The Baltic seaport of Klaipeda, Lithuania, was under the political control of Prussia/Germany for much of its 800-year history, when it was known as Memel. During the 19th century and up to the end of World War I its inhabitants were mostly ethnic Germans rather than Lithuanians. Political realignments after the Treaty of Versailles caused most of Memel’s German inhabitants to migrate to Germany proper; the ethnic shift was virtually complete at the end of World War II.
LDS missionary work in Lithuania dates to the early 1990s, and we have enjoyed some success there in the years since. There was an earlier LDS presence in the region, though, the memory of which has been all but lost in the shift from German to Lithuanian ethnicity.
On 24 September 1843 in the farming region of Gross-Datzen, near what was then Memel, the northernmost point of German control in Europe, Friedrich Schulzke was born to Ephraim and Dorothea Naujokatis Schulzke. Friedrich’s father died when Friedrich and his two older brothers were very small, and their mother supported them as best she could by spinning. Though she was unable to teach her sons to read, Dorothea taught them all she knew about the Bible, and taught them to pray and to sing hymns.
When Friedrich was 15, he left home to seek work in Memel. He had learned to read and write by the time he was 20 in order to qualify himself for better work. The first book he ever bought was a Bible – the clerk who sold it to him said it was the first Bible she had sold in the four years she had worked in the shop.
Friedrich married Anna Buddruss in 1876; within a few years, they were raising four sons and two daughters. Anna died in 1891, and four years later Friedrich married again, to Anna Egliens. He and his much younger second Anna had two more children.
Sometime in the 1890s, when Friedrich was past 50, he read a newspaper article about an American sect called the Mormons, who scoured the cities of Europe looking for young girls they could kidnap and carry back to their harems in the desert. That night, Friedrich knelt in prayer to ask God to protect his daughters by keeping the Mormons far away from Memel.
In 1907 the missionaries reached Memel despite Friedrich’s prayers, and a friend asked Friedrich to go with him to hear the Mormons preach. Friedrich refused.
Not long afterward, Friedrich read an advertisement for a new religion, that of the Latter-day Saints, and he willingly went to hear its preachers speak. He was so moved by what he heard that he invited those preachers to come to his home and tell him more. The elders came, but when Friedrich saw the title of the book one of them placed on the table, he nearly threw them out of his house. Very reluctantly, he allowed them to give their message … and Friedrich believed them. He and Anna were baptized in September 1907; within a year, Friedrich’s daughters and at least three of his sons had also been baptized, along with their spouses. The Schulzkes were only part of a thriving and ever-growing branch of the Church in Memel.
Then came World War I and the withdrawal of American missionaries from Europe. In the upheavals of that time, the greatest part of the German branch members at Memel, including Friedrich’s children, migrated to Germany where they were scattered. One of his sons was killed in the war. Another emigrated to Utah. But Friedrich and Anna stayed in Memel. Friedrich, then in his 70s, later told an inquirer,
When the war broke out it fell to my lot to guide the little branch of saints. I was only a priest at the time, but with the help of the Lord things were opened up for me. The history and records were all written in English and it was hard for me to find the things that I was supposed to do. Many times I thought that it would be impossible for me and that I could not carry on, but I would get down on my knees and ask the Lord for help. Oh, I am thankful for the guidance and blessings that I received at this time because I know it would have been impossible for me to have done the work alone.
All during the war the little flock gathered at my home and we studied the gospel together and learned of the wonderful things that our Father in Heaven has in store for us. I am thankful that I know the gospel is true, and for the many blessings that I have received.
Memel and the surrounding territory were placed under the post-war jurisdiction of France. French restrictions, joined with the demands of Lithuania for control of the country’s only seaport, coupled with the increasing pressure of Russian influence, caused even more of Memel’s German Latter-day Saints to flee. By the time the missionaries were able to return in 1924, the Schulzkes were among the few who were left.
The elders worked hard and the branch began to grow again. The report of a conference held in October 1926 shows that 39 investigators attended and one convert was baptized. Summarizing local conditions in his conference report, the missionary wrote,
There are about eight different languages represented in this city. The main languages are Lithuanian, German, Hebrew, Russian, English, Polish, Swedish and Danish. Memel is the harbor and fishing center, and fish are very cheap. There are many people without work, knowing not from one day to the next what they are going to eat. They receive a little from the government, but that is too much to starve on and too little to live on. the Jews are playing quite an important part in this country. They have a big school, in which the students must all learn some kind of trade before they can go to Jerusalem. A company leaves here for the “promised land” about every six months.
Shortly after that conference, the elders were again forced to leave Memel/Klaipeda, leaving the branch in the hands of Friedrich Schulzke, by then 83 years old and the sole remaining priesthood holder in the city. He again held weekly meetings in his home and kept the branch together until the elders could return in 1931. They were there until the outbreak of World War II, and Mormon missionary work ceased in Lithuania until the 1990s.
Friedrich Schulzke was still a faithful member into his 94th year, when he passed away on 21 January 1937. His widow Anna lived through another war, passing away on 19 April 1945, possibly the last Latter-day Saint in Memel.
Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin. Please click here to comment.