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Vilna Stories

60 Years Later, Honoring an Unlikely Hero of the Holocaust
Published: March 28, 2005

URHAM, Conn., March 24 - It took 60 years before they found each other
and amassed enough proof to overcome skeptics. But a handful of
families who survived the Holocaust are responsible for having a
German army officer recognized for saving hundreds of Jews from
extermination during World War II.


Leading the campaign has been Dr. Michael Good, a family physician in
Connecticut. He says that the officer, Maj. Karl Plagge, saved his
mother and seven of her relatives, a story he tells in a new book
called "The Search for Major Plagge."

He and members of the other families who persuaded Israel to award the
major its highest honor for righteous gentiles say their unlikely
hero, who died in 1957 at age 59, took some 1,000 Jews from the Vilna
ghetto to the relative shelter of a nearby forced labor camp one week
before the ghetto was liquidated in September 1943. The families say
that at the camp, which he commanded, Major Plagge sought to keep
those prisoners beyond the reach of the SS death squads.

Their campaign to honor Major Plagge was not an easy one. Yad Vashem,
the authority Israel created to remember the Holocaust, twice rejected
their requests with little explanation.

Now, on the strength of additional evidence submitted in a third
application last year, Yad Vashem will honor the major on April 11 in
Jerusalem. His name will be inscribed on a garden wall, not far from
trees already honoring others who risked their "lives, freedom or
safety" to save Jews, like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

Of the 20,205 honorees to date, only 410 are German, and only a few
were German soldiers, say Yad Vashem officials.

By all accounts, the ceremony would not be taking place if Dr. Good
had not grown curious six years ago how his parents had survived those
years, when so many other Jews from Vilna had perished. (The city,
which changed hands several times, was called Vilna by the Russians
and Vilnius by the Lithuanians.)

Dr. Good, 47, is the first to admit that he never had much interest in
his heritage before that. Accents ran thick in his childhood home in
West Covina, Calif. The furniture had hiding places for "emergencies,"
and his father spoke 10 languages, but was baffled by baseball.

All he wanted as a boy, Dr. Good said, was to be a "regular American."
Eventually, he married Susan Possidente, a Roman Catholic nurse, moved
to Connecticut, raised a son and daughter and avoided synagogue.

His curiosity was piqued during a trip to Vilnius with his parents in
1999. They visited the work camp where his mother had been a prisoner
and she told him of the German officer who ran the camp, a man, she
said, who had saved her life. The more he asked his parents, "How is
it I'm alive?" the more he realized how fortunate he was that
"somebody in a crucial moment helped them in their time of need."

Through e-mail, Dr. Good found other residents of the work camp who
corroborated his family's stories, and volunteers who combed German
archives. (Their findings are at and
became the germ of the book.) In the process, he learned far more
about his parents' lives during those very dangerous years. He learned
that his father, Wowka Zev Gdud, now 80 and known as William, escaped
a Nazi-led execution squad and spent the rest of the war hiding in a

His 75-year-old mother, Perela Esterowicz, who now goes by Pearl, was
more fortunate. After two years in the Vilna ghetto, she was among
1,000 Jews who were transferred at Major Plagge's urging to the work
camp, on Subocz Street on the outskirts of the city. One week later,
the Germans purged the ghetto.

Though the camp's official role was fixing military vehicles, Major
Plagge found jobs for all. Dr. Good said his grandfather Samuel
Esterowicz "couldn't change a light bulb," but was deemed "essential"
by Major Plagge, and his mother mended soldiers' socks.

Though Dr. Good found no evidence that Major Plagge openly defied the
SS, he said the major subverted many of their lethal intentions by
insisting that he needed Jewish prisoners for the war effort.

Survivors recalled that Major Plagge once took an ailing Jewish
internee to a hospital, exposing himself to great risk, and staged a
beating of two Jewish prisoners who had smuggled food into the ghetto
to keep the SS from handling the matter.