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Karl Plagge

An Unlikely Hero



Karl Plagge

Prior to the Nazis coming to power, engineer Karl Plagge had joined the National Socialist Part because, as he said, he believed in Hitler’s social promises and economic prosperity. 

Born on July 10, 1897, in Darmstadt, Germany  Plagge graduated from the Technical University of Darmstadt in 1924 with a degree in engineering. Upon being drafted into the Wehrmacht at the beginning of World War II, he was put in command of an engineering unit, HKP562, whose duties involved repairing military vehicles damaged on the eastern front.

Plagge and his unit arrived in Vilnius (Vilna) in July 1941 and soon witnessed the genocide being carried out against the Jews of the area. Plagge, as a German, felt responsible for some of the horrors he witnessed and felt compelled to work against the genocidal machine. He decided to do what he could to help some of Vilnius’s beleaguered Jews.

No one will ever know exactly how many Jewish lives Plagge saved or how many (indirectly) he was able to protect, probably several hundred.  Over the years he took as many prisoners as he could to work for him.  Witnesses attest that he freed many prisoners from the SS this way.

Executions in Vilnius and environs occurred primarily at the Ponary mass-execution site, where 110,000 people where murdered.  About 70,000 of these people were Jews of Lithuanian and other nationality; yet others were deported to Nazi extermination camps. Plagge attempted to spare as many as he could from this fate by purposely recruiting Jews instead of Poles for labor. 

Corpses scattered at the shooting pits of Ponary

His success, however, 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 approximately 900-1000 of Plagge’s 1250 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 death rate of approximately 78% among those he hired compared to the much higher rate of 96%—virtual annihilation—found among the rest of Lithuania's Jews. The 250-300 surviving Jews of the HKP camp constituted the largest single group of survivors of the Holocaust 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Plagge’s efforts are corroborated by survivor testimony, historical documents found in Germany and Plagge’s own testimony found in a letter he wrote in 1957, a year before his death.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 to the character of Dr. Rieux in Camus’s story of the Plague and describes his hopeless struggle against a Plague of death that slowly envelops the inhabitants of his city.

Guards outside the HKP camp on Subocz St.

No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite"                 [Excerpt from The Plague by Albert Camus]

In September 1943 it became apparent 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. During this crucial period Plagge made extraordinary bureaucratic efforts to form a free standing HKP 562 Slave Labor Camp on Subocz Street on the outskirts of Vilnius.

Alfred Stumpff, First Lieutenant under Plagge in the HKP said: 

“Mr. Plagge had taken a large number of Jews for jobs that were neither useful nor necessary.  There were, for example, Jews as hairdressers, shoemaker, tailor, kitchen personnel, Jewish women and girls to work in the garden, even a Jewish doctor to oversee the health condition of civilian workers.   From the outside looking in these skilled workers were able to be camouflaged as motor-vehicle workers.

He did this 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 Ponary."

The severe conditions in HKP camp were relatively benign, compared to appalling conditions in the Ghetto, with tolerable work conditions, and food at sustenance levels. Plagge ordered respectful treatment of the slave laborers, which resulted in reduced abuse by the men of his unit and the Lithuanian police who guarded the camp. In spite of the general benevolence of Plagge and some of his men, the SS controlled the ultimate fate of the HKP laborers.

The SS entered the camp on two occasions to commit atrocities, before finally liquidating most of the Jewish laborers in July 1944, shortly before the German retreat out of Vilnius. In November 1943, a Jewish prisoner named David Zalkind, his wife, and child attempted to escape from the camp and were captured by the Gestapo. They were publicly executed in the camp courtyard in front of the other prisoners.

A letter from Plagge to SS Ghetto administrators justifying his need for Jewish women and children to remain at the Subocz St. camp:

O.U. the 17th February 1944.

Subj.:    Employment of Jewish Labourers.

Ref.:     Letter from Concentration Camp Headquarter Kauen File: Work. Deploy.

16/2.44-Au. dated 8.2.44 to V.P./East/ 562.


Army-Housing Administration 190

V i l n a .


At disbandment of the Jewish Ghettos in Vilna V.P./East/562 achieved by immediate  protest at the superior SD-Command in Riga / Superior Leader Piffrader/ that ca. 500 Jewish specialist labourers shall be preserved for V.P.E. 562 for vehicle repair tasks. The pre-condition was set up that these were to be employed in a closed concentration camp.


As the motivation and effectiveness of the Jewish labourers is essentially dependent of the fact that not only the men but also their wives and children can remain in Vilna, by expressed accordance by the SD the associated women and children were held back as well and transferred to the work camp Subocz street. At this time are 1243 Jewish persons are in the work camp. Out of these are 499 men, 554 women and 190 children.


