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Davis Journal

‘Escape from Germany’ tells the true story of missionaries getting out before the war

Feb 29, 2024 08:44AM ● By Becky Ginos
In 1939, Elder Norm Seibold was assigned to find all the missionaries in Germany and get them out before the war started. Photo courtesy of T.C. Christensen

In 1939, Elder Norm Seibold was assigned to find all the missionaries in Germany and get them out before the war started. Photo courtesy of T.C. Christensen

FARMINGTON—A little known event that took place in Germany in 1939 will soon be recreated on the big screen. “Escape from Germany,” a T.C. Christensen film, tells the story of 79 missionaries who had to escape the country because a war was imminent. However, they were spread across Germany and one missionary was tasked with finding them and getting them out before the German soldiers caught them. The movie opens in theaters on April 11.

“The mission president, Douglas Wood, all of a sudden said they had to get out really quickly because the war is going to start and they can’t get trapped inside the borders,” said Christensen, a Farmington resident. “He assigned one missionary, Elder Norm Seibold, to get them all out. We don’t usually think of ‘one’ in terms of missionaries.”

For some reason he grabbed this guy who had been on the football team and a tough guy, Christensen said. “He said, ‘I’m sending you by yourself. Go up and down the train routes and find them and get them out. And here’s some money because they’re all stranded and they don't know what to do.”

Communication was terrible of course, said Christensen. “All they could do was send a telegram to Stuttgart where there were missionaries. And then whoever's at the telegram station, when they had time, would take the telegram and run down the street to find the house and leave it or give it to them. You don’t know if they’ve even gotten it. It’s terrible to try and do that in a hurry.”

Christensen said to him that’s what makes a great movie. “One guy against the Nazi regime. It’s not even two of them (missionaries). It’s just this one guy trying to figure out how to get all of these elders and get them out. That’s the movie element I wanted.”

Seibold goes to the big train station, he said. “There’s tons of people walking around and he doesn’t know what to do. He thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this job.’”

He gets this idea and stands on his luggage, said Christensen. “He starts whistling “Do what is Right.” It’s a whistle so it kind of permeates through the noise and missionaries start coming out of the cracks.”

Seibold told them they had to get going, he said. “He told them ‘you’ve got to help me.’ The other missionaries started walking around whistling to find other missionaries.”

The story tells of all they went through trying to escape, Christensen said. “They were starving and got kicked off the train because the Germans would take over the rail system. They had to figure out how to get out.”

The mission president told them to go to Holland, he said. “So they hopped on trains heading for Holland. Everybody (not just missionaries) was being told to go to Holland so within a day it was inundated with refugees and they closed the border.”

All the missionaries were stuck at the border, said Christensen. “They had no money. The mission president told them to go to Copenhagen. The last missionaries got there on Aug. 31, 1939 and the next morning, Sept. 1 the Germans invaded Poland and the war started.”

It wasn’t good for foreigners or religious groups either, he said. “They could have all landed in jail.”

Christensen is known for his films recreating true stories such as “17 miracles” and “The Fighting Preacher.” “There are so many great stories in our culture and history,” he said. “You can never run out.”

He first heard about the story in 2011 at an SUP (Sons of Utah Pioneers) dinner. “I sat by Frank Swallow who told me about the evacuation of missionaries to get them out of Germany. I thought it was a great story but it would be too expensive for a small filmmaker.”

It kept coming up, said Christensen. “My partners were pushing it but then I started thinking ‘maybe I could do that’ and I got excited about it.”

A woman named Terry Montague had written a book in the 1970s about the escape and interviewed several of the missionaries, he said. “If not for Terry this story would have mostly been lost.” 

Christensen said he contacted Montague and purchased the film rights. “I wrote the script and cast it then COVID hit. It was a few months before we started filming. It gave us time to find more descendants, etc. We filmed last May and June.”

It’s a really good story, he said. “That to me is the star of the film. It’s nice to see a good, heartfelt story.”