At 36, Father Richard “Sixtus” O’Connor found himself assigned to the Nuremberg Trials to minister to twenty-one prisoners who had been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Franciscan missionary had been recommended by General George Patton because of his fluency in German and his calming influence on German prisoners captured during the Battle of the Bulge. At that battle, he heard four thousand confessions and was awarded the Bronze Star for “ministering to the wounded and dying…[and ministering] to mentally [disturbed soldiers] incidental to combat,” according to Tim Townsend in his book Mission at Nuremberg.
Few realize that the Chaplaincy Branch of the army suffered the third most combat deaths percentage-wise during WWII—exceeded only by the infantry and army air corps. At Nuremberg, the New York-born clergyman found himself serving alongside Lutheran Minister Henry Gerecke of Missouri who, like O’Connor, was also fluent in German.
Fr. O’Connor Was Fluent in German
O’Connor’s German fluency stemmed from his mother who spoke German—a language he further refined in high school and graduate divinity-philosophy studies at the Universities of Munich and Bonn prior to World War II. He was one of seven children and was ordained in 1934. He became a military chaplain in 1943 and was assigned to General George Patton’s 11th Armored Division and later the 1st Infantry. Gerecke’s fluency came from his grandfather who had emigrated from Germany to St. Louis to work in that city’s breweries.
In April of 1945, Fr. O’Connor and his fellow G. I.s witnessed unimaginable horrors as they liberated their first concentration camps at Mauthausen and Gusen, Austria. There they found 20,000 victims locked in the concentration camp—their SS guards had abandoned the facility days before. Townsend relates the prisoners found were “without access to food, water or facilities…as G.I.s opened….some buildings they found one or two living among the hundreds of dead…between barracks, five hundred bodies were stacked like wood….[and inmates] walking skeletons.” Between May 8th and May 31st of 1945, O’Connor reported that he conducted burial services for 2,911 inmates and gave last rites to another 2,000 patients. Among the concentration camp inmates, he found several Catholic priests and “secured Mass kits for them and with their help arranged…daily and Sunday Mass” at the camps.
Ordered to Nuremberg
In September 1945, Fr. O’Connor was ordered to Nuremberg as the chaplain for the six Catholics amongst the twenty-one Nazi war criminals. The Tribunal found ten guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced them to be executed by hanging. Four of the condemned were Catholics: Hans Frank, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Arthur Seyss-Inquart and Julius Streicher.
Hans Frank served as Nazi Governor-General of Poland. He oversaw the segregation and ghettoization of Polish Jews and operation of several concentration camps including the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex where three million inmates perished. Ernst Kaltenbrunner ran the Nazi security networks (i.e. Gestapo, secret state police; Kripo, state criminal police; and SD, secret intelligence police). He also, ironically, set up the Mauthausen concentration camp—the very one that O’Connor helped liberate. Arthur Seyss-Inquart ordered the confiscation of Jewish property in Austria and sent Jews to concentration camps. Later he was sent to the Netherlands where he followed through with numerous anti-Semitic activities similar to those in Austria. He also oversaw two concentration camps in the Netherlands. Julius Streicher was the principal Nazi publisher and his newspaper dehumanized Jews in Europe which purportedly justified the Holocaust in the Nazi mind.
The Seal of Confession
Chaplain (Capt.) O’Connor never spoke about his experiences at Nuremberg—he couldn’t because of the seal of confession. He did tell one newspaper reporter “all the prisoners, except Albert Rosenberg, accepted religious assistance from one of the chaplains or the other.” Rosenberg was the Nazi theorist who developed Nazi racial theories, the persecution of the Jews. Rosenberg also personally hated Christianity.
The bits and pieces we know about Fr. O’Connor’s Nuremberg experiences come by word of mouth from various individuals whom he met over the years. One of the best sources is Chaplain (Capt.) Gerecke who spoke freely and honestly about his work—giving numerous speeches and interviews. Still, one can’t help but wonder how the two must have felt. Fr. O’Connor had witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust at Mauthausen and Gusen. Likewise, Gerecke had visited Dachau several times and, according to Townsend, “touched the walls of Dachau and his hand came away smeared in blood.” And here they were selected to minister to the Holocaust’s very architects.
