The Unknown Nazi Who Saved 1,200 Jews

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Karl Plagge: Nazi who saved Jews

(January 15, 2019 / KDJ) Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, there are still, amazingly, stories that trickle out now and again – great inspiring stories of survival, heroism, and ones that add to our better understanding of this tremendous tragedy.

A new narrative has surfaced that honours the courage of an unlikely righteous gentile.

This true story was about an unknown Schindler-type character, Nazi Major Karl Plagge, who oversaw a military vehicle repair complex that was used as cover to save 1,257 Jews in Vilnius (Vilna.) The Good Nazi, a documentary on the topic, will air on Vision TV January 21 and again April 29.

In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Professor Richard Freund from University of Hartford to tell him a miraculous story of the Holocaust – a story that very few people know.

Good described how his father, mother and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at length in his 2006 book, “The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews”.

Though Freund works within a department renown for their Holocaust studies, and it was indeed an interesting story, nothing further became of that meeting.

That is, until a decade later, in 2015.

By this time, Freund had already directed six archaeological projects in Israel, and three projects in Europe on behalf of the university including: Qumran, Nazareth, Yavne, as well as a research project at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. Six books on archaeology and two books on Jewish ethics bear his authorship.

Freund at this point was in Lithuania doing research on a Holocaust escape tunnel, adjacent to the Great Synagogue of Vilna. He and his team brought with them expensive, specialized apparatus that enabled non-invasive examinations of ground and walls.

He made it known that he had technologically advanced equipment available in the region, in the event anyone needed it for their own research. The Vilna Jewish State Museum came calling, and brought him to a site on the outskirts of Vilna, where he was told one Major Karl Plagge saved 1,257 Jews.

“I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Karl Plagge? I know that name!’”

Freund was able to connect with Survivor Sidney Handler – who was ten years old when he hid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the Nazis left in July, 1944, Handler been forced to move dead bodies, and could point out decades later where they were buried.

The two men met in Lithuania. Handler showed where the hiding spaces were, as well as the locations of the graves of 400 Jews who were shot on the grounds in 1944.

“We could have gone through the entire 20 acres and not located exactly where that was,” noted Freund. “To have real live people tell you exactly where things went down is very unusual.”

The right type of non-invasive technology must be used to peer through buildings and earth, in order not to tamper with either. Utilizing sophisticated scanners, thermal cameras, ground penetrating radar, and other methods, Freund’s team was able to discover and record the various hiding places – also called malinas – within the buildings.

Ground-Penetrating Radar research at HKP

What Are Malinas?

With Plagge’s consent, Jews had built these malinas in building crevices, behind the walls, to keep out of sight when Nazis came to “liquidate” the complex.

Thanks to this advanced equipment, layered photographic maps have been created, outlining in rich detail what can’t be seen with the eyes – a new kind of eye-witness testament to history.

This scanning technology was made available from the Canadian gas and oil giant WorleyParsons in Calgary, Paul Bauman and Alastair McClymont, and Advisian.

Photogrammetry of the HKP Site

Freund reached out to award-winning documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, with whom he worked on other projects previously, and described how important it was to document the site, the story, and reveal it to the world.

“I had never heard of Karl Plagge,” Jacobovici explained.

To which Freund responded: “That’s the problem.”

“I realized this was going to be not only a great archeological and geo-science project we could do together, but this would also make a great documentary. It is how science and humanities combined,” said Freund, who is the Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and Greenberg Professor of Jewish History.

The garage – or repair shop – was dubbed HKP, on Subocz Street just outside Vilnius.

It is said to be the only place in the world that a Holocaust-related labor camp has been left exactly as on the day the Soviets marched into Lithuania.

Ironically, the indifference and coldness of communism saved these dilapidated buildings from any interference. Until recently, people had been living in those two six-floor buildings, with 216 apartments.

However, things were made all the more pressing, when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers were going to plow the site, imminently. In January of 2018, Jacobovici took a film crew and photographic crew, to shoot HKP, before it was doomed for destruction.

At least the good news is, the story will live on. The documentary, The Good Nazi, co-directed by Ric Esther Bienstock and Yaron Niski, be airing on Vision TV January 21, and again April 29. (The film’s Executive Producers are Simcha Jacobovici and Felix Golubev)

Also, on January 19 at 7:30pm, the film will be screened at the BAYT synagogue in Thornhill, Ontario, with Bienstock in attendance to introduce the film, and answer Q&A afterwards.

