Major Karl Plagge was a high-ranking Nazi officer who used his influential position to save hundreds of people from violent persecution in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, including dozens of Jewish workers and their families.
As an officer in the German army, Plagge was put in charge of an engineering unit known as Heereskraftfahrpark (HKP) 562 in 1941. Based in Vilnius, Lithuania, the unit was essentially a forced labour camp. Plagge was appalled by the persecution of Jews in the region, and set about issuing work permits to unskilled Jewish workers so as to deem them ‘essential’ in the eyes of the German state.
Later, towards the close of World War Two, the SS began storming labour camps and executing the inmates. While hundreds were ultimately executed at HKP 562, Plagge managed to warn some of the Jewish workers of the looming threat, encouraging dozens to hide and escape death.
It’s thought that Plagge saved the lives of over 250 Jewish Lithuanians.
Forced labour camps
Plagge was a World War One veteran and engineer who joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (later to become known as the Nazi Party) in 1931, in the hopes of rebuilding Germany following the economic collapse.
After the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, he was drafted to form part of the engineering facility which brought him to Vilnius, Lithuania.
The HKP 562 labour camp at Vilnius was the setting for the murder of 100,000 Lithuanian Jews under the Nazi regime during World War Two: ostensibly a forced labour camp, it was run by one of the Wehrmacht’s engineering teams. Plagge was horrified by the atrocities committed by his people and their local Lithuanian helpers.
Keeping families together
In response, Plagge set into action automotive workshops for the male Jewish inmates to work in and argued to his superiors that they would be more enthusiastic workers if they could stay with their families. His vision of the HKP was more than just a repair shop, for most people it was their permit for life.
The workers were certified by Plagge as skilled mechanics but many were without automotive skills. They learned new skills very quickly and before long they were the skilled workers that Plagge had claimed them to be.
Eventually, the SS demanded that the women and children be removed as they were idle in the camps. Plagge’s response was to import sewing machines and set up sewing workshops and put the women and children to work too.
The atmosphere that Plagge had created was totally unique to other Nazi labour camps. He gave orders to officers that the civilians should be treated with respect and he went to great efforts to get them firewood so they didn’t freeze, doctors so they wouldn’t get sick, and to give them more food than the starvation rations permitted by the SS.
After over two years of protecting Jewish families, Plagge made a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Efforts in vain?
He allowed himself leave to go and visit his own family: but in his absence, on 27 March 1944, the SS stormed the camp. It was a plan actioned across all camps in Lithuania. Their orders were to round up all the children and take them to their deaths. This is now known as the ‘Kinderaktion’.
According to the testimonies of survivors, the Nazis executed hundreds of prisoners on the side of the Western building where bodies were then hastily buried in shallow pits.
By 1 July 1944, Germany was losing the war and all efforts Plagge had put into the site to save the Jews was on the verge of being lost. All he could hope for was that some of the people who were still sheltering in the buildings and somehow find a way to stay out of the hands of the SS long enough to be liberated by the Red Army.
As the Soviets closed in, the SS knew they had to leave as little evidence of the mass killings that had taken place. The guards around the camp were tightened and everyone was trapped within the confines of the buildings, like animals awaiting slaughter.
Plagge subtly warned the families that they would be called for and now was the time to hide. Only half of the 1,000 inmates showed up to the roll call in the hopes that they would be spared. They were led to the forest and executed by the SS.
SS officers tore through the camp in search of the missing inmates. Children hid under the floorboards in the attic for days. Sydney Handler was one of those hiding in the attic and was just 10 years old. He recalls hearing people being hauled out of hiding downstairs and being marched downstairs into the courtyard for execution. There was a round of fire from a machine gun and then silence.
Nazis on trial
In 1947, the former commander of a Nazi forced labour camp was tried for his part in the German occupation of Vilnius. The trial revealed that Plagge had orchestrated a daring covert operation to save the last Jews at the camp. But it was also noted that Plagge had acted out of humanitarian principles, not because he was inherently opposed to Nazism.
To everyone’s surprise, a few survivors of the labour camp came to testify on Plagge’s behalf. As a result, he was acquitted but unlike others, he did not feel absolved from guilt. He never spoke about what he did because he thought it was simply his duty and that he hadn’t done it properly because so many died. His bravery saved the lives of over 250 Jewish Lithuanians.