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Veteran continues mission to relay horrors of WWII to new generation

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By TJ Jerke, Associated Press
July 28, 2011

WILLMAR — After he pledged to speak 400 times in 20 years about the horrors of World War II, Larry Tillemans hit his mark June 2. He continued his mission Wednesday afternoon at the Willmar Rotary Club meeting with his 408th speaking event.

Tillemans, of St. Joseph, spoke to a crowd of more than 100 in Willmar about his time in the service and the year he spent working in the courtroom as a clerk typist during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1945.

“There is nobody left to talk about it,” the 85-year-old Tillemans said. “You can’t deny if there is somebody who has seen it — it carries a little more weight.”

Tillemans sat through “the trial of the century” in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1946 as 24 high-ranking officers of the Nazi party were tried in a series of trials for alleged war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity.

Tillemans said 360 witnesses took the stand during the 218 days that led to the convictions and eventual executions for some of the men who gave the orders to kill more than 10 million men, women and children.

“It was an eerie feeling for a 19-year-old kid walking in front of that group of guys,” Tillemans told the crowd Wednesday at the Kandi Entertainment Center.

A 1944 graduate of Minneota High School, Tilleman, standing at 5 feet 9 inches tall weighing 145 pounds, told the Army he could type 42 words per minute and was soon assigned to the Third Army stationed in Dachau, Germany.

After the war, about 1,000 soldiers from the Third Army were sent to help at the trials — 20 of them as typists.

But it wasn’t until 1991 when Tillemans got the call to begin his journey across Minnesota to help teach others about what took place during the Holocaust.

While spending one month in the Otter Tail County Jail for drunken driving, Tillemans said he had a vision of a Catholic priest who risked his life helping prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp.

Motivated by the priest, Tilleman quit drinking and pledged to speak 400 times because he said people should not forget and he was discouraged that schools teach very little about the war.

He has spoken at prisons, churches and many schools over the last 20 years. He said because of the graphic photos of dead and severely starved Jewish prisoners and the religious context he uses, that he has to tame down some of his school presentations, “and that disappoints me,” he said.

“Everybody needs to know what took place,” Tillemans said.

Tillemans, who spoke twice a week for 20 years, hit his 400th presentation on June 2 in Paynesville and will be in St. Paul today speaking to Jewish organizations about his experience during the war trials.

“What I get most out of it is being able to tell people about the horrors of war and the concentration camps,” Tillemans said. “I really hope people don’t forget.”