Saturday, Jul 24, 2021

Unraveling the Mystery of Major Karl Plagge a Nazi Officer Who Saved Jews

Published tributes to the late Dr. William Good, a Holocaust survivor and beloved family physician in La Puente, CA., who passed away last month, prompted interest not only in his remarkable wartime odyssey but also that of his devoted wife, Pearl, who survives him.

At the heart of Pearl’s riveting story, recounted in letters she penned to Yad Vashem, lies a tale of a mysterious rescuer, Major Plagge, the German commandant of the slave labor camp in Vilna where 14-year old Pearl was interned during the war.

Until the early 2000s, Pearl possessed no clear-cut information about Plagge—not even his first name. Yet she was certain that she, her parents and scores of other Jews owed him their lives. In her memories, the German commandant embodied a heroic, larger-than-life image—a stern but humane Nazi officer who schemed to keep Jews from being killed.

How much of this was true? Was it possible that Pearl’s memories were part fantasy—a young girl’s desperate need to believe in human kindness in a world gone mad? Listening to their mother’s nebulous recollections about Major Plagge, the family could not be sure.

Then, in 1999, in her first post-war visit to Vilna, accompanied by husband Dr. William Good and her son Michael, Pearl Good found the place where she had lived in terror under the Nazi regime, witness to atrocities she could never forget.

The sight of the former HKP 562 forced labor camp where she and her parents had lived for nine months triggered powerful, crystal-clear memories that she shared with her family. Momentarily swept back into the past, they relived with her some of the haunting vignettes and a life and death saga that centered around Major Plagge.

A Hidden Warning

Pearl spoke of an evening on July 1, 1944, when Major Plagge assembled the Jews in the work camp and delivered a chilling announcement. Under the watchful eye of SS representatives in the camp, he told them he and his staff had received orders to relocate westward, and that he had asked for permission to take the camp workers with him but this was denied. The Jews would be “evacuated” by the SS who would shortly arrive.

“And you know full well how well the S.S. takes care of their Jewish prisoners…” Plagge added carefully.

Pearl remembered how her blood ran cold at this message. Within those measured words, she realized, was a hidden warning to the Jews to save their lives by going into hiding.

Over half the camp’s prisoners heeded that warning before the SS death squads arrived on July 3, 1944. A few dozen young men jumped out the window of the blacksmith shop and escaped. Hundreds rushed to conceal themselves in bunkers, behind false walls, and in hidden recesses in attics. Some hid in underground sewers without food, water or clean air.

At least 500 people were caught the next day as the SS death squads arrived and swept through the camp. The prisoners were herded to Ponary where the Nazis mowed them down into huge pits. The Nazis then made a thorough search, discovered a few hundred people in hiding and killed them on the spot.

Others, including Pearl, her parents and a hundred other Jews concealed themselves in their makeshift hideouts for several days, nearly dying from lack of oxygen as the Nazis continued searching the HKP camp.

When the city was liberated by Soviet forces a few days later, some 200 Jews shakily emerged. They represented the largest single group of Jewish survivors in Vilna.

Pearl and her parents never saw Major Plagge again.

He Stood Trial for War Crimes

This was not the first time Plagge had saved their lives, Pearl told her family. “He kept us alive for months by setting up a military vehicle repair camp where he protected us. He brought almost a thousand people so close to survival,” Pearl told her son, Michael, who later embarked on a campaign to identify the major and learn his story.

After months of chasing down leads in emails, letters and through a special website, Good struck gold. A 40-page document he obtained from German court archives—where it had lain untouched since 1946—unraveled the secrets behind the mysterious savior that had flitted in and out of Pearl’s dreams for over half a century.

In addition to court papers, Michael Good’s research included a great deal of witness testimony culled from survivors who responded to online inquiries for information about Major Plagge. Like Pearl, they remembered the outwardly stern commandant who was paradoxically a pillar of hope and sanity in a demonic world. Good’s research culminated in a 2005 book, “In Search of Major Plagge, a Nazi Officer Who Saved Jews.”

The court document that informs much of Good’s book contained the transcripts of Plagge’s 1946 “denazification” trial by the Allied Control Council seated in Berlin. Plagge’s role as commandant of a forced labor camp in Vilna where many Jews had been murdered brought him under Allied scrutiny, particularly when it was learned that he had been an active member of the Nazi party in the early 1930s.

