YOM HASHOA 5778
Thursday Jews around the world observed Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and this coming Thursday we will celebrate Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day)—and it will be a big celebration as we commemorate Israel’s 70th birthday. It’s a wide swing of emotions in a short time. I have a pressing concern about Yom Hashoah that I think is shared by most Jews. No matter how many times I observe this day, I still have no idea how to do it. Should we light candles? But do 6 candles suffice to mark the death of 6 million? Should we pray? But what prayers should we say to Gd who seemed silent as He was called out for help while this happened? Whatever we do seems so inadequate.
To top it all off, there’s a move today to forget the Holocaust; brush it aside and move on. In fact, a new study released on Yom Hashoah on Thursday found that 22% of Millenials said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust and that 2/3 didn’t know what Auschwitz was. My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg laments: If someone murdered a loved one of yours would you benevolently erase the atrocity from your mind?…6 million Jews were brutally murdered, yet some wish to conveniently forget. Why live in the past? The dead cannot be revived! Let us speak for the living…The Nazi mentality still exists; we dare not naively believe that anti-Semitism has vanished. Hatred and bigotry is a cancer that eventually returns to haunt its innocent victims.
One meaningful thing I like to do on Yom Hashoah to restore my faith in mankind is to is read about some of the good people who lived through this time—people who were a ray of light in an otherwise very dark world. Everyone knows about Oscar Schindler and how he saved many Jews—thanks to Thomas Kenalley, who wrote a book about him and to Steven Spielberg who made the movie. But let me tell you the story of another good person, one whose name is much less well known: Major Karl Plagge.
Last spring Dr. Michael Good—an American physician—published The Search for Major Plagge. Dr. Good grew up hearing stories of how his parents went through the Holocaust and how their lives were saved, thanks to a “good German” whose name was Major Karl Plagge. They told him that Plagge was in charge of a work camp and how kindly he treated his Jews…how he protected them from the cruelty of other Nazis…and how—at the end of the war—he warned them to get away and kept them from being sent on a death march. Dr. Good decided to find out whether he was still alive, and why this Nazi treated Jews so well.
It wasn’t an easy search. Let me read you some of what he found: Karl Plagge was a Nazi. He joined the party in 1931, before you had to, before the Nazis came to power. He joined the party because he believed in it. He thought it was the way to bring order and stability to Germany. And because he was a member of the party, he was given assignments and responsibilities like being put in charge of a work camp near Vilna where Jews were imprisoned and required to do slave labor.
Gradually, Plagge became disillusioned with the Nazi ideology. He was offended by the cruelty, the brutality, the sadism of what he saw around him. And so he resolved to help Jews wherever and whenever he could. But with one condition: he would help only within the letter of the law. He was not the kind of hero that risked his life and did dramatic things. He was a cautious, careful man, who was only willing to help Jews to the extent that he could do so without risking his own life.
These are some of the things that he did for his Jews:
- He set up a park kitchen that served a wholesome lunch for the park workers when they worked outside the factory.
- He created stores that supplied the workers with both necessities and even a few luxuries.
- He created a hospital for these workers. He managed to work the system and persuade the authorities to let him have medical supplies and equipment and staff, even when they were in short supply, because he claimed that his workers were indispensable to the war effort.
- He supplied them with decent, warm clothing, which he obtained through complicated negotiations with Nazi authorities.
- Whenever one of his workers was caught up in a street raid by the Nazis, he intervened and insisted that he be released because he needed them in his work camp.
- When 70 of them were about to be sent to a death camp, he went to the authorities above him and fought to save them. He claimed that these were skilled workers, who were indispensable to his factory, and he somehow got the Lithuanian authorities to believe him and to release these prisoners.
He did anything and everything he could for them—within the limits of the law. To the outside world, he pretended to be a strict Prussian trying to run an efficient operation. The SS never understood his true feelings and intentions. But his people understood what he was really doing—that he was involved in saving as many lives as he could—within the rules. He did not do more because there were limits to his courage, and because he was a disciplined German, who had been brought up on respect for authority.
After the war, Plagge was brought to trial, accused of being a Nazi. He didn’t deny it. He only claimed that he was a “fellow traveler,” the lowest category of Nazi official—one who had done wrong, but only when and because he had to. It was only when some of the Jews whose lives he saved heard about his trial and came to testify that he was found not guilty.
Karl Plagge lived out the rest of his years in obscurity, and died in 1956. Some of the Jews whose lives he saved remembered him and tried to help him after the war, but, though he was pleased to meet with them and enjoyed their reunions, he didn’t accept their offers of help for he said he didn’t need nor deserve them. If anything, he felt guilty for not having done more.
Those whose lives he saved knew he deserved recognition for what he did. They compiled a dossier which included many testimonies of Jews he had saved and submitted it to the Yad VaShem Holocust Museum in Jerusalem. Today there’s a tree in the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles planted there to honor his memory.
Let me tell you what I’ve learned from Major Karl Plagge. I’ve learned to revise my definition of a hero. I grew up thinking that a hero is someone who does dramatic acts of bravery like Tarzan who swings from the trees, or Batman and Superman doing incredible acts of courage. A hero is someone like Madame Curie, who risks her own life in order to make a scientific discovery. A hero is someone like Shifra and Puah, the midwives in Egypt who defied Pharaoh in order to save the lives of Jewish children…or someone like Elijah or Jeremiah who told truth to power…or someone like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Ghandi who were willing to go to jail for what they believed in.
But now I realize that one who is willing to do everything he can—within the system—can also be a hero. Can you imagine how many Jewish lives would have been saved if more Nazi soldiers had done what Major Karl Plagge did? Plagge may not have been a perfect hero, but who is? To be as much of a hero as you can be within your limits, and then to see yourself afterwards, not as a hero but as a “fellow traveler” because you didn’t do more—is to be worthy of our admiration.
Who can say what you or I would have done if we had been in his shoes? Would you or I have risked our lives and the lives of our families to defy the orders we were given? Plagge could have done more—beyond the limits of the law. Nevertheless he is a hero and I believe Yad VaShem was right to declare him one of the Chasidey umot ha olam (one of the righteous gentiles of this world).
I share his name with you because even though I’m conflicted as to what to do to observe Yom Hashoah, I know that the story of Major Karl Plagge has something important to teach us…and that is: even if a person is not a superman, and even if a person has human weaknesses and fears, a person can still do that which he can do—and to do what you can do is no small thing. And I share his name and his story with you because I believe that we need to know that there were good gentiles who did what they could at a time of unmitigated evil who redeemed the name of human being in the time of darkness.
Major Karl Plagge described himself as “an ordinary person who did the best he could.” Would that we had more such “ordinary” people in this world. May his name be remembered for good…and may he be a source of strength and inspiration to us all. Amen!