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LDS leader Uchtdorf remembers life as refugee, urges compassion in migrant crisis

Dieter F. Uchtdorf, LDS church First Presidency (Photo: KUTV)
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, LDS church First Presidency (Photo: KUTV)
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Editor's note: Watch the full interview with Dieter F. Uchtdorf at the bottom of this story

(KUTV) The LDS church is putting more money toward helping refugees.

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has approved another $5 million in aid to fund refugee assistance in Europe -- specifically food, clothing, shelter and other supplies.

For one of the church's most visible leaders, this issue is especially personal. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, was a refugee himself -- not just once, but twice.

With his mother and siblings, he had to flee his home several times.

"These were trips of fear," Uchtdorf told 2News in an exclusive interview. He said he was just four years old the first time he and his family had to leave.

"We left everything behind and started with zero," he said. "We could just take what we could carry."

Young Dieter's father was a soldier in the German army. World War Two was raging. The family's home in Czechoslovakia was no longer safe.

"We had to leave under the guidance of our mother," Uchtdorf said. "Four kids, I was the youngest."

They boarded a refugee train heading west and set out for Germany where Dieter's grandparents lived. But the journey was perilous.

A difficult journey

"It was one of the coldest winters ever, the winter of 44 to 45," Uchtdorf said.

At times, the trip was almost disastrous.

"The train stopped, my mother went out and tried to get food," Uchtdorf remembers. "When she tried to find the train, the train was gone with her four children in there."

After scouring the large train station, his mother found the train with her children inside. Together, they pushed on, eventually making it to Zwickau, part of East Germany.

Uchtdorf says the family's safe arrival was largely thanks to the kindness of others.

"People came up and brought us food and brought us tea or something to drink and were kind to us when we stopped on this long trip during the cold winter," he said.

It's a kindness he said he tries to exhibit today as he looks at people who are just like he once was.

"When I look at the situation now, with the worldwide refugee situation, it is almost a tsunami of refugees," Uchtdorf said.

Those refugees come from war-torn regions like Iraq and Syria.

Uchtdorf said when he sees those people on television, he sees himself as a young boy and vividly recalls what life was like as one of them.

"I remember very much my childhood experience when we had not very much to eat," he said. "The parents actually let the children eat and don't eat themselves."

Uchtdorf said his mother did that for him and his siblings.

"When I look at the photos of her back then I think, wow, she was so slim and looked horrible," he said, "and we as children we just lived through it."

An unforgettable gift

But the young boy would receive a gift that he still remembers -- peaches and cracked wheat, sent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was the church he and his family would eventually join.

Uchtdorf said the deliveries helped him make it through a difficult time.

"I can still smell and taste the taste of it," he said of the canned peaches. He still keeps the original packaging of cracked wheat that arrived to his war-torn home in 1947.

The family lived in Zwickau seven years. But by 1952 Dieter's father was in danger. He was opposed to the communist regime in power and, as a result, was politically targeted. The family had to split up once again and escape to Frankfurt in West Germany.

"It was a hard time because we came into a society where people knew that we were in need but they struggled themselves," Uchtdorf said. "We were not always welcome. They even had names for us as refugees, so as a child it felt pretty sad at times."

But it wasn't all discouraging, he said.

"There were so many who were willing to help regardless of religion, of race, of background, and that's what we're trying to do now," he said.

The LDS church, which Uchtdorf helps lead as a member of its governing First Presidency, has called for compassion on refugees, urging its members to give what they can.

The church is also donating another $5 million to assist displaced families in Europe.

"If we declare to be Christians in our case as we are -- as LDS, as Mormons -- there is our responsibility to follow the Savior through our acts, not just through our declarations, and help," he said.

But not everybody is singing this same tune. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, a fear of refugees has spread. Some prominent voices want them left to fend for themselves.

"It sounds familiar because that's how the people sometimes talked when I was a child," Uchtdorf said of the public backlash against refugees. He also acknowledges to some, the task of helping may seem overwhelming.

"Can we help everyone? No," he said. "Can we do a lot? Can we help individuals? Yes."

A happy ending

In Uchtdorf's case, his family was lucky. They were able to find refuge each time they fled. But they had been through a lot. One picture shows 11-year-old Dieter at school near Frankfurt just after he and his family arrived. He was malnourished with dark circles under his eyes.

It's one of the few photos Uchtdorf has from his childhood.

"In a time where disaster strikes, you don't take photos," he said. "You try to survive."

And they did. Uchtdorf grew up to become a pilot for German airline Lufthansa and is now a church leader, renowned by 16 million members.

It's a happy ending to his story.

"With all our circumstances we had, we had always hope," Uchtdorf said.

That, he said, is critical today for the millions of others who are in the same place he once was.

"Helping them to continue on and having hope for the future, that is the important thing," said Uchtdorf. "We need to reach out irrespective of political aspects and help those in need."

Follow Daniel Woodruff on Twitter @danielmwoodruff for breaking news, updates and more.

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