Part I: Walking with “Die Alkatraz Brüder”

by Dora Maendel

One of the challenges every Hutterite German Teacher faces is how to teach Hutterite history effectively, especially in the elementary grades. Typically, storytelling is the modus operandi, supplemented with using some of the Väterlieder or traditional songs of our forefathers, many of which lend themselves well to telling a specific background story. Fortunately, in the mid-seventies, the Manitoba Department of Education under the instigation of Mr. Karl Fast, consultant for languages other than French, arranged for an annual in-service training day for Hutterian Teachers of German. Many excellent ideas were shared at this in-service held at James Valley Colony near Elie, Manitoba, and it became a significant influence for improved education in Manitoba Hutterite communities – a force that continues to this day.

In November 1988 the in-service agenda included a special guest presenter: Bodo Hildebrand, a doctoral candidate from the University of Marburg in Germany, who was conducting field studies on his dissertation on the Hutterite education system. The topic of Remembrance Day had piqued his interest and he urged the delegates to use it as an opportunity to honour another kind of hero, namely the people who gave their lives as Anabaptist and Hutterian martyrs. Hildebrand proposed presenting the story of a specific person or persons, whose heroism centred on faithfulness and devotion even in the face of brutality and possibly death. Hildebrand cited the story of young Felix Mantz, one of the founders of Anabaptism who – together with Georg Blaurock and Conrad Grebel – participated in believer’s baptism on that fateful January 21, 1525. Mantz was subsequently arrested, tried and sentenced to death. He was drowned in the Limmat River in downtown Zurich in the autumn of 1526.

Alcatraz Island in San Franscisco Bay (1900) was a military prison when the four Hutterite young men were imprisoned there in 1917. Alcatraz became a federal prison in 1933 intended for criminals who could not be rehabilitated. Photo Credit: Christian Mehlführer, Wikipedia Commons.

Alcatraz Island in San Franscisco Bay (1900) was a military prison when the four Hutterite young men were imprisoned there in 1917. Alcatraz became a federal prison in 1933 intended for criminals who could not be rehabilitated. Photo Credit: Christian Mehlführer, Wikipedia Commons.

Another inspiring incident found in The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren involves a young Anabaptist known only as der Müllerknab, the millerboy. While youthful heroes render these stories relevant, others have immediacy because they occurred relatively recently, and they answer a historic question. The story of the Alcatraz Brothers explains why the Hutterites emigrated from the USA in 1918 to settle on the Canadian Prairies.

Like other historic peace churches such as the Quakers, the Amish and the Mennonites, Hutterites reject violence and military service. Religious leaders, however, had been unsuccessful in persuading the American government to develop a Conscientious Objector Program before WWI broke out. In 1917 the Conscription Act was passed and Hutterites were advised that anyone receiving a letter of Conscription must report to the designated military camp and appeal to the Commander there for exemption from military duties. Four men from the Rockport Colony at Alexandria, South Dakota presented at Fort Louis, Washington. Subsequently, they were court-martialed for insubordination, steadfastly refusing to don the military uniform and sentenced to twenty years in the prison of Alcatraz in the Bay of San Francisco, where they were beaten with iron rods and otherwise so severely mistreated that two of them later died from the resulting complications. 

This event became the catalyst for Hutterian leaders’ decision to initiate inquiries about immigrating to Canada. 

This teacher followed Hildebrand’s suggestion to use the story of the Alcatraz Brothers as a Remembrance Day lesson, and was invited in August 2004 to present her lesson plan at the International Conference for Hutterian Eduactors (ICHE) in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

In November 2005, one of our HBN IITV (Hutterian Broadband Network for Interactive Instructional TV) high school teachers conducted a writer’s workshop in our school for her combined grade nine and ten English Language Arts (ELA) class, involving students from more than a dozen different Manitoba colonies. She had invited Joe McLellan, Winnipeg storyteller and educator, to assist her.

Water Colour by: Don Peters, Plough Publishing, Walden NY, 2014.

Water Colour by: Don Peters, Plough Publishing, Walden NY, 2014.

Near the end of the day, Mr. McLellan asked the class for a favour. He had a different kind of story for them, he said, adding that he was an American draft dodger who had immigrated to Canada during the Vietnam War, because he was opposed to violence. Profoundly moved when he encountered the Alcatraz Brothers story, he was planning to write a picture book version of it. Would they help by listening to it and offering a critique? “It is really your story, so you may notice errors and omissions of which I couldn’t be aware.”

One young man offered a striking suggestion. “This story should be told with some of our church songs included, since these Alcatraz Brothers most likely sang such songs during their imprisonment – that was always our forefathers’ source of strength and support when they suffered persecution, torture and imprisonment.”

In preparation for telling the story at the inaugural Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival (WISF) in spring of 2006, McLellan urged Dora Maendel to select and insert appropriate songs. Three were chosen and Kenny Wollmann, director of the Hutterian Brethren Book Centre, and director of the Baker Community Choir, agreed to perform the songs with his male quartet of young men from Baker.