Plagge had initially embraced the movement’s promises of restoring prosperity and peace to Germany. As Hitler rose to power, however, the Nazis’ warped race-theories and their brutality toward Jews repelled him. Because of his refusal to teach Nazi racial ideology, he clashed repeatedly with party functionaries and was dismissed from his position in 1935. After being drafted into the reserves by the Wehrmacht in 1939, Plagge renounced his membership in the Nazi party.

The trial investigated this political history as well as the series of events that brought Plagge to Vilna as commandant of a slave labor camp. It elicited Plagge’s admission of shame and guilt at having contributed to the rise of the Nazi regime.

But the trial also drew on the testimonies of numerous witnesses and sworn statements from survivors in DP camps in Germany. All concurred that Plagge had used his influential position to covertly work against the Nazi regime.

Witnesses said that in Nazi-occupied Vilna, Major Plagge had hired over twelve hundred Jews to work in his military vehicle repair camp, saving their lives by giving them the yellow “life” certificates that marked them as “indispensable” laborers.

These workers included hundreds of tailors, lawyers, doctors and accountants—starving, sick Jews with no engineering or mechanical skills whatever. Plagge assigned them all kinds of “support” functions that he persuaded his superiors were “vital” to the camp’s productivity. He kept these people out of the reach of the Nazi death machine, as SS squads butchered tens of thousands of Vilna Jews at Ponary.

Snatching Jews Out of the Ghetto

In autumn 1943, Plagge learned of the Nazis’ plan to liquidate the Vilna ghettos, which meant certain death for all those Jews still alive.

Historians note that the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising and an increase in Soviet partisan raids convinced SS head Heinrich Himmler to liquidate all Nazi ghettos, regardless of the slave labor they provided to the German war effort.

The Vilna Ghetto was seen as a particular threat because of its extensive underground activities and the proximity of partisans in the woods around the city.

After arguing to his superiors that without his workers he would be unable to expedite the repair of military vehicles, Plagge received authorization to erect a work camp on the outskirts of Vilna. The camp consisted of two big apartment building blocks on Subocz Street, called the HKP vehicle park.

Plagge brought “his Jews” there a week before the Gestapo began annihilating the ghetto inhabitants. Witnesses testified that Plagge freed Jews from prison and pulled entire families from the Vilna ghetto to the relative safety of his labor camp.

The major insisted that each laborer be permitted to bring his wife and two of his children with him, arguing that this system would raise worker morale and boost productivity. Among this fortunate group were Perela Esterowicz (later Pearl Good) and her parents, Ida and Samuel Esterowicz.

Claiming that he needed additional workers, Plagge brought 100 arrested Jews into HKP. Another 100 Jews were smuggled in by the resistance movement with Plagge’s consent, and the population peaked at 1,250 early in 1944, according to historian Kim Priemal.

Though the camp’s official role was fixing military vehicles, Major Plagge found jobs for all. Dr. Good in a speech about the book “In Search of Major Plagge,” said his grandfather, Samuel Esterowicz, “couldn’t change a light bulb,” but was deemed “essential” by Major Plagge.

Only about 60 per cent of the Jews worked at the vehicle repair depot or a shop for repairing Wehrmacht uniforms. Plagge established various industries for the rest of his workers, including a rabbit farm, a nursery, and a carpenter’s shop, declaring all of his workers essential to the war effort. He strongly resisted the SS’ efforts to remove these “nonessential” workers.

A food administrator at the labor camp testified at Plagge’s trial that he met with the major daily to ease his concern about the food intake of his workers and their families. “He ordered weekly observations about his workers’ weight to assure himself that their rations were adequate,” said Heinz Zeuner. “I had the job of observing that the German officers never received better rations than the workers.”

On a daily basis, the testimony shows, Plagge worked to keep the camp at high peak productivity while insulating his laborers from the surrounding massacres and genocide. He retained relative independence so long as the repair work got done until shortly before the end of the war, when the SS and Gestapo outmaneuvered him.

Witnesses said he reassigned anti-Semitic or violent subordinates so that they could not harm Jewish workers and turned a blind eye to the building of hideouts, and the food-smuggling operations that kept the workers alive.

Survivors Testify

On more than one occasion, subordinates recalled at his trial, Plagge himself ordered the release of Jewish prisoners, insisting that they were necessary for the war effort.

Survivors Mark and Anna Balber in a letter to the court during Plagge’s denazification trial, made the following statement: “During the Nazi occupation of Vilna, we, along with about 1200 other Jews, were prisoners in a forced labor camp known as HKP. We were under the control of both the Wehrmacht and the SS. Major Plagge was in charge of the Wehrmacht detachment.

