Mennonitische Welt - November 1950

Behind Prison Bars 

The Headingly Jail is located several miles from Winnipeg. Its inmates are mostly “light” offenders, but included are also some “heavy” offenders who are escorted through a heavy side door to the gallows. During the war this prison was filled to “bursting”. Not only was the country's criminal population very high, but it also included many conscientious objectors to war.

Once a week, on Tuesdays, next of kin, parents, wives, and siblings were allowed to visit the prisoners. The visitors were not allowed privacy. The prisoner sits on one side of a table and the visitor on the opposite side. A wooden partition below the table separates the feet of both, and on top of the table a partition separates them also, so that there can be no contact of feet or hands. The guard standing at the end of the table interrupts the conversation periodically with “Louder, please!” or “You may only speak English!” An elderly mother at one table only smiles across the partition at her son since she can't speak English.

The 20 minutes are soon over. The “criminals” – Mennonites boys in prison clothes – are escorted away. Mothers, wives and sisters wipe their tears as they watch the boys go. They see how one door after another is unlocked as they are let through, and then locked behind them. They can watch this for some distance since the doors and walls all have iron bars. Slowly they disappear at the end of the corridors. Then the visitors are allowed to leave. They also go through a barred door which is carefully locked behind them, and then they proceed to the second one which again is carefully locked after they are through.

It was understood that in Canada objectors to war service on the basis of conscience, were allowed to do alternative service in forests, on farms, as teachers, etc. In Manitoba, each objector to war service had to appear in court to prove that he qualified as a conscientious objector. If he failed the court examination, he was given the choice of joining the military, or being subject to punishment.

What such punishment could consist of, may be noted in the following actual report of one whose status as conscientious objector was refused

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Behind Prison Bars

By Franz Peters

World War II placed before many a Mennonite the choice of being a conscientious objector to war, or serving in the national military. Added to that there was for us a second point for consideration, i.e., Participation in the war meant supporting Communism. Thus I decided to refuse any form of military service.

When the first major “call-up” to service came in 1942, I also received my call to report. I wrote to the Commission immediately asking that I be granted conscientious objectors status and be given permission to participate in Alternative Service. The medical examination found me fit for military service. After that I had to appear before a military court dealing with objectors. The judge said curtly, “You have a radio and you read the newspaper. You therefore know the issue. Do you want to help us or the Nazis?” I responded by saying that I wanted to help neither one or the other, but would like to serve my time in alternative service. A few days later I received orders to report to the military. I did not go.

Subsequently to that I was arrested by the police and after a long interrogation was sentenced to six months in prison, after which I was to be handed over to military authorities. 

Among the conscientious objectors in the prison were twenty Mennonites. We were all put to work on the prison farm except for two who were given work in the office. My work was with bees. In this way we were outside during the day even though strictly guarded.

I was turned over to the military authorities on August 30. I was advised to undergo another physical examination, which would give me conscientious objector status. However, after the medical examination I was informed that I was not automatically a member of the military. I was now a soldier. I didn't give up my papers, but appealed to appear before the Commission again. 

The response was a military court. The charge was that I was not following the orders of my officers. I was sentenced to one year of military imprisonment. In the meantime my lawyer took my appeal to higher court.

Arriving in the detention camp, together with another soldier, we were yelled at and beaten violently with sticks by the officers. We were put into a bath and our civilian clothes were replaced with military clothing. I was ordered to appear on the training area in the morning for drill. I did not go on the excuse that I was not a soldier and it was for this reason that I was in this camp. The punishment for this was 3 days of bread and water. I received a pound of bread and as much water as I wanted. During those six months I was on this ration for 108 days. In the meantime all kinds of methods were tried to get me onto the drill area.

My cell was 6 by 8 feet with a small darkened window. On one side was a bed. An English Bible was also in the cell. Later I received a mattress and a blanket because of lumbago [severe back pain] which I contracted during my imprisonment.

In February, I was given the opportunity to appear before a civil court. After that I received better treatment. I was called to appear before Major “F” who promised me freedom if I would report for drill immediately. I recognized that as a trap to make me invalid before a civil court. My lawyer could hardly have represented me if I had suddenly agreed to appear as a soldier. I asked the Major to give his promise in writing for my lawyer since I did not trust his word given to me personally.

My case failed in civil court, and I was taken before a higher military court. I was consequently sentenced to 18 months in prison, after which I would be dishonourably discharged from the army. When I returned to prison only four of our Mennonites were still there. Two more came later who had been sentenced to a year each. This time I was employed in the kitchen. After all the days of starvation in the detention camp, food was my supreme interest and within two months I had gained forty pounds.

Time seemed like an eternity in the prison and the days between letters and visits were anxiously counted. The daily greeting to each other were the number of days still left in our prison sentence. Then a revisal on the part of the military, cancelled the last five months of my jail term and in 1945 I again became a free man.