Last Friday I saw the play Yellow Bellies put on by the Theatre of the Beat drama troupe. It told the story of Mennonite conscientious objectors during World War II. One scene made a personal connection for me. Rudy the young man in the play has received a notice telling him he must appear before a judge to defend his request for conscientious objector status so he can do alternative service rather than join the military.
There is a scene in the play where he appears before a judge who has a reputation for being pretty hard on conscientious objectors and he asks Rudy some tough questions.
This reminded me of a story my father-in-law Cornelius Driedger told me. He received a similar letter in the summer of 1942 just after he had announced his engagement to my mother-in-law Anne. Dad took his letter to his uncle and the pastor of his church N.N. Driedger who said he would help Dad fill out his application for conscientious objector status and he would go to court with him. Since Dad was a baptized member of the Mennonite Church he didn’t think he should face too much opposition.
Dad had come to Canada from Ukraine with his family in 1924 and while an earlier migration of Mennonites in the 1800s had been promised automatic exemption from military service the later group of which Dad was a part had to have their cases heard before a judge. Dad’s court case went well and he received conscientious objector status .
Mom and Dad had only been married for four months when Dad received word he would have to report to Montreal River where conscientious objectors would be put to work for the duration of the war by the Department of Highways helping to finish the construction of a link of the Trans Canada route.
Dad’s job was cutting lumber to clear bushland.
His time in the conscientious objectors’ camp was an experience Dad never forgot. You can read more about it in the link below.
The Theatre of the Beat’s production of Yellow Bellies provided a good reminder of an important part of Canadian Mennonite history. It also brought back personal memories for people in the audience whose family members had played a role in that history.