I’ve always felt a tinge of guilt on Remembrance Day. No doubt it was intensified by the fact that I often had a front row seat at Remembrance Day ceremonies. First as a news reporter covering the event, then as a politician’s wife.
It stems from the fact that my people are pacifists. For over 500 years Hutterites have taken the Biblical commandment “thou shalt not kill,” very seriously. The price my forefathers paid for their religious beliefs including pacifism as described in the Hutterite Chronicles is pure torture to read.
From Austria to Moravia to Slovakia to Hungary and over the Carpathian Mountains to Russia they fled. In the late 1800’s when military service became compulsory in Russia, the Hutterites fled en masse to the United States.
Then came World War One when the United States joined allied forces to defeat the Kaiser’s Germany. American Hutterites agreed to register but refused to put on military uniforms or participate in the war in any way. That didn’t go so well.
It ignited widespread hostilities and mistrust towards Hutterites. Thousands of heads of livestock were stolen from Hutterite colonies and their enterprises such as flour mills were sabotaged. It got worse. Young Hutterite men were imprisoned, beaten, starved and hung by their feet above cold tanks of water. At the notorious Alcatraz prison in San Francisco brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer were brutally tortured until they died. They were shipped back to their colony in South Dakota in make-shift coffins dressed in military uniforms. A clear message.
When the Canadian government offered Hutterites religious freedom and exemption from military service in exchange for settling on the prairies in 1918 it caused an exodus of Hutterite communities from the U.S.
In 1939 when the Second World War broke out, they were once again under pressure to join the war effort. By then governments had created a compromise through alternative service. Hutterites were among 33 different ethnic and religious groups totalling 11,000 men who were granted conscientious objector or CO status.They were exempt from carrying guns and assigned to labour camps across Canada where they built roads and railways, mines and shipyards.
My father’s older brother Christian Dornn was 17 years old when he and other young men his age from the Rockport Hutterite Colony in Alberta were shipped to a labour camp in Jasper National Park. CO’s were paid 50 cents a day, a fraction of what soldiers received. The rest of their pay, (2.2 million dollars) went to the Canadian Red Cross. After the war CO’s were kept in labour camps for an extra year to allow returning soldiers first advantage in the job market.
At 95, my Uncle Christian’s voice is weak and halting, but his memories of that time are remarkably clear. “We worked very hard,” he tells me from his care home in Oregon. “We cut trees, built roads and prepared infrastructure for underground mines. “The work was tough and dirty and the hours were long,” he reminisces. “But they fed us well. We ate lots of beans!”
Resentment still exists towards CO’s. And it is not entirely unjustified. The Hutterite community participated in as much as their conscience would allow. One Hutterite elder put it this way, “We were willing to die for our freedom, but we weren’t willing to kill for it.” My heart fills with gratitude every November 11th when we attend the solemn Remembrance Day ceremony at the armoury in Prince Albert. There is a sacredness in the stoic faces of those laying wreaths to honor lost sons and daughters, fathers, mothers and grandparents. Each year the contingent of aging veterans becomes smaller and their bent bodies more frail. It is an uneasy and necessary reminder of the price they paid for the beautiful and fragile freedoms we enjoy today. Lest we forget.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite author and professional speaker. Signed copies of her books are available at the Rusty Owl Restaurant in P. A. and at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org
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