The St. Louisan Who Ministered to Nazis; New History Tells about the Work of Henry Gerecke; NONFICTION - BOOKS

By Singer, Dale | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

The St. Louisan Who Ministered to Nazis; New History Tells about the Work of Henry Gerecke; NONFICTION - BOOKS


Singer, Dale, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


At age 50, Henry Gerecke decided he should leave his Lutheran ministry in St. Louis and enlist as a chaplain in the Army at the height of World War II, but he had no idea he would become part of an "experiment": giving comfort to men charged with heinous crimes against humanity.

The subtitle of "Mission at Nuremberg," author Tim Townsend's enlightening, highly readable account, gives a good idea of the book's parallel threads: "An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis."

The second part, of course, is a tale well-known and often told. But the first part will give new insights into the Germans on trial, their lives as they awaited their fate, and two American clergymen, one Lutheran and the other Catholic, who ministered to their spiritual needs.

How well they succeeded, in either comforting the Nazis on trial or saving their souls, is an open question.

"The Nuremberg chaplains were not judging the members of their flocks," Townsend writes, "nor were they forgiving their crimes against humanity. They were trying to lead those Nazis who were willing to follow toward a deeper insight into what they had done. They were attempting to give Hitler's henchmen new standing as human beings before their impending executions."

The story of Gerecke (rhymes with Cherokee, the author says helpfully) begins with early years that will resonate with St. Louis old-timers. Ordained in what was to become the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod after studying at Concordia Seminary, he settled in as pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church with his wife, Alma, whom he had met when she was behind the candy counter at Famous-Barr.

In addition to his work at the church, Gerecke was active at City Mission and ministered to inmates at the City Workhouse, Koch Hospital and the Mount St. Rose sanatorium. He also delivered soothing sermons on KFUO radio, showing such professionalism that he was approached to start a program at rival KMOX. He turned the offer down because he did not want to leave the ministry.

When war arrived and two of his three sons joined the Army, Gerecke also felt the call to serve. He enlisted in 1943, spending his time at a temporary hospital in Hermitage, England. Once the fighting was over and the war crimes trial was about to begin in Nuremberg, Germany, Gerecke, who spoke German, was asked to be a chaplain for the prisoners. His other choice: go home to St. Louis.

Gerecke thought of Jesus Christ's forgiveness for criminals. Seeking guidance in prayer, Townsend writes, the clergyman "was staring into that darkness, desperately searching for light. If, as never before, he could hate the sin but love the sinner, he thought, now was the time."

He agreed to serve in a position of great sensitivity.

"With the world's attention turned to postwar Germany, the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity leveled against the defendants," Townsend explains, "these men deserved spiritual succor. So the U.S. Army gave the men two of its own. This would be something new for the army chaplaincy. An experiment."

More of the prisoners were Lutheran than Catholic, so the Rev. Sixtus O'Connor, raised in New York, would repeat a grim joke: "At least we Catholics are responsible for only six of these criminals. You Lutherans have fifteen chalked up against you."

The names of the men that Gerecke served are familiar Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hoess, Albert Speer. …

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