“I wasn’t a hero. I just did my duty. Alas, it wasn’t enough.” (Karl Plagge)
Karl Plagge was born in Darmstadt, the son of a doctor. Following high school, he served in World War One 1916-1918, including battles at Verdun and at the Somme. He was taken POW by the British, from which he returned to Darmstadt in 1919, with a case of polio that made him limp for the rest of his life. As the money for medical school was lacking, he studied engineering at the local technical college. He worked in various jobs until in 1933 he was hired as a consulting engineer by the Hessenwerke machine factory.
At first he was a fairly enthusiastic follower of Hitler (y”sh), joining the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party, “the Nazis”) in 1931, in the hope it could put an end to the economic ravages of the Great Depression. He became disaffected once the Nazis started enacting racial discrimination laws, however, but kept up his party membership as a “beard”: Hessenwerke’s owner had a (half?-)Jewish wife, and took “the Nazi old fighter” Plagge in as a businesspartner for protection.
At the outbreak of the war he was drafted into the Wehrmacht engineering corps. After the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, he found himself in Wilna (Lithuanian: Vilnius) as the commanding officer of HKP 562: The acronym stands for Heereskraftfahrpark, literally: army motor vehicle park, idiomatically: army motor vehicle repair and maintenance shop.
At that time, Wilna’s population was 53% Polish, 41% Jewish, and about 6% Lithuanian. (Napoleon called it the “Jerusalem of the North”.) Under Nazi occupation, it became part of Reichskommisariat Ostland, and soon the Einsatzkommandos started their grisly murder work (with the help of some local collaborators).
Plagge was appalled at this, and (somewhat similarly to his colleague Albert Battel in Przemysl, whose story I have covered here previously) started staffing his repair shop with ever-increasing numbers of Jewish workers, who then were exempt from “deportation” (read: a short trip to the nearest killing ditch). He argued to his superiors that his “essential” workers would be “better motivated” if they were allowed to keep their families with them, and got permission to do so. Over 1,200 people stayed at his camp at various times.
Plagge exploited the rivalry (and turf wars) between the Wehrmacht and the SS to the max. Instead of the usual starvation rations, he insisted his workers be properly fed, and additionally tolerated black market transactions. He was unable to protect all his workers, though he and the like-minded subordinates he had surrounded himself with intervened a number of times to pull workers out of transports. To facilitate this, at one point he transferred the HKP 562 work camp to an apartment complex (then) outside the city proper. He engaged two clothing manufacturers to set up repair shops there to provide employment (and hence, deportation exemptions) for the older children and wives, and even ran an angora rabbit farm there. Some 250 children were dragged out by the SS and executed during a Kinderaktion while he was one family leave.
As the Red Army started approaching, it was obvious the camp was going to be liquidated. Plagge warned the prisoners, who dug out a number of hiding places inside the complex. There, about 250 of them hid between the liquidation Aktion and the arrival of the Red Army, and thus survived the Shoah.
Plagge had no idea that any of them had survived — he found out during his postwar denazification trial, when several survivors living in Displaced Persons camps in Germany interceded for him. These trials classified people on a scale from 1 “Major war criminal” to 5 “Exonerated”: Plagge, as the commander of a labor camp, had expected at least a 2 or 3, but on the strength of the testimony on his behalf, was classified level 4, Mitläufer (fellow traveler): he himself said he did not deserve exoneration.
In 1999, HKP 562 survivor Pearl Good and her son Michael Good started investigating Plagge’s story, aiming to submit his case for recognition as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem. At first, the request was declined on the grounds there was no proof that Plagge acted at risk to himself. (The latter was belied by the case of Feldwebel (first sergeant) Anton Schmid, who was shot by firing squad on April 13, 1942 for assisting Wilna Jews.[*]) Then more evidence came in, from Plagge’s correspondence, and eventually in 2005 Major Karl Plagge was duly recognized as a Tzadik umot ha-Olam. Michael Good expanded his evidence into this book.
The HistoryHit Timeline team just uploaded this fascinating documentary, which details the search for archeological evidence of mass killings and hidings places at the location of HKP 562. Several HKP 562 survivors visit the site in person and tell their personal stories, and assist the team with finding the “malinot” (hiding places) where they escaped the SS butchers.
According to Wikipedia:
In a letter to a Jewish lawyer, R. Strauss, dated 26 April 1956, Plagge compared himself to Dr. Rieux, a character in Albert Camus‘s novel The Plague. In the novel, which was written while Camus was living under Nazi occupation in France, Rieux risks his life to save people from the plague, but his efforts cannot save very many people and often appear useless. Like Plagge, Rieux does not see himself as a hero.
Yet is written in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a; later quoted in Sura 5 of the Koran) that whosoever saves one life, it is as if they saved an entire world.
[*] 1Sgt. Anton Schmid has been a Righteous Among The Nations since 1967; his name had first been heard in Israel from Wilna resistance leader (and later Israeli poet) Abba Kovner during his testimony at the Eichmann Trial.