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Righteous Gentiles - Karl Plagge

Karl Plagge

An Unlikely Hero



Karl Plagge

Prior to the Nazis coming to power, engineer Karl Plagge had joined the National Socialist Part because, as he said, he believed in Hitler’s social promises and economic prosperity. 

Born on July 10, 1897, in Darmstadt, Germany  Plagge graduated from the Technical University of Darmstadt in 1924 with a degree in engineering. Upon being drafted into the Wehrmacht at the beginning of World War II, he was put in command of an engineering unit, HKP562, whose duties involved repairing military vehicles damaged on the eastern front.

Plagge and his unit arrived in Vilnius (Vilna) in July 1941 and soon witnessed the genocide being carried out against the Jews of the area. Plagge, as a German, felt responsible for some of the horrors he witnessed and felt compelled to work against the genocidal machine. He decided to do what he could to help some of Vilnius’s beleaguered Jews.

No one will ever know exactly how many Jewish lives Plagge saved or how many (indirectly) he was able to protect, probably several hundred.  Over the years he took as many prisoners as he could to work for him.  Witnesses attest that he freed many prisoners from the SS this way.

Executions in Vilnius and environs occurred primarily at the Ponary mass-execution site, where 110,000 people where murdered.  About 70,000 of these people were Jews of Lithuanian and other nationality; yet others were deported to Nazi extermination camps. Plagge attempted to spare as many as he could from this fate by purposely recruiting Jews instead of Poles for labor. 

Corpses scattered at the shooting pits of Ponary

His success, however, was only partial: His unit had to retreat, thereby removing the slave-labor framework that had protected them until that point. The SS ultimately succeeded in murdering approximately 900-1000 of Plagge’s 1250 slave-laborers between the Kinder-Aktion and the final liquidation of the camp.

The success of Plagge’s efforts to save Jews is manifested through a death rate of approximately 78% among those he hired compared to the much higher rate of 96%—virtual annihilation—found among the rest of Lithuania's Jews. The 250-300 surviving Jews of the HKP camp constituted the largest single group of survivors of the Holocaust in Vilnius.

Plagge’s efforts are corroborated by survivor testimony, historical documents found in Germany and Plagge’s own testimony found in a letter he wrote in 1957, a year before his death. In this letter he compares himself to the character of Dr. Rieux in Camus’s story of the Plague and describes his hopeless struggle against a Plague of death that slowly envelops the inhabitants of his city.

Guards outside the HKP camp on Subocz St.

No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite"                 [Excerpt from The Plague by Albert Camus]

In September 1943 it became apparent to Plagge that the Vilna Ghetto was soon to be liquidated: all the remaining Jews in the ghetto were to be taken by the SS, regardless of any working papers they had. During this crucial period Plagge made extraordinary bureaucratic efforts to form a free standing HKP 562 Slave Labor Camp on Subocz Street on the outskirts of Vilnius.

Alfred Stumpff, First Lieutenant under Plagge in the HKP said: 

“Mr. Plagge had taken a large number of Jews for jobs that were neither useful nor necessary.  There were, for example, Jews as hairdressers, shoemaker, tailor, kitchen personnel, Jewish women and girls to work in the garden, even a Jewish doctor to oversee the health condition of civilian workers.   From the outside looking in these skilled workers were able to be camouflaged as motor-vehicle workers.

He did this by giving work certificates to Jewish men, certifying them as essential and skilled workers regardless of their actual backgrounds. This kind of work permit protected the worker, his wife and two of his children from the SS sweeps carried out in the Vilna Ghetto in which Jews without work papers were captured and killed at Ponary."

The severe conditions in HKP camp were relatively benign, compared to appalling conditions in the Ghetto, with tolerable work conditions, and food at sustenance levels. Plagge ordered respectful treatment of the slave laborers, which resulted in reduced abuse by the men of his unit and the Lithuanian police who guarded the camp. In spite of the general benevolence of Plagge and some of his men, the SS controlled the ultimate fate of the HKP laborers.

The SS entered the camp on two occasions to commit atrocities, before finally liquidating most of the Jewish laborers in July 1944, shortly before the German retreat out of Vilnius. In November 1943, a Jewish prisoner named David Zalkind, his wife, and child attempted to escape from the camp and were captured by the Gestapo. They were publicly executed in the camp courtyard in front of the other prisoners.

A letter from Plagge to SS Ghetto administrators justifying his need for Jewish women and children to remain at the Subocz St. camp:

Read more here: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/survivor/plagge.html

The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team


Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

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