They walked to the gallows together, pastor and penitent. Each step up took them closer to the abbreviated, fatal fall to come. The criminal stood above the trapdoor. Moments later, it would open to rope him into eternity. An officer asked him if he had any final words. “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul,” he said.
Then he turned toward the man who had been the shepherd of his soul, his confessor, his preacher, the one from whose hand he had received the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper. To this pastor, he said, “I’ll see you again.”
Then noosed, hooded in black, and legs tied, he dropped out of this world into another.
As gripping as this account is, no doubt many similar scenarios have played out in the course of history. Condemned men have found repentance and faith when certain death loomed nigh.
What makes this story remarkable is that this man, along with others hanged that day, was among the most hated men in human history. He was guilty of atrocities so horrific only words forged in hell could adequately describe them. These were Hitler’s men. His closest confidants. His very own pack of wolves. Yet in the months leading up to their executions or imprisonments, many of them had been transformed from Hitler’s wolves into Christ’s lambs. Thanks to the ministry of a farm boy from Missouri, who grew up to be a pastor, and who reluctantly agreed to be the chaplain of the fifteen Protestant war criminals during the Nuremberg trials at the close of World War II, these men heard the Gospel.
Henry Gerecke was in his early 50’s when he went, cell by cell, to introduce himself to his infamous “congregation.” He invited them to chapel services. Some refused, others wavered, and still others promised to be there. Of the fifteen chairs set up for the first service, thirteen of them were filled. Scriptures were read, sermons preached, hymns sung, prayers prayed. And, through it all, hearts were changed.
Soon some of the very lips that had once barked, “Heil Hitler!” spoke an Amen as they knelt to receive the body and blood of their forgiving Lord. They expressed a desire for their children to be baptized. One of them began reading the Bible to find justification for his unbelief, but ended up being led to faith by the very same divine words. So reliant did these men become upon their pastor that, when a rumor surfaced that he might be relieved of his duty and allowed to return home, they wrote a letter to Mrs. Gerecke and begged her to ask him to stay. On that letter were the signatures of all these former Nazis. Men who had enjoyed power and rank were now humbly beseeching a housewife in America, who had not seen her husband for two and a half years, to let him stay. In her brief reply to her husband, “They need you,” is packed a whole volume about sacrifice and love.
Pastor Gerecke’s story has already been told (see links below), but it deserves to be retold, again and again, to every generation, for two very important reasons.
The first has to do with the men to whom he ministered, the ones who repented and believed in Christ. The scandal of Christianity is not that these men went to heaven; it is that God loved them so much that he was willing to die to get them there. Had it been a human decision, many would have thrown these men into the flames of hell. But the truth is that people are not condemned because they murder, or steal, or lie, but because they reject Jesus as the one who has already endured hell for them on the cross, and earned a place for them in heaven. Should an opportunity arise in the future for the Gospel to be shared with ISIS militants who have been captured, this same Good News would be for them. They too would need a chaplain like Pastor Gerecke to call them to repentance, to preach Christ’s grace, to declare to them the mercy of God. There is no one who is so vile that he is beyond redemption, because the redemption of Christ envelops all people.
Another reason Pastor Gerecke’s story needs to be remembered involves his vocation, and those who share it. What pastor, knowing he was about to visit men such as these, would not have struggled to find any hope in their possible repentance? But Gerecke visited each cell anyway. He invited each man to hear the Word and left it to the Spirit to do the work of making new creations of these hardened criminals. Nor did he mince words, surrender his convictions, or water down the truth for them. On the evening before he was to be hanged, one of the men, Goering, asked to be communed, just in case he was wrong and there was some truth to the Christian claims. But Gerecke refused to give the Sacrament to one who so obstinately refused repentance, who treated the Supper as if it were an edible, just-in-case, insurance policy. When Christ calls men into the office of the holy ministry, he calls them to be faithful—not successful, not popular, not practical, not winsome, not cool, but faithful. They are to preach even when they doubt it will bear fruit. They are to give the word of Christ to sinners, and let the Christ of that word do his work. And he does. He convicts, he calls, he saves, he baptizes, he feeds, and, finally, he welcomes one and all into his kingdom with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
In 1961, at the age of sixty-eight, Pastor Gerecke passed from this life into the next. He entered that innumerable company of saints who had gone before him. Some of them had been among his flock during his years of ministry. One of them, standing atop the gallows, had promised, “I’ll see you again.” And he did.
I strongly urge you to click on one or all of the links below to read Pastor Gerecke’s story. The details and quotes I included above are from these resources.
Gerecke’s story, in his own words, was published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1, September, 1951, pp. 18-19, under the title, “I walked to the Gallows with the Nazi Chiefs.”
Don Stephens, in War and Grace: Short biographies from the World Wars, (Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England) devotes a chapter to Gerecke and his ministry. The chapter is available online at: http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/henry-gerecke-chaplain-to-nazi-war-criminals/
In 1950, Gerecke was called to be Assistant Pastor at St. JohnLutheranChurch, Chester, IL. That congregation’s website includes audio files of Pastor Gerecke speaking about his experience. These can be listened to by following the link below, and clicking on the audio files on the right side of the website. http://www.stjohnchester.com/Gerecke/Gerecke.html
Tim Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis, HarperCollins, 2014.
F. T. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika, Henry E. Walter Ltd., Worthing, England, 1984, which tells Gerecke’s story.
N. M. Railton, “Henry Gerecke and the Saints of Nuremberg,” Kirkliche Zeitgeschichte, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2000, pp.126-7.
Many of the primary sources about Gerecke, including his own My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany, are found at Concordia Historical Institute, St. Louis, MO, the official archive of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!