Muted voices in World War I, and today

Conscientious objection exhibit readies for debut at national museum symposium

Sep 12, 2017 by and

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An unsuccessful effort to locate artifacts related to World War I conscientious objection was an unexpected blessing for developers of an exhibit that will be featured at a symposium on the topic this October at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.

A year ago, Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kan., put out a call for artifacts in hopes of displaying something more than letters, diaries and newspaper accounts.

Kauffman director Annette LeZotte said her staff hoped to at least get a yellow paint-splattered piece of wood from a barn, but nothing showed up.

“That challenge of not having the single object forced us to expand the scope, expand the stories, broadening it out to include the Brethren, to Jewish conscientious objectors,” she said. . . . One of the exhibit’s banners has a photo of a women’s peace march.

“Early on in the project several people asked if we could involve women, because so often things focus on the men’s experiences.”

The resulting traveling exhibit, “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” tells stories of standing for an unpopular cause. Most famously, four Hutterite men refused to wear a military uniform and were sentenced to Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco and became sick with pneumonia before some died at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The exhibit centers around a recreation of an Alcatraz cell with a uniform folded neatly on the floor, untouched.

Kauffman Museum curator of exhibits Chuck Regier works on a display component of the “Voices of Conscience” traveling exhibit. The exhibit, which centers around a recreation of an Alcatraz jail cell that held Hutterite men who refused to wear a military uniform, will be featured at a symposium on conscientious objection Oct. 19-22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — Tim Huber/MWR

Kauffman Museum curator of exhibits Chuck Regier works on a display component of the “Voices of Conscience” traveling exhibit. The exhibit, which centers around a recreation of an Alcatraz jail cell that held Hutterite men who refused to wear a military uniform, will be featured at a symposium on conscientious objection Oct. 19-22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — Tim Huber/MWR

Other tales have been mostly untold.

“That was a generation that didn’t share emotionally,” LeZotte said. “We would look at pictures of men in the camps, and they’re all smiling because they wanted their families to keep the faith and not worry. As a result, these stories were buried.”

The exhibit is one component of a first-of-its-kind symposium at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today” runs Oct. 19-22 and will look at the many forms of opposition — religious and otherwise — leading up to the great war and persisting today.

Local connections

After the symposium’s conclusion, the exhibit will spend nearly a week at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan. It is one of many connections the congregation has to the symposium.

Rainbow Pastor Ruth Harder is participating in an Oct. 22 memorial service at the conclusion of the symposium at the museum in Kansas City to remember the Hutterite men who died. Bookending the event on the opening night, Rainbow’s choir will join the combined choirs of the University of Missouri Kansas City, strings and piano to perform Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.

Portions of the work were written before World War I, others in 1936 when it became clearer Europe would be at war again. Rainbow music director Roseann Penner Kaufman said the text is based on Hebrew scripture, parts of the Mass and poetry by Walt Whitman, and is a reminder that war inevitably brings misery and loss.

“We’re about 30 singers joining them,” she said. “I suspect there will be about 90 voices in the chorus.”

Rainbow congregant Aaron Barnhart is one of the symposium’s presenters, sharing research on Kansas Mennonites and the origins of Civilian Public Service. Apart from the symposium, Anabaptist scholar Drew Hart will speak in Rainbow’s Oct. 22 worship service about lifting voices in today’s society, and exhibit historian Jim Juhnke will share about his work the following Sunday.

“I started sitting on a planning committee close to a year ago,” Harder said. “And it’s brought the historic peace churches together in Kansas City.”

In addition to working locally with the Church of the Brethren and Friends in the Kansas City area, Rainbow is coordinating with the Community of Christ, which has its international headquarters nearby in Independence, Mo.

“They have a peace pavilion where they teach nonviolent communication to groups of children,” she said. “. . . When the exhibit is at Rainbow, they’ll bring some interactive tools they have so children can be shown or taught some things about how to lift up their voices when there is hatred or violence being done.”

Making struggles from a century ago relevant today is one of the exhibit’s goals.

“The experiences of those Mennonites a hundred years ago are so similar to hateful acts against Muslims across our country today,” LeZotte said. “These are morality plays about what brings out the best and worst of us today.”

After Oct. 29, the “Voices of Conscience” exhibit returns to Kauffman Museum before hitting the road early next year. Stops are already scheduled for Goshen (Ind.) College, Elizabethtown (Pa.) College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Canadian exhibit

The Mennonite Archives of Ontario has developed an exhibit exploring Mennonite experiences of World War I in Canada. “Sites of Nonresistance: Ontario Mennonites and the First World War” runs through May 2019 at Conrad Grebel University College’s Milton Good Library in Waterloo, Ont.

Timed with the 100th anniversary of conscription in the Canadian military, the exhibit focuses on the moral dilemmas of men and women who struggled to hold to pacifist beliefs in the face of a pervasive conflict. “Sites of Nonresistance” explores hardships such as young men being apprehended in fields and held at military camps, and the government banning Mennonite immigration from 1919 to 1922.

Archivist and librarian Laureen Harder-Gissing told the New Hamburg Independent most Canadians were taught a simple and patriotic British-based perspective on the war.

“Where we are now in our society, we’re thinking a lot more about different groups in our society and what their experiences were,” she said. “It begins to reveal a more complex view of our society in the past and brings out all kinds of interesting stories we might not have considered before.”


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