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Tony Rossi

Radio Host/Producer

Mission at Nuremberg
March 15, 2015

If there are a group of people in modern history who are thought of as irredeemable, it’s the Nazis. Truth be told, the orchestrators of the genocide of the Jewish people and the murders of millions of others certainly didn’t “deserve” any kind of mercy. Yet at the end of World War II, two American Army chaplains—Rev. Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister, and Father Sixtus O’Connor, a Catholic priest—made an unprecedented attempt to save the souls of the Nazi leaders held at Nuremberg prison. Their little-known story has now been documented by award-winning journalist Tim Townsend in the book “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.”

During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Townsend admitted that prior to writing this book, he simply knew the “Hollywood” version of the trials and thought of the Nazis as a “stereotype of evil.” And while there were those like Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who seemed to revel in cruelty as he oversaw the extermination of the Jews, there were others, like Wilhelm Keitel, who didn’t fit so neatly into a preconceived box.

As a young man, Keitel lived an average, innocuous, non-threatening life. He wanted to become a farmer until his father “pushed him into the army.” Eventually, he became Hitler’s general field marshal, whom Townsend describes as “the Fuhrer’s closest military adviser and most dependable sycophant—an obsequious figure, the archetypal Nazi bootlicker.”

As I was reading “Mission at Nuremberg,” I couldn’t help but feel that during the war, Keitel forgot who he really was—that he suppressed the goodness within him because he fell in love with adulation and power. But a sliver of his humanity still remained when he met Pastor Gerecke with whom he developed a bond.

Pastor Gerecke’s inherent Christian conviction and humble charisma allowed him to make inroads in some of the Nazis’ consciences—though none of them took full public responsibility for their sins. Perhaps moving them toward any sort of penitence at all in a short period of time was a miracle in itself. How was Pastor Gerecke able to accomplish even that much? Almost 50 years old at the time, he was formed by his experiences during the Great Depression. Though stationed at a comfortable Lutheran church in St. Louis with his wife and kids, he left that job and moved his family into a tiny apartment in order to minister to the homeless, as well as prisoners in local jails.

In addition, he practiced interfaith cooperation long before it became popular. Townsend said, “[The Gereckes] lived in the middle of a Catholic parish, and Lutheranism was the number two denomination [in St. Louis]. Pastor Gerecke worked very closely with the Catholic priest of that parish. Interfaith partnership in that neighborhood very much helped him later because chaplains in the Army are chaplains to all, not just for the men and women in their particular denomination...That was important to him in an informative way when he began counseling and pastoring to Nazis in the wake of the Holocaust.”

Pastor Gerecke further developed his human touch while serving as chaplain at a MASH-like unit in England. Wounded soldiers arrived from the front lines only to be patched up enough to send to “proper hospitals.” Not only did Pastor Gerecke counsel the wounded there, he also helped the doctors, nurses, and staff who needed spiritual sustenance of their own.

                I’ll conclude Pastor Gerecke’s and Father O’Connor’s story in my next column.

 

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, ANGELS: MESSENGERS FROM GOD, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org