The Turning of Karl Plagge

In 1941, Karl Plagge was placed in command of the HKP562, a unit responsible for repairs of military vehicles damaged on the Eastern front. By that summer, the mass executions of Jews in Vilna were in full swing, and continued unabated for the next three years.

But Plagge experienced something of a pang of conscience – all of this is not what he signed on for.

“When he saw that none of this was about ‘German nationalism’, he realized he was being sold a pack of terrible lies – lies to justify murder. That somebody can say ‘I was wrong, deadly wrong,’ and look inside themselves without making excuses; that someone can be human in the most inhuman circumstances,” noted Jacobovici.

He made the courageous decision to leverage his unique position, and use Jews as ‘slave labor’ for HKP, pleading the case to his superiors that if Jews don’t work there, there’ll be no one to fix these vehicles.

“It would have been easy to say to himself, ‘I can’t do anything about this. I’m just a small cog. I could be killed if I resist.’ Instead, he made it his project to save as many Jews as he could in Vilna, using his status as a German officer,” explained Jacobovici.

In fact, he further insisted that the labor done was so specialized, that it required training, and it would counterproductive for all involved to kill these Jews after they’ve received this training, only for more training to be necessary with others.

This wasn’t simplistic work, he is said to have argued, like shoveling coal from one side to another, that anyone’s capable of doing, and anyone could be “replaced” at any time.

Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews were actually knowledgeable in fixing cars; some were accountants, lawyers, hairdressers, academics, cooks and senior citizens.

They all learned various HKP tasks on the job. And he somehow convinced the Nazi SS every single one of them were necessary for HKP.

Plagge’s ingenuity didn’t stop there. There were even times when they didn’t have cars to fix, so they purposefully damaged them, then fixed them, in order that HKP could keep running.

He put himself at risk even further when being adamant that entire families be housed within the complex, maintaining that workers would not be able to focus if all they were doing is weeping for their murdered wives and children. The SS bought the ruse.

As our famous phrase goes, “it would have been enough” if all Plagge did was build this island of safety, but he went above and beyond to provide extra food, and hot meals, when all they would have had otherwise were meager rations. When the weather turned cold, he gave his workers more clothing and firewood; when they were ailing, he gave them medicine. This is despite wartime scarcity of basic necessities.

Additionally, he allowed his workers to trade food between local non-Jews (though this was illegal), in order that food could be smuggled across the Jewish ghetto.

In yet another example of hidden heroism, Plagge himself transferred a sick Jewish worker to a hospital that only permitted non-Jews – and it is where she was able to stay until the Nazis surrendered. He intervened yet again, arranging to fake the beatings of two people to keep them from being seized, and killed, by the SS.

The Last Warning

Even though the entire charade was met with a barely-tolerated wink and nod by Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (correct) hunch, on his end, that Nazis’ patience would eventually wear thin. And he was right.

“No, they weren’t clueless: The SS knew what he was up to, but a lot of people were willing to go along with him because he was doing his job, and they were just waiting to get him later,” said Jacobovici.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, had in the summer of 1943 announced he wanted every Jew in Eastern Europe eliminated – irrespective of whether they were working for the war effort in a work camp. This was an order from on high that Estonian SS troops took seriously, and in September 1943, a hundred Jewish workers at HKP were captured, destined for death. Fortunately, Plagge stepped in and had them removed from the train, but they were once again seized.  

Seven months later on March 27, 1944, the SS ambushed HKP, opportunistically when Plagge left to visit family in Germany. Called the Kinder Aktion (“Children Operation”), the Nazis rounded up more than two hundred children – again destined for deportation to death camps or execution.

Ahead of any further, and inevitable, Nazi surprise attacks, workers – with Plagge’s approval – carved out hiding spaces (malinas) in the walls of the buildings, and in attic rafters.

HiRez Maline Sketch – a sketch of the barracks and the malines – the behind-walls hide-outs the Jews used in order not to be caught by Nazi

As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer edge of Vilna in June of 1944, it was a sign that the allies were closer to victory. The good news was tempered with fear, because it also meant, however, the Nazis were to step up the Final Solution.

