Decades Later, Hutterite Martyrs Still Remembered
Later, Hutterite Martyrs Still Remembered." Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, 28 June
FREEMAN -- This year marks anniversaries for the Korea and Vietnam
wars, providing a time to remember those who died in military service.
But a quiet cemetery north of this Hutchinson County town contains
the graves of two men who died for refusing to fight for their country.
The cemetery contains the remains of Joseph and Michael Hofer,
who along with David Hofer and Jacob Wipf were four Hutterites drafted
in World War I. The Hofers' treatment and ultimate deaths led to
a change in American military policy.
Delmer and Norman Hofer, both of Freeman, speak in alternating
hushed and excited tones as they tell of their ancestors -- the
only two Hutterite martyrs in North America.
The story has become a major part of the Hutterites' history dating
back to the Reformation of the 1500s.
The Hutterites are no stranger to persecution, as founder Jacob
Hutter was burned at the stake. The Hutterites' number dwindled
and they migrated from Germany to Russia, where as pacifists they
were promised a military exemption.
However, the promise developed cracks, Norman Hofer said.
"The Russians told one group that they could work in the forestry
division, but the Hutterites felt they were still contributing to
the military effort," he said.
"Most of them left for the United States. Those who remained behind
in Russia were caught in the Bolshevik Revolution and were not heard
The Hutterites ran into even bigger problems during World War
I, Delmer Hofer said.
"The United States had no military exemptions, and four colony
men were drafted," he said. "No one knew what to do, so the colony
leaders instructed them to go to the induction but not to put on
a uniform or carry a gun."
The Hofers and Wipf traveled from Parkston to Fort Lewis, Wash.
On the way, officials cut off their hair and beard -- fueled by
The Hutterites were court-martialed at Fort Lewis and sentenced
to 35 years in prison, Norman Hofer said.
"Their sentence was lowered to 20 years, and they were shipped
to Alcatraz. They were harassed and chained to the ceiling of a
cold, damp dungeon," he said.
"The military officers tossed a uniform on the floor. The Hutterites
were told they could wear the uniform when they got cold, but they
refused to put it on."
Joseph Hofer's wife and the colony preacher received word that
the men were transferred to Kansas, but the wife and preacher went
to the wrong fort and arrived a day late.
Hofer's wife saw him on the last night he was alive. He died the
next day, and Michael Hofer also died.
"The other two Hutterite soldiers lived and told their story.
The details were collaborated by other inmates," Norman Hofer said.
The Hutterites emotions went from grief to horror when the bodies
arrived at the colony, Delmer Hofer said.
"The final straw came when they opened the casket and the two
Hutterites were wearing military uniforms," he said.
"The Hutterites said that this was too much, and they feared what
could happen next. They fled with their families to Canada until
the war was over."
However, half the Hutterites never came back to the United States,
Norman Hofer said.
"My uncles were among those who fled rather than serve in the
military. You could call them the original draft dodgers," he said.
Norman Hofer credited the United States government with a change
in attitude toward pacifists.
"General amnesty was granted after the war in 1919, and in World
War II they started conscientious objector status," he said.
"Mennonites and Hutterites could serve in the Civilian Public
Service. By World War II, half of the Mennonites had served in the
Hofer noted the word "Friedhof" on the arch at the cemetery entrance.
"The word means 'peace yard' and means finding peace -- a relief
from this world's struggles. And I have to emphasize that we have
found peace here," he said.
"In Europe, the Hutterites paid for their pacifism with their
blood. Hundreds died for what they believed. But these are the only
two martyrs in North America during the last 125 years.
"We are so thankful for the American and Canadian governments.
Our people have never lived in one place for this long, and we thank
God for that."
Reprinted with permission of Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan.