint Behind Enemy Lines, 70.

[37] See Mehr, Mormon Missionaries, 40–50.

[38] Marková questionnaire.