Minnesotan typist during Nazi trials shares his story
When he was 19, Minnesota native Larry Tillemans enlisted in the Army and was sent to Germany. It was 1945 and World War II had just ended. He landed in Nuremburg as Allied forces were preparing to prosecute Nazi officers for wartime atrocities committed against millions of Jews and other minorities.
Tillemans, who said he didn’t know much about the Holocaust before arriving in Germany, was assigned the job of clerk typist. He documented statements by Jewish prisoners who survived the Holocaust and later sat in the Nuremberg courtroom for the trials of people like Hans Frank, a Nazi lawyer found to be directly involved in the mass murder of Polish citizens.
A former Little Marais resident teamed up with another Minnesota producer to make a documentary about Tillemans and the film will be shown on Sunday in Silver Bay, with support from the Northern Lake County Arts Board.
“This was very organic,” recalled David Klassen, the film’s co-producer who said that he knew the account would make a good documentary when he first spoke with Tillemans. “It existed. It just required a storytelling touch.”
Tillemans, now 87, lives in an assisted living home in Sartell, Minn. For the last 20 years, he has made it his mission to share his story wherever he can. He estimates that he’s spoken before more than 25,000 people.
“We must never forget the Holocaust,” he told the News-Chronicle.
As a 19-year-old sergeant in the U.S. 3rd Army, Tillemans transcribed the stories of prisoners who were beaten, starved and made to watch their friends and family members march into gas chambers where they were poisoned en masse. The victims included Jewish prisoners from all of Europe along with Roma, gay men and lesbians, resistance fighters, people with disabilities and thousands more.
“I was very impressionable,” Tillemans remembers. “I cried many nights because I was so upset reading about the horror they went through.”
He said he knew nothing of the concentration and death camps before typing the statements and that reading the accounts had a profound effect on him.
“They told of the horrors of those camps where they were starved and gassed,” he said. “We really didn’t know … that there were death camps, even.”
Though his work was done outside the courtroom, he attended some of the trial, watching as his typed accounts helped convict Nazi war criminals. Tillemans described the revulsion he felt while sitting in that courtroom.
“I had a lot of hate. I had hate for them for many years,” he said.
Through his devout Catholic faith, he said he eventually let go of the hatred, but he said he believes the Nazis paid the price for their crimes.
“I’m sure they were judged, all right,” he said.
In total, 24 men were indicted for their crimes; 19 were convicted in the Nuremberg trials, with 12 being sentenced to death by hanging. Tillemans recalled eating in the mess hall with the executioner, Master Sergeant John C. Woods.
“I asked John, ‘Did any of them show any remorse?’” Tillemans said. “And he said, ‘Not a one.’”
Klassen, the co-producer of the documentary, said a firsthand account of the Holocaust is an effective way to teach younger Americans about the horrors suffered by millions of people. He said he hopes his documentary will drive home the importance of educating students about uncomfortable topics such as genocide and “ethnic cleansing.”
“The take home is that genocide and racism are flourishing all the time … and if the rule of law is lost, you can find yourself on the wrong side of the divide,” he said.
Kathy Swendsen, the vice president of the Northern Lake County Arts Board, said the nonprofit board was excited when Klassen approached them about screening the film.
“We looked at it and said, ‘Absolutely. It’s such an amazing story,’” she said. “We’re losing the ability to hear stories from World War II vets.”
The documentary will be shown free of charge on Sunday with a Q&A with Klassen following the film. The film will also be shown at Temple Israel in Duluth on Saturday. The film has been picked up by PBS and will be shown nationwide on public television affiliates and is also available on YouTube.
Klassen said that the more people who see the documentary, the better.
“I’d like this world to be a little less exclusive when I leave it than it was when I got here,” he said.
If you go
Screening of “The Typist”
- William Kelley School Auditorium, Silver Bay
- Sunday, April 27, 2 p.m.
- Q&A with co-producer David Klassen after the film