The story of an American Chaplin giving solace to the condemned at Nurenberg
Wilhelm Keitel on the Stand at Nuremberg Trial -
Wilhelm Keitel had been a General Field Marshal, second only to Adolf Hitler in Germany;s mlitary hierarchy. Now on a cold, rainy October morning, at 1:00 A.M. in 1946, he stood shackled to a guard outside cell 8 of Nuremberg's Palace of Justice. In half an hour, Keitel would be hanging by his neck from from a rope, his hands tied behind his back with a leather bootlace, a black hood over his head. Outside the prison, no moon marked the sky above the destroyed city of Nuremberg (Nürnberg)
The prison commandant, US Army colonel Burten Andrus , spoke loudly, with both custom and history in mind . His voice was high pitched but authoritative, and echoed off the prison's dull stone walls and traveled up the metal staircases , past the mesh wiring that had been strung across the three tiers of cells to prevent suicides. it traveled past a small chapel that had been created by knocking down the wall between cells.
Andrus felt the weight of the moment, but he didn't relish it. He walked along the cell block on the first level, stopping at each prisoner's cell and repeating his sentence. The men had heard the same words earlier when the justices of the International Military Tribunal read the verdicts and sentences aloud in court.
The colonel was simply going through with a formality - required by the Army's standard operating procedure and the Geneva Convention. The men in the cells were the former elite of the Third Reich, but they had long since been stripped of any military rank or privilege. In Nuremberg prison, they were treated by most as persons without status.
Burten Andrus at Nuremberg
The other major war criminals, those who had avoided the Tribunal's supreme panelty and had been moved to the prisoner's second tier, could hear the details of each sentence as Andrus stopped at the cells. So would those on rhe third tier, the lesser Nazi criminals, used as witnessess by the prosecution attorneys for testimony that had convicted the men below.
Andrus strict adherence to by-the-book Army rules and regulations had become something of a joke among the courtroom lawyers, and a headache to the twenty-one Nazis in his care during the yearlong trial. Before being assigned to Nuremberg, Andrus had served under General George Patton. He idolized Patton and tried to emulate him. He once wrote to a friend, 'I will go anywhere with Georgie, any time, for any purpose.'
This morning Andrus was dressed, as he always was, in his green, four pocket uniform tunic with brass buttons imprinted with the United States coat of arms, an eagle carrying thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. The colonel wore a burnished steel olive-drab helmet and carried a riding crop under his arm. [t is more likely what he wore on his head was a helmet liner and not a steel helmet,sic]
Andrus was anxious and annoyed as he eyed Keitel. This was the date the Tribunal set for the executions, and while the prisoners did not know it officially, most of them had guessed these were their final hours. Earlier in the night, Hermann Göring, Germany's former Reichsmarschall, Hitler's designated successor and former head of Germany's air force, had killed himself by swallowing cyanide, cheating justice, and outfoxing Andrus, who had vowed that his prison would be suicide-free. [Although Dr. Robert Ley had committed suicide prior to this while on a toilet seat.s]. The commotion that followed Göring's death had woken the other prisoners. At 12:45 AM they told to dress and were given their last meal: Sausage, potato salad , cold cuts, black bread, and tea.
Göring after commiting suicide in his cell
Most did not touch the food. Keitel had made his bed and ask for a brush and duster to clean his cell.
Like Andrus's, Keitel's life had been ruled by army regulations.Since his capture by the Allies eighteen months earlier he had played the part of an disciplined soldier. His bearing was erect, his silver hair and mustache always perfectly trimmed.A year earlier, when Keitel arrived at Nuremberg prison, Andrus had torn the shoulder boards from the general's uniform. He had told Keitel he was no longer a soldier, he was now war criminal. Nevertheless, each day in court, Keitel had proudly worn the tunic, blooming breaches, and black boots of a Wehrmacht officer. Keitel's defense attorney had played on the notion of following orders. He had only doing a job he'd had trained for his entire life. Keitel's commanding officer was the Führer, and question orders was never even a consideration.
The tribunal had it seen differently 'Superior orders , even to soldiers, can not considered in mitigation where crimes so shocking and extensive have been committed', the justices had said about Keitel's defense. They found him guilty on all four counts of the Nuremberg indictment'. When the justices told Keitel, he had been sentenced to death, the general nodded curtly and left the courtroom.
Now Keitel was hearing his sentence for the second and final time: 'Defendant Wilhelm Keitel' Andrus announced, ' On the counts of the indictment on which you have been convicted , the Tribunal has sentenced you to death by hanging'.
Once Andrus had moved to the other prisoner and Keitel had returned to his cell, a stocky man with glasses and receding grey hair, and a doughty face followed the field marshal to his cot. Chaplain Henry Gerecke, a captain in the US Army, was carrying a bible . He asked Keitel if he would like to pray.
