Along with the many stories of terrible suffering experienced by the Jewish people during World War II, a largely unknown testimony of God’s amazing grace emerged from the very place where justice was carried out upon some of the Holocaust’s leading perpetrators.
A paean of praise to the limitless mercy of God toward penitent sinners, it is bound to shock and offend in equal measure. Which is why, unnerved by the potential backlash from a populace not yet deemed ready for such sensation, the US government censored news of the event for five years.
Only US Army chaplain Major Henry Gerecke was privy to the story, which involved some of the most brutal Nazi leaders turning to a sincere faith in Jesus Christ before they were sentenced to execution or imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-6.
It was later captured in a book (now out of print, though I was able to purchase a second-hand copy from Amazon – at a price) called The Cross and the Swastika, by the late Frederick Grossmith, and published by Paul Watkins of Stamford, Lincolnshire.
Gerecke, a 52-year-old Lutheran pastor from St Louis, Missouri, was assigned to the spiritual care of 15 Nazi leaders during the nine-month long trial involving judges from the major Allied powers. His Roman Catholic colleague Sixtus O’Connor had pastoral oversight of the other six.
With Adolf Hitler having already committed suicide, Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goring headed the list. Gerecke had been reluctant to take on the task. Not only had two of his sons been badly wounded in the war, but he also felt a natural revulsion for the men due to the despicable crimes for which they had been indicted.
But after wrestling with God, he came to accept it as a special calling for which he needed a full measure of the grace of Jesus – hating the sin, but loving the sinner. So he dedicated himself to visiting each of the men in their cell on a regular basis and inviting them to chapel services at which he would preach the gospel of how Jesus died for sinners like them.
Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy in the early years of the war, and Alfred Rosenberg, Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, never took up his invitation, but all the others came along. Goring, who sang with gusto on the front row, attended every one of the 70 services, but never made his peace with God.
Most of the others, however, gradually warmed to the love and kindness of this humble farmer’s son, and to the Saviour he so radiantly reflected.
First up was Fritz Sauckel, Chief of Slave Labour, who knelt down at his bedside as he implored Gerecke to read the Scriptures and pray with him. “Unafraid and unashamed, he prayed with me at his bedside, generously ending our prayer by saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’,” the chaplain recalled. He was a changed man and was the first of the prisoners to express a desire for Holy Communion.
Hans Fritzsche, in charge of broadcasting in the propaganda ministry, confessed that he was deeply ashamed for having turned against the church and hoped to come all the way back to Christ. Along with Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach and Armaments Minister Albert Speer, he became seriously engaged in Bible study under the chaplain’s direction. Of his talks with Speer, Gerecke later recalled: “Frankly admitting the guilt of the Nazi regime, he told me he felt that the neglect of genuine Christianity caused its downfall.”
When Christmas came, a former SS1 Colonel whom Gerecke had led to Christ played Stille Nacht (Silent Night) on the organ as the chaplain continued to joyfully present Jesus as a friend to the friendless and strength to the helpless, and Sauckel stood to his feet and said: “We never took time to appreciate Christmas in its biblical meaning. Tonight we are stripped of all material gifts and away from our people. But we have the Christmas story. And that’s all we really need, isn’t it?”
Armed Forces Chief Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was next to receive Holy Communion and unashamedly knelt at his bed as he made confession of his sins. In the spring of 1946, Navy Chief Erich Raeder opened his heart to the Lord and, with von Schirach, soon joined Sauckel, Keitel, Fritzsche and Speer at communion, with former Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht also added to the believing congregation.
Baron Constantin von Neurath, who took charge of occupied Czechoslovakia from 1939-41, then admitted his need of salvation. Following this, rumours began circulating among the prisoners that older officers like Gerecke were to be reunited with their families in the US – the chaplain hadn’t seen his wife for two years.
This prompted Fritzsche to compose a letter to Mrs Gerecke, signed by all the defendants, urging her to wait a little longer, writing: “During the past months he has shown us uncompromising friendliness… We have simply come to love him.”
As Gerecke put it: “Hitler’s strong boys, who had scourged Christianity and broken the 10 Commandments more than any other scoundrels in history, were beseeching an American housewife.”
Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had held out against the chaplain’s message for most of his incarceration until finally, as judgment day approached, he sought God’s forgiveness and opened his heart to Christ. He was soon transformed from cool indifference to a man of truly sincere Christian faith.
“I heard him plead with his wife that their children be kept in the church and be brought up in the fear and admonition of the Lord,” Gerecke recalled, adding: “Frau Sauckel promised her husband that the children should stay close to the cross of Jesus Christ.”
Tragically, Goring rejected the tearful pleas of his wife and daughter to make his peace with Jesus, and took his own life with poison he had smuggled into his cell despite rigorous and regular searches.
Von Ribbentrop was first to die. Gerecke recalled how, just before he was led to the gallows: “I heard him say that he put all his trust in the blood of the Lamb that taketh away the sins of the world.” And after making his final statement in the execution hall, he turned to the chaplain and said: “I’ll see you again.”
Keitel, who was next, told Gerecke: “I thank you, and those who sent you, with all my heart.”
The chaplain had been unable to get close to Wilhelm Frick, Reich Minister of the Interior and Protector of Occupied Czechoslovakia. But just before he was led out to die, he announced: “I’ve got something to tell you.” He said he believed that the blood of Jesus had washed away his sins.
Hans Frank, Governor-General of Poland, who had returned to the Roman Catholic Church and who satisfied O’Connor with a sincere repentance, thanked the prison colonel for all his kindness, declaring from the scaffold: “I pray to God to take my soul. May the Lord receive me mercifully.”
Albert Speer spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, Berlin, during which time he read and studied 18 large volumes of theology.
Gerecke died on October 11 1961, 15 years to the day after arriving in Nuremberg. As chaplain to Illinois State Penitentiary, he collapsed at the prison gates on his way to take the Bible class. The inmates took the news very badly and even the most hardened among them asked to be allowed to see his body one more time. Their request was granted and more than 800 convicts filed past the coffin.
The book ends with this thought: perhaps Hermann Goring did hear the Scriptures Henry Gerecke spoke in his ear as he was dying, and repented as a result. Who knows? One thing is sure, however – Jesus Christ is only a prayer away.
In re-telling this story, even 75 years on, I am very conscious that it will be deemed highly offensive to many, especially those who have suffered at the hands of such monsters. But even the great prophet Jonah was angry with God for showing mercy to the people of Nineveh – as wicked in many ways as the Nazis – after they repented.
The story made a huge impact on me when I first heard it from the late David Pawson 40 years ago. I later met the author of the book, a pastor from Cleethorpes on the Lincolnshire coast whom I subsequently befriended and who came to preach at our church in Yorkshire.
The price I paid for my second-hand copy was well worth it if a new generation is thus helped to grasp the enormous price Jesus paid for all who acknowledge their sin.
As a young lady preacher, Becky Murray, said on TBN UK television last week2: “It’s not perfect people who go to heaven – just forgiven people.”
1Literally Schutzstaffel (Hitler’s brutal Storm Troopers)
2TBN UK, 28th January 2021