“We all knew that Major Plagge would intercede with the SS and do anything he could to help us and to alleviate our suffering. Of the many situations that arose, the following event stands out in our minds:

One morning, when we stood for roll call, the SS commander, Bruno Kitel (a particularly vicious Nazi) singled out a group of young girls and took them away. One of our Jewish leaders, N. Kolish, appealed to Major Plagge to save the girls. They were released the same day.

When his workers were captured during SS sweeps, Plagge attempted to free them from Lukishi Prison before they could be executed at Ponary. Sergeant Georg Raab, one of Plagge’s subordinates, told the court how in late 1941, the major once got 70 Jews released from prison: “He knew these workers personally,” Raab recalled, “and he told the SS they were irreplaceable for his repair camp, although in reality they were anything but. He was allowed to enter the prison in order to liberate not only the employees but their families as well.”

A Jewish survivor, Marek Swirski, recalled how his father and another man were helped by Plagge when an SS officer discovered they were smuggling food. The furious SS officer “drew his gun when suddenly Plagge approached. He asked the SS man to hand the Jews over to him so he could punish them accordingly.”

“The SS officer accepted Plagge’s offer and the latter took the two Jews to a nearby shed. He beat the table with his whip, had the Jews scream out loud and then had them scratch their faces with a razor blade in order to make them look bloodied up. Subsequently, the two unharmed Jews were shown to the SS officer who allowed them to return to the ghetto.”

Tortured by His Conscience

Not always was Plagge successful in thwarting the bloodthirsty SS.

In 1942, 200 Jews working for Plagge were rounded up for deportation. Plagge argued with SS-Obersturmführer Rolf Neugebauer in an attempt to secure their release, but was unable to save them.

In an unparalleled atrocity, on March 27, 1944, during Plagge’s home leave absence, the SS carried out a vicious Kinder Aktion (Children Operation). They tore through the camp and rounded up the vast majority of the camp’s 250 children, transporting them out of the camp to be killed at Ponary.

14-year old Pearl later described how she found a hiding place underneath the stairwell and crouched there in horror listening to the shrieks and cries of the doomed children.

Although Plagge claimed upon his return that he would have saved the children if he had been present, it is doubtful that he could have done so, historians say. The harsh reality was that the SS controlled the ultimate fate of the camp’s Jews.

The Gray Zone

On certain occasions, Plagge’s general policy of non-confrontation with the SS put him “in a gray zone, and in a catch-22 situation with serious moral implications,” according to historian Kim Priemel.

For example, “on multiple occasions, HKP personnel loaned trucks and drivers to the SS for the purpose of transporting Jews to Ponary for execution. That made Plagge as much a collaborator as a rescuer,” Priemel wrote.

On the other hand, the historian reasoned, Plagge was a virtual prisoner of the system who took what he saw as the only course “that allowed him to save more Jews than any other rescuer in Vilna.”

A friend of Plagge’s wrote to Michael Good that the major lived the rest of his life with guilt over his early involvement with Hitler, and because he was convinced that he had done too little to save Jews. This perhaps explains why at his trial he did not ask for exoneration, as some of the judges were inclined to grant him. Instead he asked to be classified as a fellow traveler (sympathizer) to the Nazi regime.

“He was tortured by his conscience,” the friend wrote in correspondence with Good. “In his view, whatever good he did was not enough. He suffered because of this until his death.”

After the trial Plagge lived out the final years of his life quietly before dying of a heart attack at his home in Darmstadt in June 1957.

For more than fifty years Jewish survivors from Vilna had been searching for Major Plagge, to thank him and to try to understand how he came to stand as a light of moral courage in the midst of unfathomable evil. For many years the identity and motivations of this unusual officer remained obscured by the mists of time.

In 2005 he was awarded the “Righteous Among the Nations” title by Yad Vashem. In a fitting gesture, Pearl Good was on hand to unveil his name when it was added to the Wall of the Righteous at the Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

*****

Excerpt from a letter by Karl Plagge to his wife, shown at Plagge’s denazification trial

June 21, 1944
My dear Anke,

Life is so unbearable here, I can hardly come to grips with it.  As a National Socialist, I am expected to say “yes” to mass slaughter… As a human being I know this is insanity and will lead to utter devastation.

I am living now three years in the East and work together with these people. A large quantity of my heart’s blood is in my work of keeping the camp running with [Jewish] labor.  It is completely my work alone and will expire when I am no more.  It is a piece of my life’s fulfillment. 

Only I alone know about all the struggles, all the conflicts which went into putting up this camp, that daily tests all my fortitude. It is an island of absolute contrast to what our leaders strive for: to utterly crush the people in the East. [i.e. Jews]. That is why they send the dregs of humanity to this place.

