Pieter Vlam was born in Den Helder, No Holl, Netherlands on 8 July 1894 to Arien Vlam and Aaltje Klant. He was a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having become a member with his mother and brothers at the age of 16. A year after becoming a member of the Church he signed up with the Royal Dutch Navy. On 24 August 1929 he married Hanna Melaine Gysler, also a member of the Church, in Winterthur Canton, Zhurich, Switzerland.
In 1933, Hanna joined her husband for his tour of duty at a military installation at Surabaya on the island of Java in Indonesia. At this time they had a newborn son named Heber, and a three year old daughter named Grace. They remained in Indonesia until 1938.
His daughter Grace recalls, “We liked our stay in Indonesia so much. . . .I recall these as the best years” (Mormon Times; Finding faith in Stalag 371; Michael De Groote; 29 January 2009). However, her father never told his children the truth about those “golden years.” The truth was that Vlam’s superior officer hated Mormons and worked to destroy him and his career. The persecution that he suffered because of his faith made it impossible for him to extend his tour of duty in Indonesia, and so reluctantly, the family left to return to their homeland via a route with an unusual stop.
“As soon as it was possible in his career, we would move to America and live among the Saints in Salt Lake”, his daughter Grace recalls, “That was the plan from the start” (Mormon Times; Finding faith in Stalag 371; Michael De Groote; 29 January 2009). Pieter and Hanna even gave their children American-sounding first names: Grace, Heber (after President Heber J. Grant), Vera (who was born in Indonesia) and Alvin (who was born in 1939 in the Netherlands). Although it was not possible to move to Salt lake City at that time, the family was able to stop there and accomplish an even greater goal. On 9 June 1938, the Vlam family knelt together at an altar in the Salt Lake Temple and were sealed together as an eternal family. From Salt Lake City they returned to the Netherlands.
In 1939 Vlam was an officer in the Royal Dutch Navy. The Nazi threat led The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints to recall all missionaries from Europe. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith called three local leaders to head the Dutch Mission: Jacob Schipaanboord as acting President, Arie D. Jongkees, who was introduced to the Church through Vlam, as First Counselor, and Pieter Vlam as Second Counselor. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May 1940 Vlam had to find a new job and moved the family to Voorburg near The Hague. Most of his neighbors were also military, but not particularly happy to live next door to a Mormon, but a tragic accident would soon change that.
At the tender age of 4, Pieter’s daughter Vera was hit and killed by a train. This incident softened the hearts of the neighbors and caused them to become more open and receptive to the Vlam family. The family themselves were comforted by the Temple blessings that they had received in Salt Lake City. In May 1942 another turn of events took place:
Grace remembers being in sixth grade in May 1942 and hearing someone say, “They have taken our military prisoners.”
Grace ran home. The front door was locked. She rang the bell. Her mother opened the door. “Is it true?” Grace asked.
Her mother didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. Grace could tell it was true from looking at her face. Her mother couldn’t speak. She just turned around and walked back into the home.
Grace stood there, an 11-year-old girl alone in the entryway of her home. The Nazis had taken her father away.
She tried to take it all in. Then, she said, the Spirit of the Lord spoke to her audibly: “You will see your father again” (Mormon Times; Finding faith in Stalag 371; Michael De Groote; 29 January 2009).
Pieter Vlam had been arrested by Nazi officers and taken with other Dutch military officers to Nuremberg-Langwasser, a prison camp adjacent to the location of the infamous 1939 Nuremberg rally. He wrote a note home and asked for the scriptures — including the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. In his note to his family he wrote, “God will bring us together again. . . .We trust in him. Live the gospel with the children. … Be courageous and continue a normal life” (Mormon Times; Finding faith in Stalag 371; Michael De Groote; 29 January 2009).
After three months, Vlam was transferred to Stanislau, Poland (now called Ivano Frankivsk, Ukraine). The camp, Stalag 371, was in a large 18th-century monastery surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Many of the prisoners in the camp, including his fellow officers, began asking themselves serious questions about life, and wondering why God would abandon them.
Many prisoners came to Pieter and wanted to talk to him about the Church. Meetings were forbidden in the prison camp, however, so every day Pieter would take two people at a time and walk all around the camp, for miles and miles in circles, while he taught them the gospel. He taught almost a thousand men about the Restoration. Lives were changed, and people joined the church because Pieter chose to spread joy instead of misery (Robert C. Freeman, Dennis A. Wright, Saints at War, p. 203–205).
Those who believed wanted to meet together even though gatherings were prohibited. They chose an isolated room in the sprawling old monastery/prison. One by one, they would arrive for their underground Sunday school.
The first to come swept the room. The second covered the window with a cloth. When all had arrived, about 12 people, they would start by quietly reading, not singing, a hymn. They discussed a scripture passage. Then they read and pondered the sacrament prayers without performing the ordinance (Mormon Times; Finding faith in Stalag 371; Michael De Groote; 29 January 2009).
Vlam’s last employer continued to pay his salary to the family even though he had been taken prisoner. However, food was scarce and the family had to take trains into the country to buy food where the prices were more affordable.
In Stalag 371, Vlam’s activities had come to the attention of a Dutch Reformed Church volunteer chaplain who met with each person in Vlam’s group and warned them to stay clear of Vlam, stating that although he meant well, he was misguided and deceived by his Church. To help champion his cause the chaplain gave each of them anti-Mormon materials to read. Some stopped walking with Vlam, but others compared the materials with what they had been taught and knew, and with what the scriptures had to say. The chaplain’s cause was thwarted as instead of weakening and destroying their testimonies, he had in effect strengthened them. Eventually the group held their meetings in the open – either being approved or at least tolerated. They fasted monthly and gave their food to weak or ill prisoners who did not belong to their group. Vlam warned his group that they had not yet been tested. Accepting the truth in a prison camp far from family and acquaintances was not the same as being faithful in normal circumstances. There would come a time when they had to make a choice.
In January 1944, Stalag 371 was evacuated and the prisoners moved to a camp in Neubrandenburg, north of Berlin. The end of the war was near. On Sunday, 5 June 1945, standing near the door where she had heard the Spirit tell her that she would see her father again, 14 year old Grace Vlam welcomed her father home.
In 1949 Pieter Vlam and his family moved to the United States and lived in Salt Lake City. Pieter passed away on 31 October 1957 in Salt Lake City, and his wife Hanna passed away on 17 June 1982 also in Salt Lake City. Their daughter Grace is the last living child. Most of Vlam’s converts have also died, but their legacy of faith continues. Pieter Vlam had helped them to find the truth, and it was that truth that set them free.