A Rescuer in Uniform 

Karl Plagge, a chemical engineer from Darmstadt, had joined the Nazi Party in 1931, but by 1938 at the latest he distanced himself from Nazism. After the Soviet Union was invaded, the 44-year-old Plagge, a captain in the Wehrmacht, was transferred to Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 1, 1941, to set up and direct an army motor transport park (HKP).

In Vilnius, Plagge witnessed mass executions of Jews and the ghettoization of the Jewish population there under the brutal German occupation regime. He tried to treat the Jewish forced laborers humanely, which made HKP jobs sought-after by those in the ghetto.

Before the ghetto was liquidated in the fall of 1943, Plagge, now a major, managed to obtain authorization from the SS leadership to set up a separate work camp outside the ghetto for his forced laborers. At night in mid-September of 1943, he drove with trucks to the gate of the ghetto and had a large number of HKP workers with their wives and children picked up and moved to the new camp, which comprised two large, multilevel residential blocks. More than one thousand people could be moved to the HKP camp. Plagge remained camp commandant until early July 1944; he tried to protect the work camp inmates from SS terror as best he could and to give them sufficient food. The massiveness of the building facilitated the construction of hideouts, which many people later used to save themselves.

Ida and Sam Esterowicz and their daughter Perela (later Pearl Good) were among the survivors who viewed Karl Plagge as their rescuer. On September 6, 1941, the Germans forced them to move into the Vilnius ghetto, where they lived in claustrophobic conditions. The parents experienced a blessing in disguise: as forced laborers in the HKP, they were among those moved to Plagge’s work camp. Working feverishly at night, Sam Esterowicz and other men built a hideout. Starting on July 1, 1944, the family spent days in the hideout under horrendous conditions until the Germans finally abandoned the camp.

Fifteen-year-old Simon Malkes and his father worked as electricians in the HKP. The Malkes family was also moved to the HKP work camp run by Major Plagge. Like Samuel Esterowicz, Simon’s father worked nights building a hiding place. In June 1944, Plagge sent Simon’s mother to a hospital, where she was able to stay until liberation. On July 1, 1944, Plagge managed to warn the camp inmates of the imminent arrival of the SS and the liquidation of the camp. Simon and his father went into their hiding place, and they too survived.

By the time the Red Army arrived in mid-July of 1944, more than 90 percent of the 220,000 Lithuanian Jews had been murdered under German occupation. On June 21, 1944, Plagge wrote to his wife: “Neither among my superiors nor among my subordinates is there anyone with whom I can express myself.” As one of his motives for his actions, he stated, “Because I—precisely as a former National Socialist—feel responsible for everything that has happened.”

Thanks to the efforts of survivors, Karl Plagge—who died in 1957—was honored posthumously in 2005 by the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Bibliography:
Bak, Samuel. Painted in Words: A Memoir. Foreword by Amos Oz. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Good, Michael. Searching for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006.
Malkès, Simon. The Righteous of the Wehrmacht, translated from French by Lilyana Yankova. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2015.
Viefhaus, Marianne. “Für eine Gemeinschaft der ‘Einsamen unter ihren Völkern’: Major Plagge und der Heereskraftfahrpark 562 in Wilna.” In Zivilcourage: Empörte, Helfer und Retter aus Wehrmacht, Polizei und SS, edited by Wolfram Wette, 97–113. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2004.