Karl Plagge

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Karl Plagge
Plagge in December 1943
Born (1897-07-10)10 July 1897
Darmstadt, Germany
Died 19 June 1957(1957-06-19) (aged 59)
Monuments Major-Karl-Plagge barracks, Pfungstadt, Germany
Alma mater Technical University of Darmstadt
Occupation Mechanical engineer
Known for Rescuing Jews during the Holocaust
Political party Nazi Party
Spouse(s) Anke Madsen
Awards Righteous Among the Nations
Website searchformajorplagge.com

Karl Plagge (10 July 1897 – 19 June 1957) was a German engineer who rescued Jews during the Holocaust in Lithuania by issuing work permits to nonessential workers.

A veteran of World War I, Plagge studied engineering but joined the Nazi Party in 1931 because of the economic collapse at the time. During World War II, he used his position as a staff officer in the German Army to employ and protect some 1,240 Jews in the Vilna Ghetto. At first, Plagge employed Jews who lived inside the ghetto, but when it was due to be liquidated in September 1943, he set up HKP 562 forced labor camp, where he saved as many Jews as he could with work permits issued on the false premise that their holders' skills were necessary for the German war effort. Although Plagge was unable to stop the SS from liquidating the camp in July 1944, he managed to warn the prisoners in advance, allowing some 250 to hide from the SS and survive until the Red Army's liberation of the area.

The Jews saved by Plagge were the largest group of survivors from the Vilna Ghetto; overall, more than 95% of Lithuanian Jews perished in the Holocaust. Plagge was tried before a denazification court in 1947, which found that his rescue activities did not exonerate his early membership in the Nazi Party because they were undergone for humanitarian reasons rather than opposition to Nazism. In 2000, the story of this rescue was uncovered by the son of a survivor of HPK 562. After two unsuccessful petitions, Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations in 2005. According to the historian Kim Priemel, the success of Plagge's rescue efforts was due to working within the system to save Jews, a position which required him to enter a "grey zone" of moral compromise.

Early life[edit]

Plagge was born to a Prussian family in Darmstadt, Germany, on 10 July 1897; many of his ancestors had been military doctors. Plagge's father died in 1904, leaving his widow, Plagge, and his older sister.[1] After graduating from a secondary school that focused on the classics, Plagge was drafted into the Imperial German Army and fought as a lieutenant in World War I on the Western Front and participated in the battles of the Somme, Verdun, and Flanders. Imprisoned in a British POW camp from 1917 to 1920, he caught polio and became disabled in his left leg. Upon his release, Plagge studied chemical engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt, graduating in 1924. He had wanted to study medicine, but was prevented from the longer study program required due to his family's financial problems. After graduating, he married Anke Madsen, but the couple had to live with his mother due to their lack of finances. Unemployed, he ran a chemical business from the house.[2][3]

Ideologically a national conservative, Plagge joined the Nazi Party on 1 December 1931.[3] During his denazification trial, Plagge stated that he 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.[2] Between 1931 and 1933, Plagge worked as a local organizer for the party. He came into conflict with the leadership of the party after 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized power. According to his later testimony, Plagge refused to accept Nazi racial theories, which he considered unscientific, and was disgusted by the persecution of political opponents and the corruption of many Nazi functionaries. Instead of leaving the party, he attempted to cause change from within, accepting a position as a scientific lecturer and leader of a Nazi educational institute in Darmstadt.[4] Because of his refusal to teach Nazi racial ideology, he was dismissed from his position in 1935. A local party official accused Plagge of being on good terms with Jews and Freemasons, treating Jews in the medical laboratory, and opposing the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, threatening to bring Plagge before a party tribunal. Instead, Plagge ceased his activity with the party, disgusted by Nazism.[5]

