What a fascinating read!
From WAR AND GRACE – Short biographies from the World Wars, by Don Stephens, published by Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England
Visiting condemned men in their cells was nothing new to Henry Gerecke. Much of his early career was devoted to working in prisons. However, the men he went to see in their cells at Nuremberg, Germany, just after midnight on Wednesday, 16 October 1946, were no ordinary prisoners. They were high-ranking Nazis sentenced to be hanged for the vilest crimes.
He walked with each of the ten condemned men from their cells to the gallows. He heard all their last words. Some expressed thanks and faith. Others stayed defiant to the end, their belief in Hitler still unshaken, even though he was dead. One condemned man even shouted, ‘Heil Hitler!’ on the gallows before taking the final drop into the darkness.
The story of Henry Gerecke is little known and the events of the most important year of his life, November 1945 to November 1946, have been largely overlooked. In that year he acted as spiritual advisor and chaplain to Nazis on trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. His own accounts, written soon after the event while memory was fresh, survive in American archives. From these primary sources the following story is compiled. He never asked to be believed. He simply outlined his experiences.
Henry F. Gerecke was born in August 1893, the child of a farmer and his wife living at Gordonville, Missouri, USA. The family was bilingual. Young Henry spoke as much German as English in his early years. The family was very active spiritually. At home he was taught to pray and trust the Bible as the Word of God. The family church was Lutheran, attached to the Missouri Synod. This is a decidedly evangelical body. Its beliefs were not unlike those of the Reformer Martin Luther, with his emphasis on being right with God by personal faith in Christ, rather than by trying to achieve communion with God by accumulating good deeds, even religious good deeds.
After attending a local school during his early years, Henry spent 1913-1918 at St. John’s College, Whitfield, Kansas. Then, in preparation for the ministry, he went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1926, he served as minister of Christ Lutheran Church, St. Louis, until 1935. In that year he was appointed as executive director of St. Louis Lutheran City Mission.
The chief task was coordinating aid to the underprivileged of St. Louis. The mission was a large organization reaching institutions like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, refuges and jails. Gerecke led it from the front. An account of its work while Gerecke was in charge still exists. This reveals his extensive care and preaching ministry, notably in the city jail, which held murderers as well as other criminals.
Gerecke’s own written rules for the missions work emphasized the need for personal faith. He was interested in ‘soul- winning’, an old expression for spreading the gospel of Christ. His basic advice to the mission’s workers when confronted with the ‘unchurched’ was: ‘Show them Jesus, Saviour from sin.’
Every Saturday for many years, Gerecke broadcast a programme on the local radio station KFUO called Moments of Comfort. Its main target was shut-ins, and those in hospital. A report from the time states, ‘Many souls have been won for heaven.’ It is plain from this evidence that Gerecke had clear-cut confidence that the message of the Bible would bring redemption, hope and comfort to those who responded in faith. ‘Thousands of letters’ received by the mission affirmed the point.
By 17 August 1943 the United States had been at war with Germany and Japan for nearly two years. On that day Henry Gerecke left St. Louis to enter the Chaplains’ School at Harvard. He was one of 253 Lutheran pastors from the Missouri Synod who became chaplains during World War II. After a short time at Fort Jackson, Columbia, in South Carolina, he sailed for England in March 1944. The destination was the US army’s 98th General Hospital, where he served for fourteen months tending the sick and wounded.
After D-Day, 6 June 1944, the trickle of casualties became a flood. In June 1945 he crossed to France with the hospital as it received the wounded brought back from the front lines. A month later the hospital was in Munich.
While in Germany he went to Dachau concentration camp, ‘where my hand, touching a wall, was smeared with the human blood seeping through’. News had already been received that his eldest son Henry, had been ‘ripped apart’, but not killed in the fighting, and that his second son, Carlton, had been severely wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. His youngest son, Roy, had also entered the US army. All in all he had had enough of war and was looking forward to going home. He had not seen his wife Alma for two and a half years, and working with the wounded and dying had been trying and unpleasant.
Then, early in November 1945, Gerecke was called into the office of his commanding officer, Colonel James Sullivan. The fifty-two-year-old Gerecke had been assigned to the 6,850th Internal Security Detachment at Nuremberg.
Why? To serve as spiritual advisor and chaplain to the top Nazi war criminals on trial there. Sullivan offered his opinion that it was the most unpopular assignment around. He told Gerecke that he did not have to go. He encouraged him to use his age as a reason to return to the inactive reserves in America. Gerecke wrote, ‘I almost went home.’ He prayed for guidance. ‘Slowly the men at Nuremberg became to me just lost souls whom I was being asked to help.’ After a few days he gave Colonel Sullivan his decision: ‘I’ll go.’
The US army had selected Gerecke for three reasons: first, he spoke German; secondly, he had extensive experience in prison ministry and, lastly, he was a Lutheran Protestant. Fifteen of the twenty-one Nazis on trial identified themselves as ‘Protestant’. Assisting him would be Roman Catholic chaplain Sixtus O’Connor. Six of the prisoners claimed to be ‘Roman Catholic’. The most senior Nazis of all, such as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels, had already committed suicide to avoid justice.
As Gerecke looked at the crimes of which the fifteen were accused he felt totally inadequate. ‘How can a pastor, a Missouri farm boy, make any impression on these disciples of Adolf Hitler? How can I approach them? How can I summon the true Christian spirit that this mission demands of a chaplain? He prepared himself by praying ‘harder than I ever had in my life’, so that he could ‘somehow learn to hate the sin but love the sinner’.
The prison block at Nuremberg had three storeys. The Nazis were on the ground floor. There was a broad corridor running its length with cells on both sides. Each cell door had a window at shoulder height. This let down to form a shelf where meals were placed. The window was open at all times for observation. A guard stood at the door of every cell round the clock and was required to look at the prisoner once a minute. Only if there was a breach of discipline was a guard allowed to speak to a prisoner. The waiter who brought the food was not permitted to answer even a greeting. The rest of the building was used for the several hundred witnesses who would give evidence at this trial of the century.
Colonel Burton Andrus, the US commanding officer of the prison, made Gerecke’s task clear. He would be allowed to conduct services for any Protestant Nazi prisoner who wanted to come, and be available for spiritual counsel, but only if invited by the prisoner. Nothing he said or did would influence the outcome of the trial. That was in other hands. It was 12 November 1945 – time to begin work….
Gerecke decided that he would visit each prisoner. That experience provided him with his first impressions of the men on trial. He admitted later, ‘I was terribly frightened.’ There was nothing frightening in a physical sense, because the once all-powerful prisoners were now helpless. It was the nature of their crimes, their connection with the absolute depths of evil, which made Gerecke shudder.
Before going to the cells he made the decision to offer to shake hands with each of the accused. There was no intention of making light of what they had done. Gerecke wanted to be friendly so that his message would not be hindered by a wrong approach. In his 1947 account of his first visit to the cells, Gerecke records that he was criticized for this decision. Presumably his critics did not understand his spiritual motives.
The first cell contained fifty-one-year-old Rudolf Hess, who once had been Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi party. Hess ruled his life by astrology. Gerecke offered his hand….
Hope you’re hooked by now with a desire to continue reading…