by Dennis Dalman
A lunch at Kay’s Kitchen in St. Joseph three years ago led to a television documentary about a local man renowned for sharing his first-hand knowledge of Nazi war crimes.
Chuck Czech is a producer at KSMQ, the public television station in Austin. When he and his wife stopped at Kay’s Kitchen three years ago, he noticed a flyer on the wall about a public open-house birthday party for a man by the name of Larry Tillemans. The flyer included a few mentions about how Tillemans is one of the only known living survivors of the Nazi war-crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany. Tillemans, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, served as one of the clerk typists at that trial, as well as at the war-crimes trial at Dachau, site of a Nazi death camp.
At Kay’s Kitchen, Czech’s wife noticed her husband’s instant fascination with the flyer. She suggested they should attend the birthday party at Tillemans’ home in St. Joseph. She also suggested he might consider doing a documentary about the man.
After meeting Tillemans, Czech was convinced the man would be the perfect subject for a riveting documentary, made possible by a grant from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment. Czech eventually enlisted the help of David Klassen, a freelancer who co-produced the film with Czech. It took them three years to complete the documentary, entitled “The Typist.”
Two weeks ago, at Country Manor in Sartell, where Tillemans now lives, a virtual “movie premiere” took place with Tillemans as the center of attention. All of Tillemans’ six children, from throughout the nation, gathered with other special guests in Country Manor’s Oak Community Room to watch “The Typist,” a 56-minute tribute to Tillemans. There was rousing applause and even a few tears after the showing.
The movie features scenes of Tillemans talking to audiences, something he has done 450 times in the past 20 years. Talks in schools, service organizations, churches, synagogues, jails and prisons. His basic message, one that he vowed to keep hammering home, is “Never forget!” He was – and is – determined to remind people what happened in Europe during World War II when Hitler’s Nazis were responsible for the vicious and systematic extermination of millions of people.
Tillemans is disgusted some people claim the Holocaust did not exist. One of those deniers is the former leader of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tillemans vividly remembers U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first reactions when his troops came upon the stacks of bodies and the skeletal survivors in the Dachau death camp. Eisenhower insisted German villagers be brought to the camp so they could see the horror of what had happened there. Eisenhower also ordered troops to film and document the horrors because, as he predicted, someday some “S.O.B. is going to say it never happened.”
When Tillemans, who lived in Minneota, was a student in a high-school typing class, he of course had no clue that just a couple years later, he would by typing up page after page of testimony about some of the worst atrocities in the history of the world.
At Nuremberg and Dachau, after typing up transcripts of unimaginably heinous crimes and seeing horrific slides of mass murder at the trials, Tillemans would often go back to his barracks at night and cry, unable to sleep.
“It took me a long time to get over the hate I felt in my heart and my soul and my mind for them doing what they did,” Tillemans said. “You can’t hold that hate in you if you’re a Christian, and later I learned to forgive them.”
But he vowed never to forget what he had read and heard and witnessed.
“Never forget!” became a heartrending plea from all death-camp survivors. And it’s a plea Tillemans took to heart. Using photos, news clippings and memories, he has shared the historical truth of the Holocaust with countless thousands of people. For his untiring efforts, he has won grateful praise from many, including the famed Nazi hunter Eli Rosenbaum, who has spent time getting to know Tillemans.
Rosenbaum, now with the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote a letter to Tillemans after viewing the documentary.
“This stellar documentary . . . will ensure your powerful and crucial messages of tolerance, faith and humanity live on forever. I hope the film becomes a staple of classroom instruction throughout Minnesota, and beyond. Thank you so much for the gift of your inspiring moral leadership and for according me the very high honor of being your friend.”
“The Typist” includes interviews with Tillemans’ family members and with those who have honored him for his tireless work. Another former soldier, Gerry Boe of Crosslake, is also featured in the movie. Boe, who also attended the movie at Country Manor, was a regimental sergeant who helped organize the daily protocol at the war-crimes trials.
One part of the documentary explores the alcoholism Tillemans battled for years until one night in a Fergus Falls jail, he began to pray, inspired by a priest at Dachau who died of disease helping doomed and dying prisoners. After that prayer, Tillemans experienced new strength. Besides his hundreds of talks about the Holocaust, he has given just as many talks about his struggles with alcohol and his strong belief in the power of prayer and of human kindness.
“The Typist” was broadcast for the first time Nov. 20 in southern Minnesota. It will likely be broadcast on public-TV stations throughout Minnesota in the near future. It can also be viewed on YouTube at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEvn5zE6FsY.
About two years ago, Tillemans, who is now 87, sold his house near St. Joseph and – because of some health concerns – moved to Country Manor Villa apartments in Sartell. He lost his wife, Josie, about three years ago. He now suffers from vertebrae problems and, reluctantly, has had to give up his talks. Even in his bouts of illnesses, ailments and pain, Tillemans never complains and, in fact, his family members say his humor and good cheer seem to increase under adversity. He loves to smile, give gentle wisecracks and laugh with a deep-down merriment.
Tillemans sloughed off pain and difficulties.
“It comes with the territory,” he is fond of saying, keeping troubles at bay, accepting whatever comes his way.
He cannot give his talks, anymore, and he accepts that, too, as “part of the territory.” However, he is still eager to share a video of his presentations with anyone who will watch, listen and learn.
Tillemans can be reached at 320-203-7357 or via letter at Larry Tillemans, Country Villa #261, 520 1st St. NE, Sartell, MN 56377.