 And how utterly differently I see things!  Do you believe, without my principles, I could continue this exhausting operation enabling people to perform valuable work for the Wermacht?  The laborers perform this work willingly and almost happily, because they know I am here and help and protect them. They were at first wounded, mistrustful, wasted, half-starved and wretched and to a large extent, still are. 

Oh, how difficult it is, to explain all this. I cannot begin to find the right words to describe how the situation oppresses me, how the teeth grind in rage and shame…”  

*****

Excerpts from Pearl Good’s Testimony to Yad Vashem

Dr. M. Paldiel

Yad Vashem

Righteous Of The Nations Dept.

March 23, 2001

Dear Dr. Paldiel,

My name is Pearl (Perela) Esterowicz. My parents, Ida Gerstein Esterowicz and Samuel Esterowicz, and I survived three years of German Occupation in Vilnius that annihilated the city’s Jews.

Our survival was thanks to the efforts of Major Karl Plagge, Chief of the Army Vehicle Repair Shops (HKP) of the Vilnius area.

My father had worked in the HKP even before we were moved into the ghetto, and his facharbeiter schein, work certificates, had saved him from the SS murderers. After we were moved to the ghetto on September 6, 1941, Plagge’s gele schein – “skilled worker” certificates saved us and kept us alive until September 1943. Then the four-day aktion that butchered so many Jews put an end to life certificates.

Major Plagge was determined to protect his remaining Jewish workers and their families before the entire ghetto was liquidated. In a stroke of inspiration, he came up with the plan to establish a separate work-camp in which highly skilled Jewish workers who could repair vehicles needed on the Eastern front were indispensable.

He succeeded in getting authorization to establish the HKP work camp outside the perimeters of the ghetto and snatched us out of the ghetto just days before its liquidation. Our camp was under the administration of the Nazi SS, but the technical management of the workshops was in the hands of the Wehrmacht, under Major Plagge and his two subordinates.

It was thanks to Major Plagge’s continuous efforts that the Jewish laborers, numbering over 1000, were able to avoid, at least temporarily, the terrible fate of those Jews who remained in the ghetto.

He made sure we had decent working and living conditions. In the room which we shared with others, there was running water and a kitchen stove enabling us to cook. We slept in beds with blankets and linen and were able to wash and keep clean.

Major Plagge’s humanity made him beloved and respected by us.

Our relatively stable existence was shattered twice by Gestapo atrocities that made us realize the relative safety we felt in the HKP was an illusion; it could collapse at any moment.

The first time was the public hanging of two escapees, David Zalkind and his wife, and the shooting of their little girl. That was not enough for the cursed Gestapo. They then had the Lithuanian police chase all the women and children into the yard and grabbed thirty-six of us into a black van that took them to Ponary.

The second time was the “Kinder Aktion” – Children’s Massacre of March 27th, 1944. No words in any language can describe this dreadful atrocity.

A Final Attempt to Save Lives

On Saturday, July 1st   1944, Major Plagge came to talk to us. He told us the German army was leaving Vilna because of the approaching Russians, and our camp too would be evacuated. Major Plagge informed us that we would be entirely in the hands of the SS.

“And you know full well how well the S.S. takes care of their Jewish prisoners…” he added meaningfully.

After his veiled warning we all understood what was in store for us. At dusk, a few dozen young men escaped by jumping out of the window of the blacksmith shop which faced the outside world; one of them was our friend, Wilek Begell. Another friend, Mr. Israelit, managed to bribe the guards at the gate and leave with his wife and daughter.

Unfortunately, most of us could not escape the camp. We could either hide in previously prepared malinas (hiding places), as my parents and I did, or just await our fate. In spite of all of Plagge’s efforts, only 150-200 of us survived.

“Major Plagge at great risk to himself brought all of us so close to survival – liberation was just ten days away. He risked being executed for protecting “worthless Jews” as tragically happened to Wehrmacht Captain Anton Schmidt, who helped my aunt Reichel Cholem hide during the “gele sheinen aktion (yellow life-certificates massacre).

Schmidt was executed on April 11, 1942 (see page 187, Ghetto in Flames, by Dr. Yitzhak Arad) for his efforts to help Jews, actions which were very similar to those of Major Plagge.

For further information, please see enclosed denazification files of Karl Plagge, which contain many more testimonies to his rescuing help and protection of Jews, at the risk of his life.

This wonderful man’s memory deserves to be honored by Yad Vashem.

Pearl (Perella) Esterowicz Good

 

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