An adult version of the Alcatraz Brothers story was compiled using The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, court martial documents and letters written by the brothers. Joe McLellan and Dora Maendel told the story together that day. Due to the acoustics in the Carol Shields Auditorium at the Millennium Library and to Kenny Wollmann’s directing, the quartet’s singing was profoundly moving.  His arrangement of the one Väterlied, “Mein Eifer tut mich dringen,” with the first line sung solo, added a mournful, even haunting quality that was unusually effective.

That evening, at the supper hosted for all WISF performers at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, Dora Maendel was asked to share a synopsis of the story, with the quartet singing the main song.

That fall when Dr. Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg was planning the “War and the Conscientious Objector” (CO) Conference, he was alerted to the Alcatraz Brothers story by Agnes Thiessen Dyck, who had heard it at the Millennium Library. Although the major focus of the conference was COs of WW II, Dr. Loewen agreed to feature the Alcatraz Brothers story, as the concluding presentation of the Friday evening, because Hutterites belong the historic peace church family.

The theatre was packed and despite the fact that two of the quartet members could not participate, the audience response was enthusiastic and warm. Afterwards, the Hutterites were approached about whether they would be willing to tell the story in area Mennonite Churches as part of a longer, peace-themed program that might be video taped at one point. They promised to consider and discuss it in their respective communities.

Soon after the CO Conference, Bernie Loeppky of the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship (EAF) in Winkler, Manitoba contacted Kenny Wollmann. They were planning a special presentation featuring several peace-themed stories interspersed with singing, and wanted Hutterite participation, specifically the Alcatraz Brothers story with quartet singing, as well as some choir singing. Kenny agreed to prepare the required number of songs with his Baker Choir as well as male voices for the songs within the story. Tirzah Maendel, graphic designer at the H. B. Book Centre, created the advertising poster, and the name “The Power of Peace Program” was chosen. 


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A practice run was conducted at the Trileaf Hutterite Colony near Baldur, MB. The whole community gathered in the communal dining room after supper; the audience was captivated and it was clear that many were deeply moved. 

Two weeks later, on February 18, 2007 in the Grace Mennonite Church in Winkler, the first program took place.  It included, in chronological order, stories from WWI, WWII through to the fatal shooting in 2006 of five Amish girls and wounding of five in West Nickel Mines, PA. Audience members were as moved by the Alcatraz Brothers story as the folk in Trileaf Colony had been.

On several occasions, Conrad Stoesz concluded with a powerful anecdote involving the life-saving role of stories for some of the islanders during the time of the December 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia. Driving his young family home from a Christmas gathering in a western Canadian province, Mr. Stoesz tuned in to a late-night CBC program to help him stay awake, when the story caught his attention.

Rescue and disaster relief workers in the area were startled to note that amid the devastation and ruin of the tsunami, one island remained alone as having experienced no loss of life. In response to the foreigners’ questions the islanders explained that many years earlier their island had been hit by a tsunami causing many deaths and great hardship. That is when they decided to teach the necessary precautionary steps to the next generation. And the next. “When the earth starts to shake, and the water moves out”, they repeated frequently and regularly, “Run for the highest spot on the island!” This simple story enabled all the inhabitants of this island to make it to safety. “Which stories do you remember during difficult times?” Stoesz asked. “Go in peace.”

Over the next three years the “Power of Peace Program” was presented in nearly a dozen area Mennonite Churches to almost capacity audiences. On a number of occasions, the choir of a colony located nearer to a particular church took the place of the Baker Colony choir. One weekend, the Baker Choir drove to Saskatchewan to present in the Mennonite Church in Osler on Saturday evening and in Saskatoon the next morning.

Some churches requested a Sunday morning presentation, in order to reach their whole congregation. During each Power of Peace Program an offering was taken, with the proceeds going to the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship. Later, a script was written based on the Alcatraz Brothers story. Organized in the format of a newscast and narrated by Jesse Hofer, it was filmed for use as a teaching resource and included on The Radical Followers of Jesus DVD, produced and distributed by EAF.

The story was also told in at least a dozen Hutterite communities, often as a special part of the high school graduation program, with the songs performed by the audience or the young men of the colony. More recently it was told over the HBN ITV system in response to the request of one elementary grades teacher as part of her Remembrance Day program and numerous other schools were able to participate.

In preparation for the “Muted Voices Conference and Symposium” at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City in October 2017, the story was told at the Baker Community this past spring, by Duane Stoltzfus, Jesse Hofer and Dora Maendel. Led by Benjamin Maendel, the minister, the audience sang the songs within the story.

It has been a tremendously enriching experience to become so intimately familiar with this inspiring story and to watch so many different people, including students and children respond to the Alcatraz Brothers story with the same thoughtfulness and depth of emotion. In recognition of its power to move people, it is exciting to be involved in plans for sharing this story in 2017 with people in the USA, the country where it took place; it is their story also. Particularly gratifying is the involvement of two fellow-Hutterites, Ian Kleinsasser of Crystal Spring Colony and Jesse Hofer of Silverwinds, who represent the next generation of Hutterite history teachers. Mr. Fast would be pleased.

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