Article from the Frankfurter Rundschau May 17 2001 By Stephen Bornecke Translated by Marcus Schneider with English editing by Michael Good June 15, 2001
The Wonder has a Name
The Wehrmacht's Major Karl Plagge saved many Jews' lives near the end of WW2 " Whenever I am in Paneriai, my brother Issak says to me, Joseph, here there was a place prepared for us too." At least 70,000 Jews from Vilnius were shot and killed at the execution grounds in Lithuania also known as Ponary. But Joseph Reches and his older brother (by eight years) Isaak survived the massacre of Jews and Poles in Lithuania. These are some of the "adventurous things" about life in Vilnius that Isaak Reches tells retired school teacher Margot Zmarzlik, in Freiburg. Mrs Zmarzlik, who founded a support fund for surviving Baltic Jews in 1993 says: “Isaak Reches when talking about his childhood in the ghetto was often so emotional that he cried, both the miserable wasting away, and then the unexpected rescue”. The Reches may be the only whole family that escaped the liquidation of ghetto and camp; with them escaped another 100 to 250 people according to the different testimonies. "A wonder happened" Joseph Reches tells in the memoirs his brother Isaak encouraged him to write 55 years after the war ended. “When the GESTAPO was ready to search the working and living camps of the HKP 562 East and to kill their inhabitants, our father interred our mother, Isaak and me with scarce food reserves in a niche in the wall". Some water and a little bit of sugar that quickly melted in the heat of July 1944 were the only food items they took in their dungeon. The father drilled holes for breathing and then went into a hiding place himself. "We stiffened and acted like we were in a summer hibernation. The torture lasted five days", until their father was able to liberate them. The wonder has a name. The Wehrmacht commander of the HKP camp, Major Karl Plagge, in whose workshops Reches’ parents worked, warned the family of the impending danger through a coded but understandable message. The Hessian engineer had become a party member in 1931 but had emotionally quit the party well before the war started. This transformation was shown in recently discovered documents. Spruchkammer witness Friedrich Asmus also testifies that he "fought constantly against the misery" of civil workers and their families”. Today t researcher Marianne Viefhaus of Darmstadt who discovered and researched a large part of the Plagge story places him even in proximity of Oskar Schindler because of his dedication to help ameliorate the miserable living conditions of the ghetto inhabitants. For the historian Wolfram Wette of Freiburg who leads the project "Helpers and Rescuers from the Wehrmacht", Plagge is "one of almost one hundred Wehrmacht members who helped Jews, prisoners and persecuted people". Plagge, remembers William Begell, who was 17 years old at the time, gathered a group of "his Jews" in the morning of June 30th 1944 and he announced the forthcoming evacuation of the camp by the SS - in presence of a SS group leader named Richter. He gave a warning: "You all know very well, how carefully the SS takes care of it’s Jewish prisoners". They understood what this meant remembers Pearl Esterowicz Good who is today a 71 years old chemist from the United
States. The prisoners understood that the Germans were going to exterminate all camp’s inmates without mercy during their retreat Westward. Mrs. Good tells that Plagge's speech "frightened and scared us to death". The Major who risked his own life with this action wanted to say, "Don't be foolish, run for your life as fast as you can !" says William Begell today. Mr Begell, born in Vilnius as Wilhelm Beigel, was able to save his own life by jumping through the window of the forge whose metal bars he and his friends had welded open; through a hail of bullets sent by the SS he disappeared in the nearby woods. Pearl Good 15 years old back then, stayed in the camp like most of the others. She belongs to the small group of survivers who weren’t killed during the liquidation of the camp, which is something she owes to her own cleverness. Previously, in March of 1944 she had hidden in the sewage system under the barracks during the notorious "children’s actions" when the SS captured girls and boys living in the camp and killed them. By July this hiding place had been expanded so that there was place, with great difficulty, for about 100 people, among them Pearl's parents. "Three days of hiding in the pitch-dark drain" she writes in her memories, then the liberation through the Red Army. After the real ghetto had been liquidated, Plagge whose story just recently came to light bit by bit was able to incorporate working and living camps into his car repair workshop at the outskirts of the city. Despite severe surveillance by the SS, a relatively safe and protected place for about 1000 people was created. The witness Heinz Zeuner said in April of 1947 at Plagge’s denazification trial-Spruchkammer that Plagge was "constantly worried" whether his workers "received enough food rations". Joseph Reches regards the mere fact that the Major could have his Jewish workers live in the camp as a "victory" of Plagge against the GESTAPO. The worker's ID which were distributed by Plagge "whenever he could", "gave a great number of people the chance to get into the next round with the death" - instead of being killed on the execution square of Ponary. Reches considers these cards a “gift”. Plagge employed in his camp where both Jews and Poles worked more people than he needed for the repair of cross-country vehicles or the fabrication of generator gas cars, nor did he employ them because of their technical abilities. He employed for example "the Jewish physician Dr Wolfson...and his father in the park supposedly as workmen to save them from execution" tells the witness Christian Bartholomae in his written testimoney at the Spruchkammer of Darmstadt in July 1947. Mr Wolfson actually worked as doctor in the HKP camp. Another doctor was saved in 1943 by Plagge from the "Intelligence action" "under risk of his life" tells Bartholomae. Other Jews, writes the witness Alfred Stumpff in his testimony on April 26th 1947, were employed by Plagge as barbers, shoemakers, tailors, kitchen aids and gardeners. "Outwardly those people were camouflaged as skilled workers for the motor vehicle reparation". Another witness, Georg Raab, tells the Spruchkammer that Plagge was able to free 70 Jewish prisoners he knew by protested at the SD office against the arrests. His most successful argument: The prisoners are indispensable as workers because they "fulfill a job absolutely essential for the war effort". He was always very desperate and mad after failures like the unsuccessful liberation of those people that were taken to be transported into an ore mine in Estonia. His godson Konrad Hesse who was 19 years old when Plagge died remembers thatPlagge always thought he didn't do enough to relieve the situation. "He suffered from that belief until his
death." Thanks to Pearl Good's son, US American Michael Good and the modern communication technologies of the internet, the story of the Darmstadt engineer, who was lonely and sick after the war and died prematurely in 1957, becomes better known. There are still details being discovered to this day. Mr Good started two years ago with a search message in the Internet: "The Search for Major Plagge" (www.hometown.aol.com/michaeldg). His goal: Plagge should be honered with the title " righteous among the nations" at the Israeli memorial Yad Vashem. Pearl Good has just sent her testimony to Israel. Their efforts are aided by a Hamburg businessmen Good met in January of 2001 and Marianne Viefhaus, the retired but still active former director of the archives of the Technical University of Darmstadt. She tried to research the case soon and found something in the Hessian state archive in Wiesbaden, the Spruchkammer trials. Mrs Viefhaus thinks that she has also found there the evidence of a widespread knowledge among the Jewish survivors of the ghetto of Vilnius about Plagge’s actions. A story that is told vaguely already in the book of the artist Helene Holzman ("Das Kind soll leben" "The child must live"): That although that it was supposed to be impossible for Wehrmacht members, the Major saved Jews' lives. Historian Wolfram Wette of Freiburg doesn’t wonder why he didn't find anything about Plagge in the military archives: "If a rescue was successful, it didn't show up in the records. They wanted to exterminate Jews, not save them."