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Photography courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers and Robert Cohen
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Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend spent six years researching Mission at Nuremberg, published this month by William Morrow. It tells the story of St. Louisan Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister who, at age 50, enlisted as an Army chaplain in World War II—with two of his sons already at the front. For 18 months, Gerecke tended to the souls of the wounded. And just when it was time to go home, he was asked to serve as chaplain at Nuremberg.
Minister to Nazis: Why did Gerecke take that assignment? He felt this duty to introduce them—or reintroduce them—to their faith. And I think he learned there was a way for evil to be overcome by good.
How did you learn of him? I saw a letter in an exhibit at Concordia Historical Institute. It was signed by 21 Nazi war criminals. They’d heard a rumor that their chaplain, the Rev. Henry Gerecke, was being summoned home to St. Louis by his wife, and they were begging her to let him stay until the end of the trials. They said he was “a thoroughly good man… We simply have come to love him.”
Some thought him naïve; they said the Nazis he “brought back” were just pretending. Was his belief in his work just wishful thinking? In a sense, because of his job, he had to believe what he was doing was making a difference. But at the same time, I think he was able to see through some of the phoniness at the beginning, and he was very strict about how he brought people back into the fold. I think he had his radar up.
Was he the only chaplain at Nuremberg? Why send him? That was one of my main questions: How was it determined that the Allies would give spiritual comfort to these men who were accused of crimes against humanity? It boiled down to the Geneva Convention. And they didn’t trust a German to counsel these guys, so they needed Americans who could speak German. There were only two chaplains at Nuremberg: Gerecke and a Catholic, Sixtus O’Connor.
It would have been interesting to send a rabbi. Right. Who are these Christian guys coming in and suddenly trying to lead these mass murderers to redemption? What does that do to the Christian-Jewish relationship at that moment, that the Jewish leaders weren’t consulted?
What was Gerecke’s theodicy—how did he explain a loving God allowing such suffering to occur? I don’t think he would have even known that word. He had a deep and profound theology, but it was not one he’d know how to wrap up in fancy words. I think he believed that every human being was created by God, and people have free will, and some make terrible choices that can lead them down a path to commit evil acts, but they can still be redeemed and saved. And that’s Christianity. And it’s pretty controversial.
What do you believe? About evil? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it on the scale of the Holocaust, but I’ve seen the machetes left on purpose, in Rwanda, in churches where people had been hiding and were killed en masse. I’m probably not as forgiving as Gerecke.
He ministered to Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich; Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s field marshal; Fritz Sauckel, his labor chief; Joachim von Ribbentrop, his foreign minister. Did Gerecke know the specifics of what they’d done? They were still sorting all that out. But he knew there were atrocities. There’s a very familiar scene from the trials when the room goes dark and the slideshow begins. We’ve all seen those photos, but at the time, those images were brand-new. And Gerecke would have been in the courtroom that day. He went as often as he could, to know how to minister to the men the next day.
So did Alma Gerecke demand that Henry come home? She insisted she did not. Gerecke said he’d simply joined the homesick prisoners with “a little mild griping of my own,” probably about his wife being sick and how he wished he were home to take care of her.
He wound up a prison chaplain at Menard Correctional Center in Illinois. What was it that drew him to obvious sinners? It must have just been a quirk of his personality. He seems to be one of those people drawn to suffering, and even beyond that, to the people who cause suffering—which is extraordinary.
What was his great strength, and what was his great weakness? I think his greatest strength was being able to put blinders on. There was a whole lot of criticism of him for shaking hands with these guys, but he felt he needed to do that to establish a relationship with them. He was able to do his job without concern for what the world thought of him. His greatest weakness? This is going to sound strange, because his kids and grandchildren worship him—his granddaughter wears the ring a Jewish nurse gave him around her neck—and if he was able to instill such love in them, it couldn’t have gone too badly. But he didn’t see a lot of them. He took his job extraordinarily seriously, and maybe that just translates to workaholic. He would never have seen it as working too much, though. To him, there was an emergency quality to saving souls.