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Tony Rossi

Radio Host/Producer

The Chaplains Who Tried to Save Nazi Souls
March 22, 2015

Trying to save the souls of Nazi leaders and lead them to repent of their sins. That was the focus of my last column, which highlighted my interview with Tim Townsend, author of “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.” Townsend’s book primarily tells the story of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from St. Louis who was asked to minister to Nazi leaders in Nuremberg prison before they were tried for war crimes and possibly executed. Working alongside Pastor Gerecke was Father Sixtus O’Connor.

Father O’Connor—of whom very little is known—saw the horrors of World War II first hand. Townsend said, “He was a younger guy [who] was part of a fighting unit that marched all the way through Europe. He got a Silver Star for bravery for counseling men on the battlefield for what was then called battle fatigue but what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of the war, his unit helped liberate Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, so he buried thousands and thousands of dead and dying concentration camp victims. Two months later in Nuremberg, he was counseling and pastoring Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was in charge of the entire concentration camp system. So Father O’Connor went from seeing the raw aftermath of the Holocaust [to] ministering to the man who had been responsible for that.”

So why were Christian ministers even sent to Nuremberg? Townsend explained that the Allies weren’t just following the Geneva Conventions; they were trying to act more civilized than their enemies: “The Nuremberg trials themselves were a total experiment. Nobody had ever done anything like this before, where the victors decided that rather than to point blank shoot enemies that they caught, they would try to give them a fair trial and hearing. That was in and of itself controversial...[but] then, to offer these people spiritual comfort as they were on trial for the murder of millions of people…When people did find out about it, it caused a lot of consternation.”

It required an enormous amount of compassion and mercy for Pastor Gerecke and Father O’Connor to see the Nazis as human beings instead of monsters. Townsend believes it was their deep Christian faith that allowed them to do so: “I could not have even walked into one of those cells. They not only walked in, but knelt on the concrete floor next to these men, prayed with them, and tried to bring them back to some sort of belief in the church and in Jesus. That’s an amazing thing to contemplate and it is a testament to their faith as Christians, but also to their abilities as pastors. They knew they had a particular responsibility and a calling that they took very seriously, and this was an extraordinary moment in history.”

“Mission at Nuremberg” grapples with big questions that force us to ponder whether we actually believe every human being is capable of redemption. It also presents us with men of conscience and character whose names may have been lost without Townsend’s research. The author’s hard work paid off, giving readers a memorable piece of history that is morally challenging yet hopeful.

Townsend concludes, “My real hope is that people read the book and recognize that these two men did this extraordinary thing in the name of both democracy and what the Allies and America fought for—but also for their faith and how remarkable their faith is, that they were willing to share it with the worst people on earth.”

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: