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Preserving the past to protect the future ...
 

Maj. Karl Plagge
(1897-1957)

[Photo Credit: Yad Vashem]

Major Karl Plagge served as an officer of the Wermacht in Vilna (Vilnius) from June 1941 to June 1944. While stationed in Vilnius he was in charge of a repair facility for military vehicles (HKP 562), where hundreds of Jews worked. According to the brutal decimation policy adopted by the SS in occupied Lithuania, the first to be slated for extermination were the "unproductive" Jews. Employment at Plagge's HKP unit thus offered a chance for survival. Plagge treated his workers well, and included many people who were not qualified as mechanics to work there in order to save them from deportation; among the Jews of Vilna it was known that if one wanted a chance to survive, the only option was to work in Plagge's plant. In the last days of June 1944, on the eve of the German evacuation of Vilnius, Plagge assembled his Jewish workers and warned them in thinly veiled language that they were going to be handed over to the care of the SS. Some managed to escape and/or hide and some 200 survived. Karl Plagge died in 1957 and was posthumously recognized by the Yad Vashem Committee on July 22, 2004. [Source: Yad Vashem]


60 Years Later, Honoring the German Army Maj. Karl Plagge,
an Unlikely Hero of the Holocaust

 

By ALISON LEIGH COWAN
March 28, 2005

 

DURHAM, Conn., USA, March 24, 2005 -- It took 60 years before they found each other and amassed enough proof to overcome skeptics. But a handful of families who survived the Holocaust are responsible for having a German army officer recognized for saving hundreds of Jews from extermination during World War II.

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Dr. Michael Good of Durham, Connecticut, USA, with a photograph of Maj. Karl Plagge, a German officer to be honored on April 11, 2005 in Jerusalem. [Photo: Douglas Healey]

Leading the campaign has been Dr. Michael Good, a family physician in Connecticut. He says that the officer, Maj. Karl Plagge, saved his mother and seven of her relatives, a story he tells in a new book called "The Search for Major Plagge."

He and members of the other families who persuaded Israel to award the major its highest honor for righteous gentiles say their unlikely hero, who died in 1957 at age 59, took some 1,000 Jews from the Vilna ghetto to the relative shelter of a nearby forced labor camp one week before the ghetto was liquidated in September 1943. The families say that at the camp, which he commanded, Major Plagge sought to keep those prisoners beyond the reach of the SS death squads.

Their campaign to honor Major Plagge was not an easy one. Yad Vashem, the authority Israel created to remember the Holocaust, twice rejected their requests with little explanation.

Now, on the strength of additional evidence submitted in a third application last year, Yad Vashem will honor the major on April 11 in Jerusalem. His name will be inscribed on a garden wall, not far from trees already honoring others who risked their "lives, freedom or safety" to save Jews, like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

Of the 20,205 honorees to date, only 410 are German, and only a few were German soldiers, say Yad Vashem officials.

By all accounts, the ceremony would not be taking place if Dr. Good had not grown curious six years ago how his parents had survived those years, when so many other Jews from Vilna had perished. (The city, which changed hands several times, was called Vilna by the Russians and Vilnius by the Lithuanians.)

Dr. Good, 47, is the first to admit that he never had much interest in his heritage before that. Accents ran thick in his childhood home in West Covina, Calif. The furniture had hiding places for "emergencies," and his father spoke 10 languages, but was baffled by baseball.

All he wanted as a boy, Dr. Good said, was to be a "regular American." Eventually, he married Susan Possidente, a Roman Catholic nurse, moved to Connecticut, raised a son and daughter and avoided synagogue.

His curiosity was piqued during a trip to Vilnius with his parents in 1999. They visited the work camp where his mother had been a prisoner and she told him of the German officer who ran the camp, a man, she said, who had saved her life. The more he asked his parents, "How is it I'm alive?" the more he realized how fortunate he was that "somebody in a crucial moment helped them in their time of need."

Major PlaggeThrough e-mail, Dr. Good found other residents of the work camp who corroborated his family's stories, and volunteers who combed German archives. (Their findings are at t h i s  l i n k and became the germ of the book.) In the process, he learned far more about his parents' lives during those very dangerous years. He learned that his father, Wowka Zev Gdud, now 80 and known as William, escaped a Nazi-led execution squad and spent the rest of the war hiding in a forest.

His 75-year-old mother, Perela Esterowicz, who now goes by Pearl, was more fortunate. After two years in the Vilna ghetto, she was among 1,000 Jews who were transferred at Major Plagge's urging to the work camp, on Subocz Street on the outskirts of the city. One week later, the Germans purged the ghetto.

Though the camp's official role was fixing military vehicles, Major Plagge found jobs for all. Dr. Good said his grandfather Samuel Esterowicz "couldn't change a light bulb," but was deemed "essential" by Major Plagge, and his mother mended soldiers' socks.

Though Dr. Good found no evidence that Major Plagge openly defied the SS, he said the major subverted many of their lethal intentions by insisting that he needed Jewish prisoners for the war effort.

Survivors recalled that Major Plagge once took an ailing Jewish internee to a hospital, exposing himself to great risk, and staged a beating of two Jewish prisoners who had smuggled food into the ghetto to keep the SS from handling the matter.

After one vicious act, in which the SS took 250 of the camp's children to be killed, Major Plagge was heard expressing disappointment with the latest "achievements of his fellow Germans," according to Mr. Esterowicz's unpublished memoirs.

Survivors say Major Plagge performed one last heroic act as the Russians pushed the Germans out of Vilna in July 1944. In the presence of an SS officer, he informed the inmates that they "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."

William Begell, a New Yorker who heard the remarks as a 17-year-old prisoner, took them as a veiled warning to flee or hide - anything but wait for the evacuation. Mr. Begell jumped out a window and escaped. Pearl Esterowicz and about 100 others hid in a cramped space underground until the Germans left.

After Dr. Good learned that Major Plagge had no children he could thank, he resolved to push for his recognition by Yad Vashem. He said it took awhile for Yad Vashem to accept that Major Plagge put himself in harm's way, since the German military endorsed using Jewish slave labor to support the war effort.

An added reason for skepticism, say those involved, was Major Plagge's membership in the Nazi Party from 1931 to 1939. Dr. Good said his research showed that the major, who had been a prisoner of the British during the First World War, became disillusioned with the party after Hitler's rise. In the late 1930's, he became the godfather of a boy who was part Jewish.

Like thousands of former Nazis, Major Plagge was put on trial after the war. Transcripts found from Major Plagge's 1947 trial show that former prisoners and subordinates vouched for him. But he insisted on being classified as a "mitlaufer" or "fellow traveler," a label that implied some complicity.

Dr. Good said he had concluded that Major Plagge spent the rest of his life guilt-ridden for not having done more than he did.

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Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/28/nyregion/28good.html?pagewanted=1&oref=login

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"Forget You Not"™ Project
 
Special Selected Links:

 

 

HKP Letters (correspondence between Plagge and the SS showing his efforts to save the women and children in his camp with comments by Joerg Fiebelkorn) (English)

 

HKP Survivor Interviews
(Interview notes of conversations between Michael Good & HKP survivors emailed to members of the Plagge research group)

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