Today, righteousness in a strange place. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them.
My book publisher in the 1970s was an avuncular, Santa Claus of a fellow, Bill Begell. Always cheerful, always at the center of the party. Begell appeared at twin celebrations in Jerusalem and Darmstadt in 2005. He was there to honor a Nazi who'd run a slave labor camp, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Bill Begell, as young man, and in his later years
(My thanks to Begell House Publishers, Inc. for these photos.)
Begell was born in eastern Poland in 1928. Late in WW-II, the Nazis caught him as a teenaged Jewish boy, and sent him to that camp. Then, a strange thing: The Komandant, Karl Plagge, let the prisoners know that the retreating SS was coming to kill them all. And he turned a blind eye as Bill and 50 others escaped through a second story window whose grating had been removed. Two hundred more managed to survive in hiding places within the camp.
Plagge had just saved some 250 lives. And that was the tip of an iceberg. So let's learn more about this Nazi officer, Karl Plagge: He'd served in WW-I until the British captured him. Afterward, he'd studied chemical engineering at Darmstadt. And he joined the new Nazi party. That lasted until he'd heard their crazy ideas about race. Then he withdrew from active involvement.
The German Army called Plagge back in, to serve in WW-II. They sent him to the part of Poland that was then Lithuania. And they eventually put him in charge of that slave labor camp.
There Plagge entered a strange moral gray zone. He was now a Nazi Major, actively serving both the military and the holocaust. Yet it was only by serving that he managed to save so many. In fact he's remembered along with Schindler. Plagge probably saved as many lives. Like Schindler, he'd been labeling countless Jews, and their families, as "essential workers."
Karl Plagge -- a reluctant Nazi in WW-II
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
So what became of Karl Plagge after the war? The Allies put him on trial because he had been a Nazi from the start, and he'd run a slave labor camp. But his disobedience came to light during the trial. They found him innocent of war crimes. But to make a hero of him would've cast too many important Germans as cowards. So the Allies just quietly acquitted him.
But Plagge did not forgive himself. He was ashamed, felt he'd done far too little. Even during the trial, he'd called himself a "Nazi fellow-traveler." The Jewish Yad Vashem group, responsible for identifying righteous non-Jews, balked at first. Plagge's military record was too clean. He achieved so much by playing the loyal Nazi while he acted with singular courage.
Then people like Begell stepped up to thank Plagge for their own long and fruitful lives. The clearest mark of Plagge's true righteousness was that he never quit grieving for lives he might've saved, if only he'd done this or that just a bit differently. The year before he died, he wrote: "I ... bear this guilt. From this plague there was no refuge."
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
See the Wikipedia article on Karl Plagge.
William Begell's own account of Plagge's heroism is given on this site.
This Wikipedia article describes Plagge's forced labor camp. The camp was actually located within the (now Capital) Lithuanian city of Vilnius. Polish forces had taken the city, and a region surrounding it, during the Russian Revolution in the wake of WW-I. They'd created a separate. Polish-controlled "Republic of Central Lithuania" that included Vilnius. That region was under dispute between Poland and Lithuania when Germany invaded Poland and this "Republic" in 1939. The "camp" was actually situated in a set of buildings within Vilnius.
The source for much of this information was the result of research by Michael Good: The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi who saved Jews. (Fordham Univ. Press, 2005) I recommend this video of a lecture by Dr. Good.
This article from The Independent places Plagge ahead of Schindler.
I am most grateful to my colleague, Dr. N. Shamsundar for bringing this story to my attention. Also, thanks to Prof. Sarah Fishman for her helpful comments.
This episode was first aired on July 19, 2021