The Army had decided that religious ministry should be provided “to do what, as well-meaning people, we should do for their possible spiritual benefit,” wrote Col. Burton Andrus who ran the secret interrogation center code-named “Ashcan” in Mondorf-Les-Bains in south-eastern Luxembourg. The prisoners were also provided with Drs. Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist, and Douglas Kelly, an army psychiatrist. In August the selected twenty-one prisoners were moved to Nuremberg Prison.
On the Day of the Executions
On the day of the actual executions, either O’Connor or Gerecke walked each prisoner, depending on their denomination, one at a time to the gallows. Their job “without forgiving the deeds of those responsible for wiping out six million Jews…[had been to return ] these children of God from darkness to the good of their own light,” wrote Townsend. Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, once a university student of O’Connor, relates that O’Connor told him: “you absolve them of their sins but you don’t absolve them of their actions.”
At 1:39 AM Fr. O’Connor escorted “the haggard giant” Ernst Kaltenbrunner to the gallows who three minutes later, dropped and died.
At 1:52 AM a few hours after he gave him communion, O’Connor escorted the “smiling” Hans Frank to the gallows. At 2:00 AM he gave him a final blessing and forgiveness. Gerecke said he thought Fr. O’Connor “was beginning to crack…nearly fainting from the stress.” Moments later Frank looked at O’Connor and said “May Jesus have mercy on me” as he dropped. O’Connor considered Frank his most successful effort at Nuremberg.
As Fr. O’Connor’s escorted Julius Streicher to the gallows, the ardent Nazi raised his hand in the Nazi salute and yelled “Heil Hitler.” He refused to give his name as required by protocol, causing Father O’Connor to lose his temper screaming in German “For God’s sake, Julius, tell them your name.” Streicher spat at the executioner and yelled, “I am now by God my father.” He dropped at 2:14 AM.
The final man executed was Arthur Seyss-Inquart who dropped 2:45 AM with O’Connor standing next to him. The entire ordeal—the hanging of nine men—took less than two hours. Herman Goering, who was also scheduled to hang, had committed suicide several hours before. Afterwards, Gerecke and O’Connor gave the bodies a “final blessing and O’Connor held a special Mass for mourning,” relates Townsend.
After the war, Fr. O’Connor returned to teaching at his alma mater St. Bonaventure College and Siena College. Eventually, he became chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Siena and then its vice president. Townsend relates that O’Connor enjoyed a nightly cocktail or two and enjoyed placing wagers at Saratoga Race Track. Fr. O’Connor died of a heart attack in his sleep in July of 1983.
Tim Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014)
Father Brian Jordan, OFM, Chaplain at Nuremberg, OSV Newsweekly, September 3, 2013, https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/Story/TabId/2672/ArtMID/13567/ArticleID/10747/Chaplain-at-Nuremberg.aspx
The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps: Providing the Care and Comfort to Soldiers for 239 Years, Soldiers Army Magazine, July 29, 2014, unpaginated http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/tag/sixtus-oconnor/
Tim Townsend, The Amazing Story of U. S. Army Chaplains Who ministered to Nazi Leaders at the Nuremberg Trials 70 years ago today, Washington Post, November 20, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/11/20/the-amazing-story-of-u-s-army-chaplains-who-ministered-to-nazi-leaders-at-the-nuremberg-trials-70-years-ago-today/?utm_term=.7508b2047111
Hans Frank, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Frank#Wartime_career
Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Kaltenbrunner
Sixtus O’Connor, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sixtus_O%27Connor
Arthur Seyss Inquart, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Seyss-Inquart#Head_of_Ostmark_and_Southern_Poland
Julius Streicher, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Streicher#Streicher_in_power
Father Sixtus O’Connor, https://images.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search;_ylt=A86.JyKxhAhaKFAAP0sPxQt.?p=Richard+%E2%80%9CSixtus%E2%80%9D+O%E2%80%99Connor&fr=yhs-adk-adk_sbnt&fr2=piv-web&hspart=adk&hsimp=yhs-adk_sbnt&type=A1#id=0&iurl=http%3A%2F%2Fgraphics8.nytimes.com%2Fimages%2F2013%2F10%2F27%2Fsports%2Fnuremberg2%2Fnuremberg2-jumbo.jpg&action=click
Father Sixtus O’Connor,