Decades Later, Hutterite Martyrs Still Remembered

Dockendorf, Randy. "Decades Later, Hutterite Martyrs Still Remembered." Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, 28 June 2000.

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 from again."

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 anti-German sentiment.

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 military."

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.

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