To get the at first unemployed women post-haste to productive work, these by consultation with the War-Economy Extern HQ Vilna / Capt. Klipfl/ were brought to employment as well. For this purpose 311 women were attached to (Fa. = firm) Reitz Uniform works and (firm) Herbert Meier, which have to perform assignments for Army- and Air Force clothing offices. Within the work camp appropriate rooms were provided, where those firms have established their machines and installations for the repair of blankets, coats, stockings etc.


During month November the Concentration Camp of V.P./East/562 in the wake of regulation valid for all C.C. in the East released by the SS_Economy Main Administration - Office D 2, Oranienburg-Berlin was taken over administratively and sub-ordinate to C.C. Kauen. From this time on all prisoners are distributed and charged on application to the pertinent offices, in this case V.P.E. 562 and accounted at Marks 4.- for a specialist, Marks 3.- for an assistant worker, M 3.- for a female specialist and M. 2.50 for an assistant female worker. The invoices as have handed in by now were forwarded for balance and control respectively to H.U.V. 190.


By letter dated 8.2.44, which is attached in copy, C.C. Kauen now asks by now for separate applications for those labourers  in the vehicle work shops and those employed at the firms, whereas the firms have to hand in the applications themselves.


At this procedure the park sees a danger insofar, as the SS is now in a position, to control the female labourers at will and transfer them in case  even to a non-local work-site f.e. in the C.C. Kauen. This case could materialise particularly then, when by lack of materials the firms operating in the work camp have only a need for a lower number of labourers than the existing, or if for other reasons for the SS the employment in Vilna appears less important than at another place.


Hereby not only the principle would be broken that strictly the male specialists of V.P.E. 562 in the interest of their motivation will stay with their wives, but also the cantonment Vilna will be deprived of most valuable labourers.


Therefore the park proposes the following:

H.U.V. 190 in Vilna requests all male and female Jewish labourers existing in the work camp at the SS-Economy Main Administration and controls the distribution of these forces to the single users of Army and Air Force in Vilna, whereby the firms Reitz Uniform Works and Herbert Meier, producing for the Army- and Air Force clothing offices will be kept included. Also V.P./East/ 562 claims it's specialists at H.U.V. 190 and accounts about the dues with this.


A principle decision is invited, if shall be acted according to the proposal of V.P.E. 562.


Plagge (hand written signature)

Major and Park Commandant


Pearl Good (1946)

On March 27, 1944, during Plagge's home leave absence, the SS carried out what they called a “Kinder Aktion” (a "Children Operation") — they entered the camp and rounded up the vast majority of the camp’s 250 children and then transported them away from the camp to be killed at Ponary. Both Plagge, his subordinates and the prisoners understood that ultimately the fate of the camp’s Jews was to be decided by the SS.

Survivor Pearl Good, made the following statement about Plagge's actions:

"My Father had worked in the HKP workshop  even  before we were put into the ghetto and his Facharbeiter Schein had saved him from  the “Khapuny –the grabbers.

After we were put into the ghetto on September 6th, 1941, Father would be let out of the ghetto daily and march to work at the H.K.P. work-shops.  Father’s “gele schein” –“skilled worker” yellow life certificate from HKP (even though my Father was far from skilled) saved us and kept us alive until September 1943 and the “Four Days” Aktzye to Estonia when the HKP schein could not protect us any more.

Major Plagge went to the station and ordered his workers and their families off the train to the slate mines and gave them military protection; however, the highest SD officer ordered the military guard to bring them back to the train.  Afterwards there was a serious clash between Plagge and the SD officer, Plagge was furious and desperate.

We managed to hide and survive this Aktzye.  Major Plagge was determined to protect his remaining Jewish workers and their families.  To do this he needed to establish a work-camp since the ghetto was about to be liquidated.  It was rumored that to achieve this Plagge traveled to Berlin to convince the authorities that his highly skilled Jews were indispensable for the Army Vehicle Repair – a bare-faced lie which, if discovered, could have ended in Plagge’s execution. "

Survivors Mark and Anna Balber made the following statement about Plagge:


"During the Nazi occupation of Vilno (now Vilnius)  we, along with about 1200 other Jews, were prisoners in a forced labor camp known as H.K.P.. We were under the control of both, the Wehrmacht and the SS. Major Plage was in charge of the Wehrmacht detachment.


We all knew that Major Plage would intercede with the SS and do anything he could to help us and to alleviate our suffering. Of the many situations that arose, several stand out in our minds:


One morning, when we stood for our daily count, the SS commander, Kitel, singled out young and pretty girls and took them away. One of our (Jewish) leaders, N. Kolish, appealed to Major Plage. The girls were released the same day.


On another occasion, after we were in the camp about six months, an SS officer by the name of Weiss took away all the small children. They were taken to a place called Ponary and all killed. We later found out that this only happened because Major Plagge was on leave in Germany, and was not there to object."


