Gerecke, Henry Fred “Hank”, born in 02-08-1893, the child of a German immigrant farmer and his wife living at Gordonville, Missouri, USA. The family was bilingual and 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.’
By 17-08-1943 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 adviser 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’. Father O’Connor died on 10-07-1983 in New Siena monastery, New York, and was buried at St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, New York.
The most senior Nazis of all, such as Adolf Hitler (did you know), Himmler, Bormann 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 stores. 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. Andrus died age 84, on 01-02-1977 in Tacoma, Washington.
Chaplain Gerecke had married Alma Bender in St. Louis in 1918. When the criminals in his Nuremberg flock learned that Alma was calling him home during the trial, they sent her a letter imploring her to let him remain. It was signed by all 21 prisoners. ‘We have simply come to love him,’ they wrote
Gerecke was in constant demand for Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and other imprisoned Nazis as they awaited trial.. He carried his Bible from cell to cell, tending to his charges. On the night before executions, he visited Goering. The two men had become close since Gerecke’s arrival.
Goering claimed to believe in God, but refused to accept Christ. As Gerecke’s pleas became more emphatic, Goering snapped. He raged across his cell and told the chaplain bitterly: “This Jesus you always speak of — to me, he’s just another smart Jew.”
Then, to Gerecke’s amazement, Goering asked to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Gerecke’s entire ministry lay in that moment. He had come to Nuremberg to help this man find salvation and on the night before his execution, he was asking for Holy Communion, the fullest expression of the Christian faith.
But Goering would not recognize Christ. Anguished, Gerecke refused him the sacrament. Goering killed himself using cyanide later that evening. Gerecke would face harsh criticism for refusing to commune Goering, but he never doubted he’d done the right thing.
Death and burial ground of Gerecke, Henry Fred “Hank”.
After the Nuremberg Trial, Henry Gerecke was promoted to Major. On 16-11-1946, he left Germany and returned to St. Louis, where he was appointed the prison captain of the US Army Disciplinary Barracks in Milwaukee. There he served for 33 months until he was released from military service on 01-07-1in the .
After his army he became pastor of the St. John Lutheran Church in Chester. In parallel, he was also responsible as a missionary in the Menard State Penitentiary for 800 prisoners. When he was in the prison for a Bible study on 1-10-1961, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 68
Hank Gerecke is buried on the Saint John Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery, Chester, Randolph County, Illinois.