When I saw that Tim Townsend had written a book centered on the Lutheran chaplain at the Nuremberg trials, I knew I would read it.
The Rev. Henry Gerecke ended his career in Chester, Ill. There he was assistant pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and the chaplain at the state prison and mental hospital. I graduated from the church’s grade school and relatives work at that prison.
But I have no personal memory of Gerecke. He died the year before we moved from the farm into town. And when we lived on the farm, we went another direction to church.
But, I asked my mother, wouldn’t I have heard him preach? She assured me that I would have – but noted that I did not always pay attention in church. Ah – time to steer the conversation away from very old, oft-repeated lectures.
What was he like? Gerecke, she said, was a strong, good preacher who connected well with people. Did he do the German services? She wasn’t certain, but she thought he would have, particularly the German hymn services, which I did remember. As with Gerecke, many in the Missouri Synod Lutheran congregations in southern Illinois came from farm families who spoke German at home. My generation, by and large, did not learn German, but most of us were taught “Stille Nacht” ("Silent Night") and other basic hymns.
That he could speak German was key to Gerecke's being asked to go to Nuremberg. He also brought a history of working with jail inmates in St. Louis and was old enough (having volunteered for the chaplain corps just before he turned 50) to be given some respect by the men who ran the Third Reich.
Tim Townsend’s book, “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis,” is both easy to read and complicated. He outlines the personal histories of those charged with gross crimes against humanity. He talks about theology and psychology and the rule of law.
At the story’s center is a middle-aged man, whom we see as headstrong and impulsive. He went against his father to go into the ministry. He defied Concordia by getting married when that was forbidden to seminarians. And he decided to go war at the age of 49 and then told his wife.
There is a sense of compassion and calling. He leaves a relatively comfortable parish life to run a mission during the Depression, and he starts a ministry for prisoners and those at the Koch Hospital and a Catholic sanatorium.
I asked a couple of classmates about him, and one replied, “My little kid impression was that he was very kind. I seem to remember thinking I liked him better than the other pastor at the time. I think the other one was more fire and brimstone and Gerecke was more about love and forgiveness.”
Reading the book, a person can understand why Gerecke would be more about love and forgiveness.
For one, the war itself caused him to re-examine old taboos. During World War II, as he worked with a medical unit in England, he saw the stresses of a wartime hospital and came to believe, according to Townsend, that “God couldn’t possibly hold it against these doctors and nurses for blowing off steam through dancing and drinking a bit.”
Then when he came to Nuremberg he had to figure out how to deal with men charged with being monsters. His first meeting came with Rudolf Hess and the chaplain held out his hand.
“The act of an army chaplain physically touching a Nazi so repelled Americans that Gerecke was later severely criticized for even shaking hands with the defendants,” Townsend writes. “It wasn’t an easy gesture for the chaplain to make, and it didn’t mean that he was unconcerned with their crimes.”
Gerecke later wrote, “I was there as the representative of an all-loving Father.” He saw his mission as trying to bring even these sinners back to God.
That mission must have been a constant one for him, as Townsend notes that the congregation of St. John in Chester was likely less of a draw than the prison and mental hospital.
When he died, the prisoners at Menard Penitentiary asked to be able to pay their final respects, and his coffin was brought into the prison so they could do so. And the prisoners collected funds that went toward a lit neon cross placed on top of the Lutheran school. After almost 50 years, the cross faded; but a new one has replaced it, named as always the Gerecke cross.
Whenever I drive into Chester at night, I look for that cross. With Townsend’s book, the man it memorializes is more real to me, even though I probably was a young girl daydreaming through his sermons.
The St. John website includes audio clips of Gerecke’s memories of the Nuremberg Trials, and listening to those brings alive another layer of the man.
Townsend will be at Left Bank Books Downtown, 321 N. 10th St., at 7 p.m., Mon., March 24 for a book signing and discussion.