Q&A with Lark Evans Galli, co-author of Under a Leafless Tree: The Story of Helga Meyer, a Mormon Girl from East Prussia April 20 2022
Under a Leafless Tree tells the story of Helga Meyer, a Latter-day Saint who lived in World War II Germany. Helga's memories recently helped reconstruct that era for the newest volume of the official LDS Church history Saints. But before that, Helga had to be convinced by the neighbor she was visiting teaching that her stories from those years would be valuable to anyone. Lark Evans Galli talks about co-authoring Under a Leafless Tree with Helga and what her story means for the present.
How did you first meet Helga?
I remember meeting Helga and her older daughters when they moved into our neighborhood when I was a young girl. Our parents hired her daughter Heidy to do some ironing for our family and to teach us German over the dinner table. That arrangement didn’t last long, but our love for that family grew, even if our German didn’t.
When did you decide that you needed to record her story?
After decades apart, life brought Helga and me back together again in the year 2000, when I began to realize the breadth and importance of her stories. I frequently urged her to record them, but she was caught up in the business of her life and couldn’t imagine who would find them valuable. When she was called to minister to me as my visiting teacher, we pinned a microphone to her blouse, and fished for stories. I soon realized that she also held the memory of a family and community. She remembered it in vivid detail, with rare photos to match. Nine years later, we had her book!
Can you give a brief overview of Helga's life story and some of the main events covered in the book?
The book begins as Helga is born to a Latter-day Saint family in a small town along the Baltic Sea on the eastern border of Germany in 1920. Her daily childhood adventures intermingle with her country’s march from the aftermath of World War I to the rise of Hitler, sweeping Helga and everyone she knows into the heat of the next war. Before long, that conflict has upended her hometown and killed and displaced loved ones. But Helga continues drawing hope and beauty into her life despite the surrounding calamity. Finally, armed with her faith, she fashions a new life, miraculously realizing her dream of escaping East Germany with her family for America.
The book is filled with a remarkable number of photographs from Helga's life in East Prussia. How were these preserved through time and war?
From Helga’s earliest years, her young uncle “Heini” loved following the family around and snapping photos with a camera similar to the cheap “Brownie” cameras available at the time. Branch activities were sometimes photographed by American missionaries, who often had cameras and a little more time than current missionaries do. Teenaged Helga had a cheap “idiot box” camera that she loved taking along on outings. During the War she prioritized preserving her photos by carrying them in and out of cellars and bunkers during every air raid. After the war, she inherited the photo albums of her aunts Gretel and Lusche, rounding out her collection. Photos of her town of Tilsit were generously shared by the Tilsit City Organization. Helga’s collection of original and rare photos is astonishing.
How did Helga's faith support her during the global and personal crises she lived through?
By the time World War II arrived, Helga had found joy in her faith and fellowship with those in her small branch. She had learned to lean on her Father in Heaven in times of persecution, and already recognized a family gift of inspired dreams. She had been taught the gospel by her convert mother, grandmother, and aunts, as well as by her branch president and other church leaders. She seemed to gain faith as hers was challenged, as disheartening as those times were. During the war, she observed examples of kindness and strength in the lives around her; in particular, her Aunt Lusche, whose faith and compassion inspired many in and out of the church. Helga saw the Lord’s hand in situations as awful as the deaths of her dearest loved ones. Even then she recognized some small miracle.
The world faces multiple refugee crises, including a new one in Eastern Europe as a consequence of Russia's war on Ukraine. How can Helga's story from the past help us better understand similar trials in our own time?
When I think about Helga’s life, I remember that though the world may be in turmoil, we can continue serving, caring, and praying as she did. Helga saw miracles even when her most fervent prayers were unanswered. It is easy in hard times to assume that our lives have been ruined because they have been greatly changed. Life seems to have taken a horrible detour. Like millions from Ukraine today, war forever separated Helga from her home, her family, and her friends. And yet she saw beauty in life, even when she was injured in a bombing. She believed that God was with her because she had proved Him over and over. She trusted His promises, and up to the end of her life continued finding meaning in her prayers, her scripture studies, and her connections with fellow saints.