April 22, 2020, Israel
Karl Plagge in 1943. Do not fooled by the Nazi uniform, this man is a hero. Do not judge a book by its cover.
Yesterday we observed in Israel Holocaust and Bravery Day. It is called Holocaust and Bravery Day because we not only commemorate the tragedy of the Holocaust, the Shoah, the Destruction, but also the bravery of the many Jews who fought back. We also acknowledge gratefully the many non Jews who risked and often sacrificed their lives on behalf of Jewish people. They too are included in the annals of bravery.
The world is a confusing place. As a child I played with toy soldiers, good guys vs bad guys, cowboys vs Indians, and Americans vs. Germans. It took many years until I learned that during those dark years of the Holocaust there were many Americans who fully supported the Nazi ideas and did everything possible to stop the Jews from coming to the United States, even in limited numbers, and many Germans who opposed the Nazis and helped Jews. The world is not Black and White. Breckinridge Long, Joseph Kennedy, stand up as two Americans, along with many members of Congress and the State Department and the president who did quite a bit to keep the Jews out of America. I have in my library five books with full details. I am sure the full story can fill many volumes. It also took many years until the stories of Germans who helped Jews began to come out. Not only did many Germans do a great deal to save Jews buy many who wore the dreaded Nazi uniform as well. Many books can be filled with their names, just off the top of my head. Wilm Hosenfeld, whose name is known to all from the film The Pianist, a "Nazi" who changed his perspective and saved at least 60 Jews. Rudolf Werner Best, who saved the Jews of Denmark, Helmut Kleinicke who save Jews at Auschwitz, and many others. Today I was thinking of Karl Plagge, who saved at least hundreds of Jews in Vilna. He single handedly saved more Jews in Lithuania than any other individual or group.
I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. I had direct knowledge of what that era, the era just after the war, felt like. I experienced it first hand. But the true stories only came out later. The 1960's was too soon, it was all too fresh. Today we know more. We know the ugly side and we know the beautiful side. When I was young I thought a new generation was rising, a better generation, the past was gone. But this was not true, and is never true. Man is weak in his nature, and there are very few heroes.
People look at Europe today, at Germany, at the other countries that joyfully participated in our murder, and they say, Look, things are different today. They are ignoring the past and the present, and the future. There were many good Germans in those days and they took heroic actions that amaze their grandchildren of today. When asked, would you have the courage to do what your grossfater did, your grandfather, the answer is ...I don't think so. We must remember these men and we must learn.
I recall the words of the late Rabbi Kahane, himself gunned down by an Arab in a hotel in New York City, and his killer was allowed to go free for "lack of evidence" (in a room filled to capacity). He said to us, You think this can't happen again? You think this can't happen in America? When times are good, when people own big houses and drive around their yard in a cushy lawnmower mowing the lawn, these are hard times for haters. The hater waits until the "climate" is right. You will not see haters at his time. But wait, wait until things are bad. Do you think the Germans were so different from others? Do you know what it was like in Germany at that time? Do you know how a man feels when he has not worked for 6 months, for a year, for three years!!! At this point he is no longer a man. He has lost his self respect. He is deeply ashamed. But then when someone comes along and says 'this is not your fault, there is someone out there, another group, who is responsible for this misfortune. Join me and I will make you a man again.' Don't you think he will join the party? Certainly he will.
Do you want to know how people really feel? Don't look at those who attend black tie dinners awarding each other humanitarian plaques. No, go to a bar, a bad bar, a really bad bar. Buy someone a drink and start talking. Ask him what he thinks of the Jews, ask him what he thinks of the "New York bankers who control the world", as the beer pours in the hatred will come out. It can happen again, here in America.
Those where his words many yeas ago.
We look at Karl Plagge and we know that in every generation, in every land, there are good people and there are bad people. All that changes is the political and economic climate. Bad times, when people cannot work, cannot earn a living, the climate is ripe and right for the haters to rise again. Good times when a man can go sailing on a Sunday and mow his lawn in his fancy car like lawnmower...these are good times for peace, love and understanding. We need to be prepared for both.
Today we remember Karl Plagge of Darmstadt. born 10 July 1897, passed on 19 June 1957. He is honored by Yad Va Shem in Israel as a Righteous among the nations.
Originally a Lutheran, Plagge lost his belief in God because of the atrocities that he witnessed during the Holocaust. He was ideologically a national conservative, but joined the Nazi Party on 1 December 1931. During his denazification trial, Plagge stated that he was initially drawn to the promises of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to rebuild the German economy and national pride, which suffered during the years that Germany experienced after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Between 1931 and 1933, Plagge worked as a local organizer for the party. He came into conflict with the leadership of the party after 1933, when Hitler seized power. According to his later testimony, Plagge refused to accept the Nazi racial theories, which he considered unscientific, and was disgusted by the persecution of political opponents and the corruption of many Nazi functionaries. Instead of leaving the party, he attempted to effect change from within, accepting a position as a scientific lecturer and leader of a Nazi educational institute in Darmstadt. Because of his refusal to teach Nazi racial ideology, he was dismissed from his position in 1935. A local party official accused Plagge of being on good terms with Jews and Freemasons, treating Jews in his home laboratory, and opposing the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, threatening to bring Plagge before a party tribunal. Instead, Plagge ceased his activity with the party, disenchanted with Nazism.