Gerecke had also been rattled by Göring;s suicide. An ocean away. Gerecke's St. Louis Cardinals had been battling the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. The prisoner's other Chaplin, Father Sixtus O'Connor, was rooting for the Sox. Though from upstate New York and really a Dodgers fan, he had chosen Boston in a bet with Gerecke. They had been in the guard's booth on the prison floor awaiting a telephone call when Göring bit down on the cyanide. With the Palace of Justice locked down for the executions, the only way the chaplain and guards had of receiving updates after each half inning was from an American officer outside the prison walls. Just after a call came in that Boston's Don DiMaggio had doubled the top of the eight, driving in two runs to tie St. Louis, Göring's guard was yelling that something was wrong. Gerecke was the first to get to the Reichsmarschal as he died.
Two hours later Gerecke was with Keitel. They sank to their knees in Keitel's cell, and Gerecke began to pray in German. Andrus's words must have triggered in Keitel the realization that his life was over, because his soldierly demeanor was suddenly shattered. His voice faltered. His prayer trailed off. He began to weep, then sobbed uncontrollable, his body jerking as he gasped for air. Gerecke raised his hands above Keitel's head and gave the General a final benediction. Most likely it was Martin Luther's favorite, from the Book of Numbers: 'The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance on you, and give you peace'. Then the chaplain was called to the next cell, and he rose to his feet.
[French honor came into play after sentencing Keitel and Jodl to hang. The French judges requested that both as soldiers should face a firing squad, rather than the rope. The others on the Tribunal rejected their pleading.
One can only greatly respect French culture and ancient traditions,sic]
Gerecke returned to Keitel's cell about thirty minutes after his initial visit in those early morning hours, he was visible shaken from just having escorted Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister, to the gallows, It was the first time Gerecke had seen someone put to death. Now he was at Keitel's cell, and the two again prayed through Keitel's tears.
But then it was time to go, and they started down the corridor. Andrus was in front, his cavalry boots clacking on the prison's cement floor. He was followed by Gerecke, then Keitel who was handcuffed to a guard, they walked out the door and into the cold, wet darkness of the courtyard that separated the cell block from the prison gymnasium where the gallows had been erected hours earlier.
Outside the walls of the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg tried to get along as best it could. Ninety percent of the beautiful medieval city had been destroyed by Allied bombs. Now its residences slept wherever they found warmth - between broken masonry, behind the crumbled walls of a former church, in the dark cellars of demolished homes. Near the city's ancient imperial castle, A group of children hung Hermann Göring in effigy, then built a bonfire, marching around it and watching its shadow play on the rubble.
When Andrus reached the gymnasium door, he knocked to let those inside know the next prisoner was ready. A military police officer opened the door, and Andrus led the other men in. They blinked their eyes in the bright lights. Looming ahead of them, just to the left, were two black gallows, which,in the words of the lieutenant in charge, 'were huge, foreboding and hopelessly out of place next to the basketball hoop at the end of the chamber', A third gallow, held in reserve in case one of the other other two failed, stood to the right. A curtain next to it held eleven wooden coffins. The gym was a grimy building with nothing much in it other than two iron stoves in one corner. One of the walls had a single poster of a US Army - sponsored slogan seen everywhere in occupied Nuremberg over the last year: 'VD walks the streets,'
[There were no cases of VD in Germany under the Hitler regimey prior to the outbreak of war. For medical studies affected prostitutes came from Sweden,sic]
Left of the main gallows, the four Tribunal Judges sat at folding tables, and near them, at four other tables, were eight members of the press. After taking three steps into the Gym, Keitel was stopped by another MP who removed the shackles. Keitel's eyes went instinctively to the first gallow, where he saw a rope, taut and twisting. He knew Ribbentrop was dying on the other end. Two MP's took Keitel by the arms, and Gerecke followed as they stood Keitel before the Tribunal. The judges asked him to state his name.
'Wilhelm Keitel' the General said loudly and clear.
He then turned on his heels of his gleaming black boots and walked briskly up the thirteen steps of the second gallows. Gerecke followed him up, and the two men looked at each other. Gerecke began a German prayer he had learned from his mother. The Chaplin knew Keitel's mother had taught him the same verse as a child , and the General joined Gerecke in prayer. [My first prayer as a child was: 'Ich bin klein, mein Herz ist rein, darf niemand darin wohnen als Jesus allein'. I doubt this was Keitel's prayer.sic]
After reaching the top of the thirteen steps, Keitel was asked if he had any last words. 'I call on the Almighty to be considerate of the German people, provide tenderness and mercy', he said. 'Over two million German soldiers went to their death for their Fatherland. I now follow my sons'.
A United Press reported that the Field Marshal then thanked the priest who stood beside him.
Then the executioner pulled the lever, and just twenty minutes after Gerecke and Keitel had first kneeled in prayer on the General's cell floor, Keitel dropped through the platform's trap door.
In the seconds that followed, the only sound in the gym was the creaking of the rope against the huge steel eye-bolt at the top of the gallows. Gerecke walked out into the rain to retrieve the next prisoner.
|In 1961, Gerecke had a heart attack in the Menard prison parking lot on his way into the prison. He drove himself home, but died later that day in Chester's hospital. He was sixty-eight years old. The top of St. John Lutheran School in Chester is named in his honor.