Excerpt from a letter written by Karl Plagge to his wife Anke on 6/21/1944 :


..I just bear life heavily, very heavily.  Sometimes I almost believe, I can hardly come to grips with it.  But I fight myself through it again and again.  Reason, feeling and physical condition often lie in conflict with one another.  Again and again a strong humanity breaks through with me, that stands so completely in antithesis to the many inhumanities around me.  Here indeed lies the biggest conflict in me.  As a National Socialist I must say yes“ to the mass slaughter, to the politics against Poles, which see in these people an inferior class of human beings, and to many others more. 

As a human being I perceive that it is insanity and that everything must become a heap of ruins, because all of this must lead again and again to the most violent eruptions.  I am living now three years in the East and work together with these people.  Few perhaps have had such an opportunity to get to know the psyche of the Easterners. A large quantity of heart blood, my best strength is in my work.  Because it is completely my work.  And the work is based solely upon my person and will expire when I am no more.  It is based upon my humanity, upon my care, upon my thoughts concerning the living together of people.  It is a part of my nature, it is a piece of my life’s fulfillment. 

Only I alone know about all the difficulty, all the struggles, all the conflicts, which were part of putting up this structure and is brought in new daily.  And the worst conflict is, that all this stands in absolute contrast to what leading men wish and strive for: to be masters, to erect partitions, to let them feel the knout, to subjugate the East and make them dependant to us.  That is Eastern politics.  That is why one

sends the dregs to this place. 


That is just good enough to impress these dirty Polish people.  And how differently, how completely differently do I see the things.  Do you believe, with these principles, I could let 2000 people perform valuable work for the German armed forces?  People, who today do this work willingly and almost happily, because they know, I am here and help and protect?  People, who at first were wounded, mistrustful, wasted, half starved and wretched and, to a large extent, still are.  I act as I must, as my nature impels me, not because I am a Nationalsocialist, but rather although I am a Nationalsocialist. 


Oh, how difficult it is, to explain all this to you and how remote the prospect of finding the right words. I can by no means tell you how the situation oppresses me, that our german reputation has suffered so indescribably here, through wrong measures, inadequate people, see-saw policies and mismanagement. How mortifying is much that one must experience here.  How the teeth of every german man grinds here. 


How ashamed one often is deep inside over the hopeless situation in which we Germans find ourselves here...


Just before the German retreat, on July 1, 1944, Major Plagge made an informal speech inside the camp. In the presence of an SS officer, he told the prisoners that he and his men were being relocated to the west, and he was unable to get permission to take his workers with his unit. The prisoners were told that they would be relocated on July 3 by the SS.


A memorial erected in Vilna beside buildings that had housed the HKP forced labor camp

With this covert warning, over half the camp's prisoners went into hiding before the SS death squads arrived on July 3, 1944. The 500 prisoners who did appear at roll call were taken to Ponary and shot. Over the next three days the SS searched the camp and its surroundings and succeeded in finding half the missing prisoners; these 250 Jews were shot in the camp courtyard.


However, when the Red Army captured Vilnius a few days later, some 250 of the camp's Jews emerged from hiding. This group represents the largest single group of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Vilnius.

After the war, Karl Plagge returned home to Darmstadt, Germany, where he was put on trial in 1947 as part of the post-war denazification process. The outcome of his trial was positively influenced by the testimony of some of his former prisoners, who were in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart.


At his own request he was classified as a follower/collaborator, even though the court had wanted to award him the status of an exonerated person. Like Oskar Schindler he blamed himself for not having done enough. After the trial Plagge lived out the final years of his life quietly and without fanfare before dying 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 startling light of moral courage in the midst of utter darkness. After 1945, the approximately 250 Holocaust survivors of the HKP Slave Labor Camp were scattered over the globe, working to begin life anew.


But over the decades and generations that followed the war, from DP camps in Germany and from new homes in the United States, Canada, Israel, France, Lithuania and Russia, they tried to find him. They told their children stories of survival and that they owed their lives to the actions of Major Plagge. For many years the identity and motivations of this unusual officer remained obscured by the mists of time and distance.


In 2005 he was bestowed the “Righteous Among the Nations” title by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.





Good, Dr. Michael: The Search For Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews. Fordham University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8232-2440-6
Yad Vashem press release on Karl Plagge - http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_yad/press_room/press_releases/10.04.05B.html

Žydų darbo stovykla HKP: 1943–1944: dokumentai. The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum Guzenberg, Irina 2002
Der Spiegel Article "Duty of an Major" Original article by Almut Hielscher 1/8/2001

Yad Vashem Archives

Darmstadt Records Archive




 Copyright. Carmelo Lisciotto  H.E.A.R.T 2010


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