In 1934, Plagge began to work at Hessenwerks, an engineering company run by Kurt Hesse, whose wife Erica was half-Jewish. By hiring a nominal Nazi, Hesse hoped to prevent the "Aryanization" of his business.[6] After Kristallnacht, an anti-Jewish pogrom organized by the Nazis in 1938, Plagge became the godfather of Hesse's son Konrad.[7] The same year, Plagge took over as chief engineer of the Hessenwerks.[8]

Service in Lithuania[edit]

HKP 562[edit]

Lithuanian collaborator with Jewish prisoners, July 1941

Plagge was drafted into the Heer (German Army) as a captain in the reserve at the beginning of World War II,[3] and stopped to pay Nazi Party membership fees at the same time. Serving initially in Poland after the German invasion, he witnessed atrocities that caused him to decide "to work against the Nazis".[9] In 1941, he was put in command of an engineering unit, Heereskraftfahrpark 562 ("Army Vehicle Park 562"; HKP 562), which maintained and repaired military vehicles. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, HKP 562 was deployed to Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania in early July 1941. Plagge soon witnessed the genocide being carried out against the Jews of the area.[3][10]

Plagge helped 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 of his children from the SS sweeps carried out in the Vilna Ghetto in which Jews without work papers were captured and killed at the nearby Ponary execution grounds. As a work assignment, HKP 562 was particularly sought after by Jews because of Plagge's efforts to treat his workers well. Plagge also made efforts to help Poles and Soviet prisoners of war forced to work for the Wehrmacht.[8] Plagge tried to reassign antisemitic or violent subordinates so that they did not interact with Jewish workers, and turned a blind eye to smuggling which kept the workers alive. During the fall of 1941, when many Jews were rounded up and shot in "Aktions", Plagge's workshop was the fourth-largest employer of Jews in Vilnius with 261 work permits allocated.[11]

When his workers were captured during sweeps, Plagge attempted to free them from Lukiškės Prison before they could be executed at Ponary. If only a few Jews were arrested, he sent a subordinate. However, in late 1941, 70 Jewish workers and their families were arrested. Plagge exaggerated their importance to the war effort and managed to secure the release of all the prisoners.[12] In 1942, 200 Jews working for Plagge were rounded up for deportation. Plagge argued with SS-Obersturmführer Rolf Neubauer in an attempt to secure their release, but was unable to save them.[8] During the summer of 1943, after negotiations with the SS, Plagge was able to expand his workforce from 394 Jews in July to more than 1,000 when the ghetto was liquidated in September.[13]

Labor camp[edit]

2A Holocaust memorial near the former camp, Subačiaus (Subocz) Street, Vilnius

During the summer of 1943 Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS decided to liquidate all of the Jewish Ghettos of Eastern Europe, regardless of the slave labor they provided the Wehrmacht in its war effort. After the Estonian Aktion of September 1, 1943, during which 100 HKP Jewish workers were captured by Estonian SS troops and sent to the slate mines of Estonia,[14] it became clear to Plagge that the Vilna Ghetto was soon to be liquidated. All the remaining Jews in the ghetto were to be taken by the SS, regardless of any working papers they had. In this crucial period Plagge made extraordinary bureaucratic efforts to form a free-standing HKP562 Slave Labor Camp on Subocz Street on the outskirts of Vilnius. Evidence shows that he not only tried to protect his productive male workers, but also made vigorous efforts to protect the women and children in his camp, actively overcoming considerable resistance from local SS officers.[15][16] On September 16, 1943, Plagge transported over 1,000 of his Jewish workers and their families from the Vilna Ghetto to the newly built HKP camp on Subocz Street, where they remained in relative safety.[17] Less than a week later, on September 23, 1943, the SS liquidated the Vilna Ghetto. The rest of Vilna's Jews were either executed immediately at the nearby execution grounds in the Paneriai (Ponary) Forest, or sent to death camps in Nazi occupied Europe.[14]

The conditions in the HKP camp were relatively benign, especially when compared with those in other slave labor camps across Nazi occupied Europe, with tolerable work conditions, and food at subsistence levels. Plagge ordered respectful treatment of the slave laborers and their families, instructing his officers that "the civilians are to be treated with respect". These instructions, transmitted through the example set by his subordinate officers, resulted in very little abuse by the men of his unit and the Lithuanian police who guarded the camp.

