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Book chronicles St. Louis Army chaplain's ministry to condemned Nazis

Book chronicles St. Louis Army chaplain's ministry to condemned Nazis

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The book “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis,” by former Post-Dispatch religion writer Tim Townsend, was released this week in hardcover. It’s an account of a St. Louis Lutheran minister, the Rev. Henry Gerecke, who was assigned by the Army to minister to the 21 major Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg.

Gerecke was a Concordia Seminary graduate and former pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in south St. Louis. During the Depression, he also served as a missionary to St. Louis’ poor and imprisoned. In 1943, he enlisted in the Chaplain corps just before his 50th birthday.

The following is an excerpt of the book, which will be reviewed in the A&E section of Sunday’s Post-Dispatch:

As Wilhelm Keitel, former general field marshal and second only to Adolf Hitler in Germany’s military hierarchy, returned to his cell in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice in the early morning hours of October 16, 1946, a stocky man with glasses, receding gray hair, and a doughy face followed him to his cot.

Chaplain Henry Gerecke, a captain in the U.S. Army, and most recently the executive missioner of St. Louis Lutheran City Mission, was carrying a Bible. He asked Keitel if he’d like to pray.

This was the date the International Military Tribunal had set for the executions of the Nazis found guilty and sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials. Earlier in the night, Hermann Goering, Germany’s former reichsmarshal, and Hitler’s designated successor had killed himself by swallowing cyanide.

At 12:45 a.m., the Nazis scheduled for hanging were told to dress and were given their last meal. Most didn’t touch the food.

Keitel had made his bed and asked for a brush and duster to clean his cell.

Since his capture by the Allies eighteen months earlier, he had played the part of a disciplined soldier. His bearing was erect, and his silver hair and mustache always perfectly trimmed. Each day in court, Keitel had proudly worn the plain tunic, blooming breeches, and black boots of a Wehrmacht officer.

Gerecke also had been rattled by Goering’s suicide. An ocean away, his St. Louis Cardinals had been battling the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. The prison’s other chaplain, Father Sixtus O’Connor, was rooting for the Sox.

They had been in the guards’ booth on the prison floor awaiting a telephone call when Goering bit down on the cyanide. With the Palace of Justice locked down for the executions, the only way the chaplains and guards had of receiving updates after each half inning was through phone calls from an American officer outside the prison walls. Just after a call came in that Boston’s Dom DiMaggio had doubled in the top of the eighth, driving in two runs to tie St. Louis, Goering’s guard began yelling that something was wrong; Gerecke was the first to get to the reichsmarshal as he died.

Two hours later, Gerecke was with Keitel. They sank to their knees in the general’s cell, and Gerecke began to pray in German. Keitel’s soldierly demeanor was suddenly shattered. His voice faltered. His prayer trailed off. He began to weep, then sobbed uncontrollably, his body jerking as he gasped for air. Gerecke raised his hand above Keitel’s head and gave the general a final benediction. Then the chaplain was called to the next cell, and he rose to his feet.

PERFECTLY SUITED

When the United States was 18 months into World War II, Gerecke surprised his wife Alma, coming home to their Halliday Avenue apartment late for dinner, and telling her that he had decided to become an U.S Army chaplain. Three months later, the Army assigned him to the 98th General Hospital, which was called to England in early 1944.

In the months after the war’s end, the 98th was stationed in Munich. It was there that the Army recognized they had a chaplain who could speak German (from his German-speaking farmer parents in Cape Girardeau), was of the same Christian denomination as most of the Nazi prisoners, and had experience working with prisoners (in the St. Louis city jail).

Gerecke was perfectly suited to fill the role demanded by the Geneva Convention — that the spiritual needs of prisoners of war be provided for at Nuremberg’s prison. The commanding officer of the 98th, Col. James Sullivan, gave Gerecke the choice of going home, or to Nuremberg.

Gerecke prayed hard that he would make the right decision. He wondered how a preacher from St. Louis could make any impression on the disciples of Adolf Hitler.

Would his faith in the core principles of Christianity sustain him as he ministered to monsters? While stationed in Munich, Gerecke had visited Dachau. He’d seen the raw aftermath of the Holocaust. With those images of the concentration camp fresh in his memory, Gerecke had to decide if he could share his faith, the thing he held most dear in life, with the men who had given the orders to construct such a place. If, as never before, he could hate the sin but the love the sinner, he thought, now was the time.

He walked back into Sullivan’s office. “I’ll go,” he said.

Gerecke’s ministry at Nuremberg has been called “one of the most singular… ever undertaken by U.S. Army chaplains.” It was a historic experiment in how good confronts radical evil. And at its center was a farm kid from southeastern Missouri.

Hans Fritzsche, on trial as Hitler’s radio propaganda chief and a member of Gerecke’s Nuremberg flock, wrote later that when Gerecke first arrived at the prison in November 1945, just days before the trials began, the chaplain “made scarcely any impression on us. Some of us may even have smiled at his simple, unequivocal faith and unpretentious sermons.”

It was the victorious Allies who were judging the crimes of the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, but it would be a pastor of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod who would try and convince those criminals that it was really God’s judgment that they should fear.

The Army was asking one of its chaplains to calm the spirits of Hitler’s deputies as they answered for their crimes in front of the world.

THE GALLOWS

When Gerecke returned to Keitel’s cell about thirty minutes after his initial visit in the early morning hours before the executions, he was visibly shaken from just having escorted Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, to the gallows. It was the first time Gerecke had seen someone put to death. Now he was at Keitel’s cell, and the two again prayed through Keitel’s tears.

But then it was time to go, and they started down the corridor. The commandant of the prison was in front, his cavalry boots clacking on the prison’s cement floor. He was followed by Gerecke, then Keitel, who was handcuffed to a guard. They walked out the door and into the cold, wet darkness of the courtyard that separated the cell block from the prison gymnasium where the gallows had been erected hours earlier.

Inside the gymnasium the men blinked their eyes in the bright lights. Looming ahead of them, just to the left, were two black gallows, which, in the words of the lieutenant in charge, were “huge, foreboding and hopelessly out of place next to the basketball hoop at the end of the chamber.”

Left of the main gallows, the four judges of the International Military Tribunal sat at folding tables, and near them, at four other tables, were eight members of the press. After taking three steps into the gym, Keitel was stopped by another MP who removed his shackles. Keitel’s eyes went instinctively to the first gallows, where he saw a rope, taut and twisting. He knew Ribbentrop was dying on the other end. Two MPs took Keitel by the arms, and Gerecke followed as they stood Keitel before the tribunal. The judges asked him to state his name.

“Wilhelm Keitel!” the general said, loudly and clearly.

He then turned on the heels of his gleaming black boots and walked briskly up the thirteen steps of the second gallows. Gerecke followed him up, and the two men looked at each other. Gerecke began a German prayer he had learned from his mother. The chaplain knew Keitel’s mother had taught him the same verse as a child, and the general joined Gerecke in prayer.

A United Press account reported that the field marshal then “thanked the priest who stood beside him.” Then the executioner pulled a lever, and just twenty minutes after Gerecke and Keitel had first kneeled in prayer on the general’s cell floor, Keitel dropped through the platform’s trapdoor.

In the seconds that followed, the only sound in the gym was the creaking of the rope against its huge steel eyebolt at the top of the gallows. Gerecke walked out into the rain to retrieve the next prisoner.

Copyright 2014 by Tim Townsend. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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