Karl Plagge knew that he was courting death at every turn by protecting Jews from the SS, but he couldn’t care less. An engineer by profession, Plagge joined the Nazi Party but later left after he became disgusted with the group’s racist ideology. After the war broke out, he was assigned to head an army vehicle repair unit in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. In a period marked by extermination campaigns conducted by the SS, Plagge moved quickly to save as many Jews as possible.
Major Karl Plagge (July 10, 1897, in Darmstadt — June 19, 1957 in Darmstadt) was a Wehrmacht officer, engineer and Nazi Party member who during World War II used his position as a staff officer in the Heer (Army) to employ and protect some 1,240 Jews — 500 men, the others women and children, in order to give them a better chance to survive the nearly total annihilation of Lithuania’s Jews that took place between 1941–1944.
Plagge, a veteran of World War I, was initially drawn to the promises of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to rebuild the German economy and national pride during the difficult years that Germany experienced after the signing of the Versailles Treaty.
He joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and worked to further its stated goals of national rejuvenation. However, he began to come into conflict with the local party leadership over his refusal to teach Nazi racial theories, which, as a man of science, he did not believe. His continued refusal to espouse the Nazi racial teachings led to accusations that he was a “friend of Jews and Freemasons” by the local Darmstadt Nazi leadership in 1935, and he was removed from his leadership positions in the local party apparatus.
Plagge graduated from the Technical University of Darmstadt in 1924 with a degree in engineering. On being drafted into the Heer at the beginning of World War II, he was put in command of an engineering unit, Heereskraftfahrpark 562 (“Army Vehicle Park 562”; HKP 562), which maintained and repaired military vehicles.
In July 1941, during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, HKP 562 was deployed to Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Plagge soon witnessed the genocide being carried out against the Jews of the area. Plagge would later testify that “I saw unbelievable things that I could not support…it was then that I began to work against the Nazis”
Plagge, as a German, felt responsible for some of the horrors he witnessed and felt compelled to work against the genocidal machine. He did what he could to help some of Vilnius’ beleaguered Jews 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 children from the SS sweeps carried out in the Vilna Ghetto in which Jews without work papers were captured and killed at the nearby Paneriai (Ponary) execution grounds.
Plagge conscripted as many Jewish men as he could and with a straight face told the SS that they were all skilled mechanics (they weren’t). Miraculously, he also managed to convince the SS to let them bring their wives and children into the camp, as their presence could boost work production. Inside the camp, he treated his laborers well and often found ways to undermine the ever-watchful SS.
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 caught by the Gestapo. They were publicly executed in the camp courtyard in front of the other prisoners. On March 27, 1944, while Plagge was away on home leave in Germany, the SS carried out a Kinder Aktion (“Children Operation”). They entered the camp, rounded up the vast majority of the camp’s 250 children and then transported them away from the camp to be killed (most likely at the killing grounds of Paneriai (Ponary). Thus both Plagge, his subordinates and the prisoners understood that ultimately the SS would decide the fate of the camp’s Jews.
Plagge’s most brazen moves came in 1944, when the Germans found themselves being driven back by the Soviets. Plagge knew that the SS would try to kill everyone at the camp before they evacuated, so he told his workers:
“You will be escorted during this evacuation by the SS which, as you know, is an organization devoted to the protection of refugees. Thus, there’s nothing to worry about…”
They got the hint and most managed to escape before the SS arrived the next day.
Mass executions in Vilnius (Vilna) and environs were carried out primarily in the Ponary massacre over the period between July 1941 and August 1944, in which 110,000 people were murdered. About 70,000 of these people were Jews of Lithuanian or other nationality; others were deported to Nazi extermination camps. Plagge tried to spare as many as he could from this by purposely recruiting Jews instead of Poles for labor. His success 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 about 900 – 1000 of Plagge’s 1,250[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 survival rate of about 20–25% among those he hired compared with the much lower rate of 3–5% — virtual annihilation — among the rest of Lithuania’s Jews. The 250 to 300 surviving Jews of the HKP camp constituted the largest single group of survivors of the genocide 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 with the character of Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague and describes his hopeless struggle against a plague of death that slowly envelops the inhabitants of his city.
After the war, Karl Plagge returned home to Darmstadt, Germany, where he was tried in 1947 as part of the postwar denazification process. Some of his former prisoners were in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart and heard of the charges against him. They sent a representative, on their own initiative and unannounced, to testify on his behalf, and this testimony influenced the trial result in Plagge’s favor.The court wanted to award Plagge the status of an Entlasteter (“exonerated person”) but on his own wish he was classified as a Mitläufer (“follower”). Like Oskar Schindler, Plagge blamed himself for not having done enough. After the trial Plagge lived the final decade of his life quietly and without fanfare before dying in Darmstadt in June 1957.
In April 2005 the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial posthumously bestowed the title “Righteous Among the Nations” on Plagge.
In February 2006 the former Frankensteinkaserne, a Bundeswehr base in Pfungstadt, Germany, was renamed the Karl-Plagge-Kaserne.
A bust of Plagge was placed in the schoolyard of the Ludwig-Georgs-Gymnasium in Darmstadt, the oldest establishment of secondary higher education in the city.
A street in Darmstadt was named in honour of Plagge.
Survivor Pearl Good(the picture of the old lady in front of the memorial is also Pearl Good), made the following statement about Plagge’s actions:
“My Father had worked in the HKP workshop even before we were put into the ghetto and his Facharbeiter Schein had saved him from the “Khapuny –the grabbers.
After we were put into the ghetto on September 6th, 1941, Father would be let out of the ghetto daily and march to work at the H.K.P. work-shops. Father’s “gele schein” –“skilled worker” yellow life certificate from HKP (even though my Father was far from skilled) saved us and kept us alive until September 1943 and the “Four Days” Aktzye to Estonia when the HKP schein could not protect us any more.
Major Plagge went to the station and ordered his workers and their families off the train to the slate mines and gave them military protection; however, the highest SD officer ordered the military guard to bring them back to the train. Afterwards there was a serious clash between Plagge and the SD officer, Plagge was furious and desperate.