On certain occasions, Plagge's policy of non-confrontation with the SS put him "in a catch-22 situation with serious moral implications", according to Priemel. On multiple occasions, HKP 562 loaned trucks and drivers to the SS for the purpose of transporting Jews to Ponary for execution. 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; the SS officer who ordered the killing reported that it was done "in accord with the Park-leader Major Plagge".[18] On 27 March 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 more than 200 children and elderly Jews, and took them to Ponary for execution.[19] Plagge's acquiescence to these killings made him "[in] moral terms... as much a collaborator" as a rescuer, according to Priemel. However, Plagge's collaboration was "arguably a rational choice", because he was able to save more Jews than any other Wehrmacht rescuer in Vilnius.[20]

1 July 1944 warning[edit]

The front line is moving west and HKP's assignment is to always be a certain number of miles behind the front line... As a result, you the Jews and workers will also be moved... since all of you are highly specialized and experienced workers in an area of great importance to the German Army, you will be reassigned to a HKP unit... 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...

Karl Plagge's speech according to Bill Begell, a survivor[21]

In the summer of 1944 the Soviet Red Army advanced to the outskirts of Vilnius. This change in the tides of war brought both joy and fear to the surviving Jews of the HKP camp who understood that the SS would try to kill them in the days before the German retreat.[22] Many prepared for this eventuality by discreetly making hiding places in the camp in secret bunkers, in walls, and in the rafters of the attic. A large and crucial unknown was one of timing — the prisoners needed to know when the SS killing squads were coming so they could successfully implement plans to escape or hide. As the sounds of fighting grew closer the level of tension within the camp became palpable.[23]

On 1 July 1944, Major Plagge entered the camp and made an informal speech to the Jewish prisoners who gathered around him. In the presence of SS Oberscharfuehrer Richter, he told the Jews present at his speech that he and his men were being relocated to the west, and that in spite of his requests, he did not have permission to take his skilled Jewish workers with his unit. In response to a question from the assembled Jews, he said that there was no need to bring their luggage. This veiled warning was correctly interpreted; about 400 prisoners either tried to escape or hid inside the camp when the SS came to liquidate it on 4 July. Half managed to survive the searches and were liberated by the Red Army on 13 July.[24]

The 500 prisoners who did appear at roll call were taken to the forest of Paneriai (Ponary) and shot. Over the next three days the SS searched the camp and its surroundings. They found half of the missing prisoners, took them to the camp courtyard and shot them. However, when the Red Army captured Vilnius a few days later, some 250 of the camp’s Jews emerged from hiding.


Entrance of the Major-Karl-Plagge Kaserne

After the war, Karl Plagge returned home to Darmstadt, Germany. Because he had joined the Nazi Party so early and commanded a labor camp where many prisoners were murdered, he was tried in 1947 as part of the postwar denazification process and hired a lawyer to defend himself.[25] Plagge and his former subordinates told the court about his efforts to help Jewish forced laborers; Plagge's lawyer asked for him to be classified as a fellow traveler rather than an active Nazi. Former prisoners of HKP 562 in a displaced persons camp in Ludwigsburg 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 did not exonerate Plagge completely, because it believed that his actions had been motivated by humanitarianism rather than opposition to Nazism.[26] After the trial Plagge lived the final decade of his life quietly, and died of a heart attack in Darmstadt in June 1957.

