Sentenced to Alkatraz
Written by: Linda Maendel on Sunday, November 11th, 2012
During their stay in the Dakotas, Americans barely noticed the Hutterites, that is, until World War I broke out in 1914. But then they were viewed as foreigners because they spoke German and refused to participate in the war. Nor did they contribute any money towards the financing of the war. Of course, this did not go over well with the English-speaking neighbors, who raided the colonies and stole livestock and supplies to help finance the war.
Since it was compulsory, Hutterites sent their young men to military camps, but they didn’t allow them to obey any military commands or wear a uniform. At Camp Funston, the men were beaten and tortured, dragged by their hair, and even chased by motorcycles until they dropped from exhaustion. They were hung by their feet above water so that they nearly drowned.
One famous case of such brutal torture involved Jacob Wipf and three Hofer brothers, Joseph, Michael and David. During the hottest time of the year, they spent four months in a dungeon at Alkatraz where they were severely mistreated. The first twenty-four hours they were given half a glass of water. Because the western wall of the dungeon faced toward the sea, the full force of the often-stormy Pacific constantly beat against it. Therefore, water seeped through the cell walls, making the heat even more oppressive. Without bedding, the brothers slept on the cold cement floor, chained to each other by the ankles.
For nine hours each day, their hands were forcibly raised above their heads and chained crosswise to the iron bars of their cells above the door. This meant that they couldn’t even defend themselves against mosquitoes and other insects.
When they refused to don the military uniform, they were placed in solitary confinement. On Sunday they were brought to the upper level and permitted to walk around the enclosed compound with the other prisoners, one of who exclaimed with tearful eyes, “Is this a way to treat human beings?” The brother’s arms were terribly swollen and they were covered with a ghastly rash.
When morale sank far deeper than sea level, the loss of home and family was particularly painful, because solitary confinement made speaking to each other impossible. Miraculously, they discovered an unexpected source of encouragement and strength – the German songs of faith they knew from back home! Softly one of the men would start a morning or evening hymn. In their cells, the others heard and joined in, each rejoicing to know that the others were still alive – like our forefathers had done centuries before in the dungeons of Europe.
Later they were transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where they were continually mistreated. It was here that Joseph and Michael Hofer fell very ill and had to be hospitalized. The other two brothers, still in prison, were allowed to send a telegram home to tell the families of Joseph and Michael about their illness. Shortly thereafter, they both died in the hospital at Fort Leavenworth, just before their wives, a minister and another brother arrived.
Maria, Joseph’s wife insisted on seeing her husband, when the officer at the desk told her that he had died two hours previously. Distraught and grief-stricken, she stood before his coffin. Raising the lid, she gasped in horror, “You would insult him by dressing him in death in a military uniform he refused to wear in life.”
David too, was permitted to visit his dying brother, Michael and was later unexpectedly released. By that time the Hutterites had lost faith with the American government and decided to investigate the possibility of immigrating to Canada. Finally, the Hutterite leaders received word from the Canadian government that they were welcome to settle on the prairies. Thus, they emigrated to Canada in 1918. The Schmiedenleut established six colonies in Manitoba, the Dariusleut five in Alberta, and the Lehrerleut also founded four colonies in Alberta.
Meanwhile, Jacob Wipf was kept in solitary confinement for another year. He was finally released on April 12, 1919, long after the Armistice had been signed.
After WWII, some Hutterites returned to South Dakota establish colonies there once more and were able to purchase several of the former colony sites. Today, there are Schmiedenleut in the Dakotas and Minnesota, US and in Manitoba, Canada. The Darius- and Leherleut live in SK and AB Canada and in Montana, Washington, Oregon, US.
We’re deeply grateful for religious freedom in both Canada and the United States, especially when we’re reminded that our forefathers steadfastly fought for and gave their lives for their faith. To God be the glory!
(My humble thanks to Mark Waldner and Dora Maendel for allowing me to use part of their work for this post.)