Brigitte Dautel never lets an opportunity slip to thank every American serviceman or servicewoman she sees.
Her daughter, Ellen Ashton, said she remembers a time when Dautel spotted a uniformed soldier in a store. Dautel caught up with the young man in the parking lot, surprising him with her persistence. She told him her story as she shook his hand with gratitude.
Dautel was only 11 when invading Russian soldiers forced her, her widowed mother and her six siblings out of their home in Breslau, Germany. Dautel was the second of seven children between the ages of 2 and 13.
It was January 1945, eight months before the end of World War II, and Dautel said the snow came up to their waists.
“All we had was the clothes on our body,” Dautel said. “We were told we had to take a gas mask and enough food for three weeks because we didn’t know where we would end up.”
Dautel and her family were internally displaced refugees, fleeing from Russian invaders on foot. After moving from town to town, avoiding air raids and fighting to stay together, they ended up in a small farmer’s town in Bavaria, the southern part of Germany.
“My mother made sure we would not stay in a big city because the bombers came in groups,” Dautel said. “When they saw us walking, they would come down, and we would immediately fall flat on the ground so they couldn’t see how many people there were.”
Over 350 refugees filled the small Bavarian town of 300. The refugees couldn’t speak the same German dialect as the Bavarians, and Dautel said it was a difficult time for all of them.
Seven years later, Dautel once again found herself in a foreign land with few belongings, trying to communicate in a language not her own.
Dautel was finally cleared to immigrate to the United States with her husband, Eugene, in 1952 after a difficult screening process. They had no money and knew no English, but they were determined to come. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they left behind everything to be sealed in the temple.
“My husband gave up a really good paying job,” Brigitte said. “In fact, he was just promoted before we left, but he said that (being sealed) was more important.”
Brigitte’s grandparents had been baptized as members of the LDS Church in 1923, and when Brigitte and Eugene were married in 1950 there were no temples in Europe.
“We didn’t want to start a family without being sealed,” Brigitte said. “My husband said we would not have children without being sealed in the temple.”
Brigitte, now 83, has five children and many grandchildren and has been a United States citizen for 62 years. She served several LDS missions with Eugene before his death in 1999. All three of her sons served missions in Germany, and several children and grandchildren are BYU alumni or current students.
Arden Ashton, a BYU exercise science major and Brigitte’s grandson, said his “Omi“ is characterized by her testimony of Jesus Christ, her experiences in war-torn Germany and her tremendous love for America.
“For her, immigration was like coming home. Nevertheless, her life was tough, hard and required sacrifice,” Arden said. “The gospel gave her the big picture and she was able to endure and become strong.”
Ellen said her mother has always been an example of faith and hard work.
Ellen said she remembered a time when her mother decided to serve a neighboring family that was stricken with the measles, despite being pregnant with her first child. Ellen said Brigitte faithfully helped nurse the family back to health for two weeks, disregarding all warnings about exposure to the infectious disease.
“Mom always told me that living through the war made her tough, and a little thing like the measles was not going to stop her from doing what she knew to be right,” Ellen said.
Rudy Dautel, Brigitte’s youngest son, said his mother has always been an example of perseverance and faith. He said his mother’s experiences with war taught him to never take anything for granted.
Abby Dautel, Rudy’s daughter, will leave to serve a mission in the Alpine German-speaking mission in July.
Abby said opening her mission call and finding out her mission encompassed the same areas where her ancestors were from was a special experience. She said she’s especially looking forward to connecting with the culture and language as a missionary since the gospel has had such an important role in her family’s life and history.
Abby said the way Brigitte raised her father has influenced how she was raised, and she hopes to honor her ancestors by continuing to remember what’s important in her own family one day.
“The culture of my whole family (comes) through my grandparents’ story. Family and the gospel to my Oma are everything,” Abby said. “When you have family surrounding you and the gospel to overcome those trials, that’s all you really need to have joy in life.”
Today, Brigitte lives on her own in St. George, Utah. She walks to the nearby temple every day to do family history and temple work.
Arden said Brigitte stops in front of the American flag, puts her hand on her heart and recites the Pledge of Allegiance each day as she leaves the temple.
“To some who don’t know her, this repetition may seem eccentric, but to me it is wonderful,” Arden said. “To picture her standing there, looking up at the flag in the shadows of the temple that she loves so much, is how I want to remember her in the years to come.”