Assessment and legacy[edit]

HKP survivor Pearl Good points to Plagge’s name on the Wall of the Righteous at Yad Vashem

In 1999, the son of a HKP 562 survivor, Michael Good, traveled to Vilnius with his family. Good decided to investigate the story of Plagge, but he had trouble locating him because survivors did not know his first name or place of birth. After fourteen months, Good was able to locate Plagge's Wehrmacht personnel file.[27] Good formed an organization of researchers and friends he called the "Plagge Group" and, along with HKP survivors, petitioned Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the Holocaust, to have Plagge recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations". Their first petition, in 2002, was rejected; Yad Vashem's policy is not to give any reason for declining recognition. They applied again the next year, and received a reply stating that "we fail to understand what possible risks he had to fear from his superiors".[28] In Yad Vashem's view, Plagge's efforts to save Jewish workers and treat them humanely were probably related to serving the German war effort. The Plagge Group disagreed, pointing out that Wehrmacht sergeant Anton Schmid had been executed in 1942 for helping Jews in the Vilna Ghetto.[29] In 2004, a letter was discovered that Plagge had written in 1957 to a Jewish lawyer named Strauss. Letters between Plagge and SS-Obersturmbanführer Goeke were uncovered that same year. The Yad Vashem committee voted on 22 July 2004 to recognize Plagge as Righteous Among the Nations.[30]

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.

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.[31] 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[32] 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.[33]

The historian Kim Priemel, examining Wehrmacht rescuers in Vilnius, concludes that Plagge "remained within a 'grey zone' of moral compromise, which, however, was vital to the success of [his] rescue efforts".[34]

Karl Plagge Award[edit]

The Karl Plagge Award is donated by descendants of the family of Karl Plagge. It is awarded to school students in Lithuania who concentrate on the Jewish Lithuanian history more than required by the school curriculum. The Prize is awarded yearly and is supported by the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Science.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Good 2005, pp. 113-114.
  2. ^ a b Good 2005, p. 114.
  3. ^ a b c d Schoeps 2008, p. 497.
  4. ^ Good 2005, p. 115.
  5. ^ Good 2005, p. 116.
  6. ^ Good 2005, pp. 116-117.
  7. ^ Good 2005, p. 118.
  8. ^ a b c Schoeps 2008, p. 498.
  9. ^ Good 2005, pp. 118-119.
  10. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 391.
  11. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 393.
  12. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 394.
  13. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 395.
  14. ^ a b Arad 1982, p. 410.
  15. ^ Guzenberg 2002, pp. 78–91.
  16. ^ "HKP Letters (1944 Correspondance between Major Plagge and the SS showing his efforts to save the Jewish women and children in his camp. Comments by Joerg Fiebelkorn)" (doc). searchformajorplagge.com. Retrieved 2014-12-30.
  17. ^ Good 2005, pp. 69-71.
  18. ^ Priemel 2008, pp. 402-403.
  19. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 396.
  20. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 403.
  21. ^ Good 2005, pp. 107-108.
  22. ^ Esterowicz, Samuel (1985). "Memoirs of Samuel Esterowicz". www.searchformajorplagge.com.
  23. ^ Feigenberg, Moses (November 1946). "Wilno under the Nazi Yoke". http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org. External link in |website= (help)
  24. ^ Priemel 2008, pp. 396-397.
  25. ^ Good 2005, p. 112.
  26. ^ Priemel 2008, pp. 389-390.
  27. ^ Good 2005, pp. 96, 100.
  28. ^ Good 2005, p. 169.
  29. ^ Good 2005, p. 170.
  30. ^ Good 2005, pp. 174, 178-179.
  31. ^ Reches, Josif (1993). "Testimony of the Reches Brothers" (doc). searchformajorplagge.com. Schneider, Marcus (trans.). Retrieved 2014-12-30.
  32. ^ Good 2005, pp. 81, 154.
  33. ^ "Letters Written by Karl Plagge to Attorney Stauss in 1956 (German & English)" (doc). searchformajorplagge.com (in German and English). Retrieved 2014-12-30.
  34. ^ Priemel 2008, p. 389.
  35. ^ Dr. Marianne Wrobel (2011-10-08). "Karl Plagge Award". Plagge-award.com. Retrieved 2013-06-19.