With this insider information, Plagge on July 1, 1944, made an impromptu announcement in front of an SS commander, and the Jewish workers, who gathered to listen carefully. He explained that his unit was being transferred westbound, and though he requested his laborers to be able to join, his superiors wouldn’t permit it.

Nevertheless, he assured his workers they need not be concerned, as two days later they too would be transferred, with the assistance of the Nazi SS – which, as they were very aware, was “an organization devoted to the protection of refugees.”

All of this was code, of course, for the Jewish prisoners to take cover, ahead of the Nazi death squads due to arrive 48 hours hence. Roughly half of the workers – some 500 of them – hid away in malinas, or ran from the camp; while others decided to stay for reasons of their own.

When the Nazi troops took over the camp, 500 Jewish workers appeared for roll call, and subsequently taken to the Paneriai forest, where they were killed. It took the Nazis three more days to comb the camp and the surrounding area for any survivors, eventually finding roughly two hundred Jews hiding, all of whom were dragged to HKP’s courtyard, and shot.

When the Soviets finally took over Vilnius later that week, approximately 250 of HKP’s Jews in hiding emerged. They were among the very few Jews in the city who survived, as about 110,000 of Vilna’s Jews were caught by the Nazis.

Post-War

When the war was over, Karl Plagge returned home to Darmstadt, Germany, where for the next two years he lived quietly, until he was brought to court as a former Nazi. Somehow, word traveled to a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart – a three hour drive away – where many survivors of HKP had ended up. In an effort to come to Plagge’s defense, the survivors sent one of their own as a representative, unannounced, to testify to the court in the hopes that the charges would be overturned.

Indeed, this testimony resulted in a favorable judgment, of Plagge receiving the status of an exonerated person; however, his wish was that he be classified instead as a “follower.”

He described such humility of character in a letter many years later. Shortly before his death, Plagge in 1957 wrote to a friend the following: “I never felt that this needed special courage. It required only the conviction and strength that anyone can draw from the depth of moral feelings that exists in all humans.”

Karl Plagge in the 1950’s

In 2005, after evidence and survivor testimony, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial posthumously bestowed the title “Righteous Among the Nations” on Plagge. Of the roughly 21,000 honorees to date, only 410 are German, and only a few were Nazis.

In recent years, Plagge was honored by his own town, with a bust in the schoolyard of the Ludwig-Georgs-Gymnasium, a high school.

As well, his name is on an award given annually to students in Lithuania, who study Jewish Lithuanian history more than required by the curriculum. It is paid for by the Plagge family, friends of the Plagges, and supported by the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Science.

Today’s Discoveries

Lately, more survivors of HKP have been contacted, and reunited, thanks to the work of those involved in bringing the story to the fore.

Jacobovici met one survivor in particular who recalls a friend in the camp, frozen with fear on a staircase, unable to move and hide, as the Nazis came marching in. The survivor had been racked with guilt all these years, for not dragging his friend into a hiding place. Quite talented in art, as the survivor recalled, the boy on the stairs might have gone on to be influential in his field.

The thing is, he did. Samuel Bak not only survived, but is well known in his own right. And as luck would have it, Jacobovici’s wife had studied his work.

It was Dr. Michael Goode who found out that they are alive, and helped them reconnect.

As for Bak’s work, Jacobovici says: “They are hauntingly infused with his experiences at HKP. There are certain themes, over and over again – a little boy with his hands up. There’s so much rich, powerful stuff, and it’s so uplifting that you can be a human being in the darkest, inhuman of circumstance.”

Through various strokes of luck and miracles, Plagge can now be rightly honored for his various acts of courage.

“It really is one of the great Holocaust stories that is not known. There were people who stood up. Their resistance was not always the kind where you get a gun and shoot people,” explained Freund. “But the results are, his group is the largest group of Jews that survived the Holocaust in Vilna.”

Jacobovici believes there is even a broader message.

“First of all, we are in a wave of new anti-Semitism that is sweeping the world. The whole world, not just Europe. It’s back and it’s bad and it’s unashamed. You can be a ‘hip’ person, perceived as cool, and be a disgusting anti-Semite,” he says. “Karl Plagge risked everything, and there’s no reason we can’t speak out ourselves, against the evils of anti-Semitism.”

Memorial at HKP