- (Photo: Robert Cohen)
A Lutheran pastor from the United States who served as chaplain for some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century is the subject of a soon-to-be released book.
Henry Gerecke, a chaplain who served with the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II eventually found himself ministering to the spiritual needs of Nazi war criminals.
His story, long lost amid the major names and events of the 1940s, will be available to the public in a historical book titled, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.
Authored by Tim Townsend, an accomplished journalist of religious news, Mission at Nuremberg looks at the life and ministry of Gerecke before, during and after Nuremberg.
Townsend explained to The Christian Post that his interest in Gerecke came in 2007 while he was researching a story for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.
"I was doing a story for the paper about chaplains, the military and the program that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod had just started that year called Operation Barnabus," said Townsend.
To flesh out his story, Townsend visited the LCMS affiliated Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he came across an exhibit on Lutheran chaplains that showcased a letter "signed by all 21 of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials."
"They had written to the main character of my book, Henry Gerecke. They had heard that he was on his way home…and they wanted him to stay through the end of the trial," said Townsend.
Townsend explained how he was taken aback by the language of the letter, wherein infamous Nazis like Herman Goering and Albert Spear expressed "love" for Gerecke and his ministry among them.
"In the letter, the thing that struck me was one sentence, something like, 'We surely need not tell to his own wife what an extraordinary man he is, we have simply come to love him,'" said Townsend.
"It's a word that sort-of jumps out at you when you're talking or thinking about Nazism. … It just sort-of clicked with me. I thought, 'Oh wow, who is that guy? What was his story?'"
'Pieces scattered all over the place'
Research on a fairly unknown individual like Henry Gerecke posed a challenge for the St. Louis-based journalist, who noted to CP that the effort involved finding "somebody who was a small piece of a very important part of history."
"It was problematic on a couple fronts," said Townsend, adding that Gerecke "didn't keep a diary of any kind, there weren't letters to his wife or anything like that."
Fortunately, Townsend did locate Gerecke's still living oldest son, who while recently turning 93, maintained a strong mind and good memory of his father and his chaplaincy.
Townsend also made multiple trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to look at chaplain reports filed by Gerecke, as well as information provided by Concordia regarding Gerecke's life before World War II.
"A lot of it, it really was a lot of pieces scattered all over the place," said Townsend, whose book details both the events in the life of Gerecke as well as overarching backgrounds on the Nuremberg trials and the people being prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
'People on the fringes'
As the book describes, Gerecke ministered, prayed with and even gave communion to many of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials. He learned much about their spiritual and personal background, saw them with their families, and led worship services at a chapel.
To devote so much time to meeting the spiritual needs of individuals responsible for genocide was something Townsend told CP he "really had to grapple with."
"What was surprising to me was his willingness to set out down that road to begin with. For somebody who is not a Christian pastor…it was difficult for me, at first, to even conceive of why somebody would volunteer for a mission like this," said Townsend.
"I have some theology background, but I really had to grapple with why he did this. As a country, why we provided these men with spiritual comfort when they were on trial for the Holocaust."
This was a consistent character trait for Gerecke, noted Townsend, who described in his book and to CP the ministry endeavors Gerecke did before and after his time in Europe.
"He went to a major penitentiary in Illinois and spent the end of his life, the last 10 years or so, ministering to people who were on death row, people who had committed murder or rape," said Townsend.
"He feels, in his life, to want to reach the people on the fringes of society," added Townsend, noting that before the war Gerecke gave up a fairly comfortable church assignment "to be a missionary in Depression-era St. Louis."
"He was drawn to that kind of need, spiritual need and it's pretty extraordinary."
Published by HarperCollins, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis will be released Tuesday, March 11.