Highway Z winds to the edge of St. Genevieve County, Missouri, past stands selling tomatoes and sweet corn, huge cylindrical steel grain bins, and front yard signs offering CUSTOM ROCK CRUSHING. Where highway Z meets highway H, it drops into Perry County and then enters Chester, Illinois.
The Chester Bridge winds from the bottomlands, over the Mississippi and up the brown waters lazing by below, into Chester's bluffs. The bridge, which spans the river's narrowest point between St. Louis and New Orleans, opened in 1942, eight months after the Japabese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In downtown Chester, St.John Evangelical Lutheran Church sits across from the statue of Popeye the Sailor Man's nemesis, Pluto, an homage to Elzie Segar, a native of Chester and the cartoon's creator.
In the weeks following Gerecke's death in 1961, prisoners at Menard took up a collection. At first, they hoped to help furnish a family prayer room at a planned new hospital as a memorial for Gerecke. But instead, the offerings - which ranged from thirteen cents to five dollars - finally went toward a white neon cross to be placed atop St.John Lutheran School, directly across the street from the church.
The cross went up in 1963, and for nearly fifty years , it stood atop he brick school. But eventually the light in the cross disappeared. Wires had frayed.
Yet now a new assistance pastor was coming into the congregation. The church and wider community had raised $6000 to replace the original Gerecke cross, and they thought it would be best to dedicate the new cross on the evening of the new pastor's installation. So, on a Sunday in May 2000, the Lutheran of Chester gathered to witness the ordination and installation on St. John's newest assistance pastor.
Inside the church's simple stained glass ushered in volumes of light. Twenty-eight wooden pews sat in lines below a relief of Jesus stepping out from a piece of green marble built into an array of brass organ pipes behind the altar. Banners bearing messages of faith hung down from the choir lofts above the church's altar. The top half of a red banner directly above the altar podium was decorated with a white cross tha radiated yellow rays in every direction. Below the cross were words that also summed up Henry Gerecke's mission: 'Tell the Good News'.
Most of the elderly people in the congregation had German surnames. The women wore patterned summer dresses or matching shirt-pants sets. .Some wore pearls. The men wore short-sleeved, button-down shirts - mostly p[aid, some with stripes - and khakis. Everyone wore a watch.
As the number pf pastors from across Illinois marched down the church's center aisle, the congregation sang them in.
The newly installed priest was twenty-six-year-old Michigan native Peter William Wilig III. Like Gerecke, he had spent time in a foreign land - in his case, India - on a mission station to spread the Gospel. He married a girl he had met when both were counselors at a Lutheran summer camp in India, and now, also like Gerecke, he was an alumnus Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
As part of the church's old and formal ceremony, a small battalion of God's pastor-soldiers - old, young, bald, whisper voiced and booming voiced, tall, short, bespectacled and not - laid hands on III's head, as verses from the New Testament floated from 'the Office of the Holy Ministry'.
Just as Gerecke was, III was asked if he believed the conical books of the Old and New Testaments were the inspired Word of God, if he would forgive the sins of those who repent,and if he promised never to divulge the sins confessed to him.
Yes, he would, with the help of God, III responded. After III was welcomed to St. John's, the congregation moved across the street to the corner of High and German Streets to sit close together at long tables, on metal folding chairs. Here at St. John's Veterans Memorial Hall, which is also is the gym for St. John Lutheran School, the congregation stood in line, chattering and waiting their turn among the potluck noodle casseroles and fried chicken.
III walked into the gym in his casual clothes, and the congregation gave him a rousing of applause. He shyly asked them to stop making a fuss. Then they all ate together in celebration of friendship and their faith..
At 8:30PM, as dusk fell, about one-hundred people walked from he gym, up the hill to the front lawn of the school. Willig climbed three sets of stairs to the school's roof and stood there next to the new cross. He addressed his congregation three stories below
'Why have we called this the Gerecke Memorial Cross' Willig asked. 'It is not so much to honor Pastor Gerecke as to honor and celebrate the Gospel that he so much loved. It was Pastor Gerecke's great vision and passion to reach out to everyone with the message of God's love for us in Jesus Christ'. Willig continued: 'He followed that vision during World War II as a Chaplin. Then he was called upon to serve as chaplain to the worst and and lost at the Nuremberg Trials. Upon coming to Chester he served as Prison Chaplin at Menard'.
And then Willig prayed - 'Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening'.
And the congregation replied: 'And the day is almost over'.
'Let your light scatter the darkness', Willig said. He shouted down his flock the words of Isaiah, 'Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you'.
The Reverend Wilig feet planted ffirmly on the school's lawn below, read from the gospel of St. John. 'In Him was life and the life was the light of men', III said 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it',
As the people sang: 'Lift High the Cross', St. John's began to clang. Wilig threw the the switch, sending the light from the Gerecke Memorial Cross into the night sky and the valley below.
HK Stolpmann von Waldeck