German Wehrmacht officer Karl Plagge has been called "better than Oskar Schindler" for saving Jewish lives during World War II. On Monday, the Israeli Holocaust memorial committee will give him one of its highest honors.
Very few Germans are honored at the Yad Vashem memorial
"Righteous among the nations" is the title Israel's Holocaust memorial council at Yad Vashem bestows on people who risked their lives to save jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.
To date, the country has given the award to 20,570 people. Just 410 of them were German, and of these, just a handful were military personnel. On Monday, thanks to the historical research efforts of a child of concentration camp survivors, German army officer named Karl Plagge will be posthumously given the award.
Michael Good, a family physician in the U.S. state of Connecticut, says Major Plagge saved his mother and seven other members of his family from sure death, along with hundreds of other inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Good said a trip with his parents back to Vilnius in 1999 piqued his curiosity about how his family survived that era, when so many others perished. Before the trip, Good admits, he did not have much interest in his own heritage. But when his mother told him about her time in the ghetto and how she was saved by a German officer, he began using the internet to dig into the past, finding other survivors to corroborate his mother's story.
Major Karl Plagge
What Good found was this: Just a week before the ghetto was purged by the Germans in September, 1943, Plagge commandeered some 1,000 Jews to work in an military-vehicle maintenance camp outside the ghetto, keeping them safe from death squads. Both Good's mother and grandfather survived the purge in this way. Good has pointed out to various interviewers that his grandfather "couldn't change a lightbulb," and that his mother's task was darning socks for soldiers. But by listing them as "essential workers," Plagge saved their lives, Good claims.
It took Good six years of long-distance searching to find other survivors from Plagge's life-saving scheme, but eventually he succeeded. Along with Marianne Viefhaus, an archivist from the University of Darmstadt in Germany, he was able to complete the picture of a German whose courage saved several hundred Jews from certain death.
A number of the workers' last memories of Plagge was shortly before the Red Army was to enter Vilnius, in July 1944. According to several survivors, Plagge performed one last heroic act. In the presence of SS officers, he gave the prisoners a veiled warning when he said they would 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."
Many of the inmates took this as a sign to run away or hide, thus saving their lives.
William Begell, a survivor who was then just 17 years old, was interviewed by Good for a book he wrote called "The Search for Major Plagge." He said he understood the warning, and jumped out a window to escape evacuation by the Nazis.
Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial
Good said he sought the Yad Vashem honor for Plagge after he found out the German had no relatives he could thank directly. He told England's Guardian newspaper that during their trip to Vilnius, his mother was "waving her cane around and saying 'He was better than Schindler.'"
Still, Good's attempt to have Plagge named "righteous among the nations" met with resistance at first. Yad Vashem did not accept that Plagge had put himself in harm's way, since the German military had endorsed using Jewish slave labor to support the war effort. But on the third try, having gathered yet more material in support of his subject, he succeeded.
Plagge was put on trial after the war, like thousands of other Germans. Trial transcripts show former prisoners and subordinates vouched for him, but he insisted on being classified as having some complicity.
Plagge died in 1957 in his hometown of Darmstadt, at age 59. After the war, he was said to be burdened by guilt at not having saved more people from the Nazis.
At Monday's ceremony in Israel, Plagge's name will be inscribed on a garden wall, not far from trees honoring Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and others who risked their "lives, freedom or safety" to save Jews. And Michael Good and his mother will be there to watch.