Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, amazing stories of survival and heroism still trickle out now and again, helping us to better understand this tremendous tragedy.
It is appropriate now to finally honor the courage of an unlikely righteous gentile.
In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Professor Richard Freund to tell him a miraculous story of the Holocaust known by very few people. Professor Freund is the Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and Greenberg Professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford, in Hartford, Connecticut.
Dr. Good’s 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 Jewsin Vilnius (Vilna).
Good described how his father, mother, and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at length in his book, The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews.
Although Freund works in a department known for its Holocaust studies, and the story was indeed interesting, nothing further came 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 Hartford University including: Bethsaida, Qumran, the Cave of Letters, Nazareth, Yavne, Har Karkom (Mount Sinai), as well as a research project at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. Freund has authored six books on archaeology and two books on Jewish ethics and over one hundred scholarly articles.
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 thatenabled non-invasive examination of the ground and walls.
Freund made it known in the region that he had technologically advanced equipment available for use by anyone needing it for their own research. The Vilna Jewish State Museum came calling and brought Freund 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 hehid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the Nazis left in July, 1944, Handler was forced to move dead bodies, and decades later could point out where those bodies had been buried.
Freund and Handler met in Lithuania, where Handler showed where the hiding spaces were, as well as the graves of 400 Jews who were shot on the grounds in 1944.
“We could have gone through the entire twenty acres and not located exactly where that was,” noted Freund. “To have real live people tell you exactly where things wentdown 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.
With Plagge’s consent, Jews had built these malinas in building crevices, behind the walls, in order 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, providing a new kind of eye-witness testament to history.
This scanning technology was made available from the Canadian gas and oil giant Advisian WorleyParsons. Their Calgary based geophysicists Paul Bauman and Alastair McClymont worked with their team’s skill at discovering “what’s under the ground without having to dig it up” to help with the project.
Freund then reached out to award-winning documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, with whom he worked on other projects previously. Freund described how important it was to document the site and the story, and to reveal them 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.
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 it was on the day the Soviets marched into Lithuania.
Ironically, it was the indifference and coldness of Communism that saved these dilapidating buildings from any interference. Until recently, people had been living in those two six-floor buildings, which housed 216 apartments.
Things became all the more pressing when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers planned to plow the site, imminently. In January of this year, Jacobovici took film and photographic crews to shoot HKP before it was doomed to destruction.
At least the good news is, the story will live on. Jacobovici’s documentary, The Good Nazi, will be airing on public television in the coming months.
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 [Plagge] 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.
Plagge 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 would be no one to fix those 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, Plagge 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 had received this training, only requiring more training to be necessary for others.
This wasn’t simplistic work, Plagge is said to have argued. Anyone would be capable ofdoing something like shoveling coal from one side to another, and could easily be replaced. But the workers required to fix vehicles could not be easily replaced at any time.
Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews were actually knowledgeable about fixing cars;they 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 the workers was necessary for HKP.
But Plagge’s ingenuity didn’t stop there. There were times when there were no repairs needed, so Plagge and his crew purposefully damaged cars, then fixed them, in order that HKP could keep running.
Plagge put himself at risk even further by insisting that entire families be housed within the complex, maintaining that workers would not be able to focus if all they were doing was weeping for their murdered wives and children. The SS bought the ruse.
As our famous dayenuphrase goes, “it would have been enough” if all Plagge did was to build this island of safety, but he went above and beyond to provide extra food, including hot meals, when all the workers would have had otherwise were meager rations. When the weather turned cold, Plagge gave his workers more clothing and firewood; when they were ailing, he gave them medicine. This was despite the wartime scarcity of basic necessities.
Additionally, Plagge allowed his workers to trade food with local non-Jews (though this was illegal), in order that food could be smuggled across to 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 she was able to stay there until the Nazis surrendered. Plagge intervened yet again, arranging to fake thebeatings 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 the Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (correct) hunch 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 wryly.
In the summer of 1943 Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, 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, when Plagge left to visit family in Germany. Called the Kinder Aktion (“Children Operation”), the Nazis rounded up more than two hundred children, with the intent of deporting them to death camps or executing them.
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.
As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer edge of Vilna in June of 1944, it was a sign that the allies were close to victory. The good news was tempered with fear, because it also meant, however, the Nazis were about to step up the Final Solution.
After Plagge was apprised of this inside information, he made an impromptu announcement on July 1, 1944. An SS commander and the Jewish workers gathered to listen carefully. Plagge explained that his unit was being transferred westbound, and he requested his laborers to be able to join the move. Plagge’s superiors would not permit this.
Nevertheless, Plagge 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 away 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 were 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 approximately 110,000 of Vilna’s Jews were caught by the Nazis.
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, and Plagge received the status of an exonerated person; however, his wish was that he be classified instead as a “follower.”
Plagge’s humility of character was exhibited in a letter many years later. In 1957, shortly before his death, Plagge wrote the following to a friend “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.”
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 owntown, with a bust erected in the schoolyard of the Ludwig-Georgs-Gymnasium, a high school.
As well, an award bearing Plagge’s name is given annually to students in Lithuania, who study more Jewish Lithuanian history than is required by the curriculum. Theaward is paid for by the Plagge family and friends of the Plagge’s, and is supported by the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Science.
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. The survivor recalled that the friend had been quite a talented artist. The survivor believed that, had the boy on the stairs survived, he might have gone on to be influential in his field.
The thing is, he had lived. 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 the two are both alive, and helped them reconnect.
As for Bak’s works, 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 beingin the darkest, inhuman of circumstance.”
Through various strokes of ‘luck’, miracles, and hashgaha pratit, Plagge can now be rightly honored for his many 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.”
This was an important Shoah film to make, but 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, perceivedas 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.”