My name is Daniel Keim. I write now of things that happened to me during World War I.
I am Amish, and because of the religious belief my church holds of peace and nonresistance, I was taken to a camp and put in with a group of other Amish. We were called Conscientious Objectors, or CO’s. Soldiers guarded us and tried to teach us another way of thinking. Ja, they did try, but my faith and the teachings of the Ordnung kept me from joining their ranks. Many of my fellow CO’s also had to endure much suffering for their stand, but from our view, we had no choice.
I got my notice of conscription, as it is called, in the fall. I remember how my wife, Katie, cried when I read it to her. The kinna* were leaning against her skirts, and I was broken hearted to think of leaving them. I was worried for my family because a few Englisher boys had already taken to making sput** of our religion when we came to town. Our neighbor, Paul Mast, woke one day to a mess on his barn. The boys had painted the Englisher word, “Slacker” with red paint on the wall facing the road.
I expected some troubles from the soldiers at the camp, but I did not know how bad it would be.
My fellow CO’s and I would gather on Sundays to read the Bible and to sing a few hymns. We learned very quickly not to sing too loud or to bring attention to ourselves. The first time we met together, one of the soldiers who was guarding our barrack heard us singing in Deitch. He came right away into the room and stood next to me with his rifle up, like he wanted to scare me. And he did. But that was not enough for him. He yelled at us to “Shut up talking that vulgar language!” and “What are you; friends of the Kaiser?” It made us angry, but what could we do? We sat and said nothing.
One night, a man who had been upset with us when we first came to the camp began to shout and push us as we went to the showers. He was angry about our beards. He told us, that “No self-respecting man wears a beard like yours,” and he ran into the latrine. When he came out, he was carrying a strop and razor. He sharpened the razor against the strop while he laughed at us. Then he and another soldier grabbed Walter Kraybill and forced him to the floor. By the time they were finished with him, Walter had blood oozing from cuts all over his chin. Most of his beard was gone, but I noticed two or three tufts of hair poking out at the bottom of his face. I felt much sorrow for Walter. He was so ashamed.
One Sunday we were assembled in our barrack reading Mathew 5. Walter just started to read “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,”*** when suddenly a group of five soldiers rushed in and grabbed me. They began to drag me to the latrine. I fought against them at first, digging in my heals, but I heard Walter call out to me, “Whosoever shall smite thee, Daniel!” I went limp and let them take me into the latrine. They dragged me to the toilet and dunked my head in the bowl over and over. They laughed and told me they were “baptizing” me, making sput of my Anabaptist heritage.****
A day came when another Amish man, Josef Schwartz, was thrown onto his cot after he had been scrubbed down with a wire brush. His arms and legs were bare and the blood bits showed bright against his pale skin. His clothing had been removed because he refused to wear a military uniform. I remember how he turned his head to the wall and tried to keep us from hearing his humiliated sobs.
We were made to stand outside, with just our Amish clothes on, until our hands and ears were raw with the cold. I made myself think only of Katie that day, and I wondered if she had to suffer, too. I prayed she did not.
I never told her all of the things that were done to me, but these are my memories of World War I in America.
**sput: make fun of, mock
***The Holy Bible, King James Version
****The Amish were persecuted in Europe for not accepting infant baptism; they fled to America in the mid 1700’s.
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