The Rev. Eric W. Gritsch, a prominent Lutheran theologian, educator and author whose teaching career at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa., spanned more than three decades, died Dec. 29 at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center of complications from an infection.
The longtime Canton resident was 81.
Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary called Dr. Gritsch, "one of the giants in 20th-century Lutheranism."
"I am among hundreds of women and men privileged to have sat at his feet during his third of a century as a professor here at Gettysburg Seminary," he said. "Beyond the classroom and campus, during times of crisis over civil rights and the Vietnam War, his prophetic voice taught us what it means to be a 'public theologian.' "
The son a of Lutheran pastor and a homemaker, Eric Walter Gritsch was born in Neuhaus am Klausenbach, Austria, and raised in Bernstein, Austria, where his father had moved to take over a congregation in the town.
When Adolf Hitler annexed Austria on March 13, 1938, Dr. Gritsch and his parents traveled by bus to Vienna.
"From the shoulders of my father I saw Hitler on a platform in the distance, raising his right arm and bellowing into loudspeakers," wrote Dr. Gritsch in his memoir, "The Boy from the Burgenland: From Hitler Youth to Seminary Professor."
"The annexation of Austria was a tragic event. The regime of Hitler 'coordinated' all levels of society into a tyrannical whole. I became estranged from my parents when I became a Hitler Youth at age 10; membership was part of compulsory education," wrote Dr. Gritsch, who rose to pack leader.
When he asked the young man who was in charge of the district what would happen if they ignored orders, he was told, "We will treat them like deserters in the army and shoot them."
"That remark cost me much sleep for a long time and made me meditate about the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after the war. Did they do all those horrible things because they were afraid to be shot if they did not obey orders?" he wrote.
Dr. Gritsch's father, who had been active in an anti-Nazi underground movement, was betrayed by a school principal and was called up for service in the German army.
"I never saw my father again after 1941; my mother discovered by 1948 that her husband had died on a death march as a Russian prisoner of war," he wrote.
By the end of 1944, Dr. Gritsch was sent with other members of the Hitler Youth and older men to the Hungarian border, where they were fed "hay soup" made from grass and lard.
When one young boy refused to eat it, the commandant took out his pistol and killed him.
"I vowed to kill the officer if ever I had a chance," he wrote.
Dr. Gritsch later deserted and took refuge in an abandoned farmhouse and changed out of his uniform to elude capture.
He eventually returned home and resumed his high school education at the Oberschutzen Gymnasium after the war.
Dr. Gritsch earned a degree in 1952 in Protestant theology from the University of Vienna and took additional courses at the universities of Zurich and Basel.
Named a Fulbright scholar, he traveled to Yale University, where he earned a master's degree in 1954 in sacred theology. He completed ministerial studies in Austria and served as vicar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Austria in the Bruck an der Mur.
In 1957, he immigrated to the United States and returned to Yale, where he earned his doctorate in 1960.
While at Yale, he studied with the noted theologian and author, D. H. Richard Niebuhr who was professor of Christian ethics and director of graduate studies, and whose brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, was equally as famous as the author of "The Nature and Destiny of Man."
Dr. Gritsch became a U.S. citizen in 1962, the same year he was ordained into what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
From 1959 to 1961, he taught at Wellesley College, until being called to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, said his wife of 17 years, Bonnie Brobst.
At the seminary, Dr. Gritsch taught church history and Reformation studies until retiring in 1994.
"Generations of seminary students were formed by his outstanding teaching and scholarship, his deep love for the Gospel and church, not least of all by his wit, which produced many memorable lines and Gritsch-isms," Ms. Brobst said.
He was co-author, with Robert Jenson, of "Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings."
"It was likely the most influential book for a generation of Lutheran seminarians and clergy, both at Gettysburg Seminary and across the continent," Ms. Brobst said.
Dr. Gritsch was the first director in 1970 of the seminary's Institute for Luther Studies, which brought prominent international scholars to Gettysburg for a series of scholarly conferences, now known as the Martin Luther Colloquy.
He also lectured at the Catholic University of America and was an adjunct faculty member at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park. He also taught at the Melanchthon Institute in Houston, and was a guest lecturer at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
Dr. Gritsch had served as interim pastor at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore which is at City Hall Plaza, where he was also a member and director of the Forum for German Culture.
He was a member of a numerous Lutheran organizations, some of which included the International Congress for Luther Research from 1964 to 22011; and had been a member of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue in North America from 1970 to 1994.
On the 50th anniversary last fall of his ordination, "Lutheranism, Legacy and Future: Essays in Honor of Eric W. Gritsch," was published. His last book, "Christendumb," will be published this spring.
Dr. Gritsch, who enjoyed keeping in touch with his former students, was an opera buff, gourmet cook and liked traveling.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 2 at his church, 400 E. Lexington St.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by four foster daughters, Patricia Bouthner of Severn, Valerie Adams of San Francisco, Erika Bell of Wichita, Kan., and Debbie Cole of Washington state; and a brother, Gunther Gritsch of Vienna. An earlier marriage to the former Ruth Sandman ended in divorce.