Under a rainy sky — and the shadow of bloody battles in the Middle East and Ukraine — Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf addressed the need Sunday to remember lessons from past wars.
On this annual German National Day of Mourning, Uchtdorf, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told more than 150 people gathered under tents at Fort Douglas Cemetery on Salt Lake’s City east bench that he was not speaking specifically as a German, a former air force pilot for that European country, or an American, but simply as as “a child of God.”
Regardless of “our religion, our upbringing, our race, our education, our socioeconomic status,” the charismatic church leader said in his tan trenchcoat, “we are all children of a Heavenly Father.”
How easy it is, Uchtdorf said, to put people in categories and assign labels to them.
Years ago, he added, Germans would have said “there are no Mormons [in Germany]” and “everyone in Salt Lake is a Mormon.”
Both things were false then, said Uchtdorf, twice a refugee himself in Europe, and even more so today.
Such labeling can dehumanize those who are seen as “other,” including Jews during World War II. And they were treated horribly, ultimately murdered by the millions.
“The silent majority did not respond,” he said, though one brave German Latter-day Saint teen, Helmuth Hübener, did publish warnings about Adolf Hitler. He became the youngest person of the German resistance to Nazism executed by order of a court in Berlin.
In the months after that war ended, some 250 German prisoners of war were held in a camp in south-central Utah’s Salina.
On the night of July 8, 1945, Pvt. Clarence V. Bertucci climbed to the top of a guard tower near the camp commander’s office and fired a machine gun into the tents of the sleeping POWs, killing nine prisoners and wounding 19 others.
The remains of those soldiers were buried at the Fort Douglas Cemetery cemetery.
This “Midnight Massacre” would be remembered, writes former Salt Lake Tribune history columnist Eileen Hallet Stone, as “the worst massacre at a POW camp in U.S. history.”
When the killer was asked why he did it, the soldier replied, according to Uchtdorf: “I hate Germans so I had to kill them.”
Today, sometimes “we kill with our words, we kill with our behavior in labeling people,” the apostle said, even when they don’t do anything that would “disqualify them as human beings who could be our friends.”
Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, have traveled widely these past years, meeting with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and those in all kinds of faiths.
“We need to reach out to [all] our brothers and sisters,” he said, and “help them wherever we can to have a better life.”
One of Jesus’ main teachings was about forgiveness, the Latter-day Saint leader said. “Forgiveness is a commandment. It is not something we can just neglect as an option….It is something we have to do.”
On this day of mourning, modern believers must remember the past “to move forward into a brighter future, knowing that after this rainy day and beyond the clouds,” he said, “the sun is shining.”
‘We all need forgiveness’
He and Utah’s honorary German consul, James Burton, laid a wreath on a memorial to German soldiers killed in World War II.
“It wouldn’t be a German event in November,” Burton quipped, “without cold, drizzly and dreary weather.”
After a visit to Normandy in France, the site of the Allied invasion of Europe during WWII, Burton was struck “by the peacefulness of that place, and, more importantly, I was overcome with love for both Germany and the United States.”
This gathering is not only “a tribute to those who served in the armed forces or those who died in war,” Burton said, “but to remember that those things that did happen never happened again.”
Ginny Vielstich, whose husband served a Latter-day Saint mission in Hamburg in the early 1980s and whose German in-laws were friends with the apostle, loved what Uchtdorf said about forgiveness.
“It’s really important,” she said, “to love people no matter their choices.”
Harriet Uchtdorf echoed her husband’s thoughts.
This annual occasion offers a timely reminder “about war — and all its horrors,” she said, “and that we all need forgiveness.”