Honoring Strong and Courageous Women for Pioneer Day

Hedwig Woff as a baby with her mother.

Hedwig Woff as a baby with her mother.

By Jenny

Pioneer Day takes me back to the log cabins my grandma used to build with my cousin and me in the forest when we were camping. We would gather rocks and branches, build beds of leaves, and even equip our pretend kitchen with bowls made out of bark and utensils made of sticks. Once we made a “covered wagon” out of a fallen tree. It was a warm summer afternoon with birds chirping and bugs buzzing in the tall weeds.   I sat next to my grandma and listened intently as she told us pioneer stories. But my favorite pioneer story of all is the story lived by my grandma herself.  She inspires me with the strength and faith she had to move forward into the unknown of her life.
Hedwig Elisabeth Wolff lived in East Germany during World War II. She had grown up in a very poor family and had even been placed in an orphanage by her father at age seven. As she grew older, Hedwig worked extra jobs and saved so that she could rise above her impoverished condition. But then the war hit and took everything from her. Her younger brother who was also her closest friend was killed on the Russian front when he was only eighteen years old. The Russians were closing in, food was scarce, and no one knew where they would be safest. Hedwig decided to leave her mother and go out to the country with some good friends. As she sat on a train heading toward the countryside and an uncertain future, she looked back to see the city on fire.
As the Russians came through the town she was in, her friend’s father hid all of the young girls in a pile of hay. Hedwig lay in the hay praying with her friends that they wouldn’t be caught  The Russian soldiers stabbed their bayonets into the hay, but they didn’t find the girls.   Later however,  Hedwig and another of her closest friends Gerda, were captured by the Russians and ordered to tend the chickens. Gerda and Hedwig knew what would happen to them later that night after the soldiers started drinking so they ran away. They ran for hours in the pouring rain and Gerda, who had a heart condition, later died of the exposure. During this time, Hedwig was also informed that her mother had died of starvation in the city. She hadn’t heard from her father who was a POW in Russia.
Having lost everything, Hedwig travelled with Gerda’s mother. They fled with the other refugees to the west where they stayed in a refugee home set up by the LDS Church. As I have read her journals from this time, it’s interesting to me that even in the midst of all this upheaval, the members of her branch there still had the normal squabbles of a faith community. Though they had suffered so much and were struggling just to find food to eat, people complained about Hedwig’s appearance when she showed up at the refugee home. She had lost everything but the rags she was wearing. But Hedwig threw herself into the work of trying to raise morale in the refugee home with music evenings and talent shows.
When Hedwig was trying to figure out how to rebuild her life, she decided to serve a mission in Hamburg. From there she took the great leap of faith to come to America and start a new life. Later she also sponsored her father who had survived the POW camp and his wife and children to come to America. In her thirties, she married and had three children. Later in her life she took yet another leap of faith to leave behind a marriage that was failing to allow her to be fully herself and to fulfill her purpose in life.  She went on another mission and gave her life to God.  That life was shortened as she suffered and eventually died from Alzheimer’s disease. I watched and loved her as she relived all of her horrific experiences during the war.
My grandmother was a strong woman of faith and courage. This carried her through some of the most horrendous things that people can do to each other. Despite her sorrow and loss, she found so much joy in the beautiful things in life. She found joy in music and nature and she shared that joy with me. She found joy in sharing stories with me about strong pioneer women who did courageous things. But her story was not one that I heard that day in our covered wagon.   In fact Grandma rarely talked about her story.   I don’t know if she ever knew that she was also a strong, courageous pioneer woman herself.  I didn’t fully understand then what an amazing woman I was spending that summer afternoon with.
Do you have a favorite pioneer story about a strong, courageous woman? Feel free to share in the comments.

Jenny

Jenny graduated from BYU with a bachelor degree in humanities. she teaches yoga classes and spends her time hanging out with her four kids, reading, writing, and running.

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3 Responses

  1. Lori says:

    I don’t know many details, but my third great-grandmother was widowed after saving the money for the whole family (less one son) to immigrate to Utah. The funds for the father were used for the son they had intended to leave behind to earn his own way. She came to Utah with her 6 children, the oldest my 16-year-old great-great-grandmother in the Willie Handcart company.

    But my heart breaks for another second great grandmother who lived in Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo but died soon after arriving in Nauvoo “due to the affects of what she experienced in Missouri” from the anti-Mormon mobs. Even if she wasn’t strong or courageous, I honor her simply because she was and probably did all that she was able to do.

  2. Cruelest Month says:

    Loved this story of your grandmother! I would also love to hear more stories like this in RS and all the Church manuals.

  3. Rachel says:

    What a remarkable woman. Thank you for remembering her, and letting us remember her, too. (I cried at each big leap of faith/courage, of which there were so many.)

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