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Karl Plagge


A German officer during World War II, Karl Plagge used his position to save hundreds of Jewish prisoners.

Photograph of Karl PlaggeBorn in Germany in 1897, Karl Plagge became permanently disabled after contracting polio as a prisoner during World War I. He graduated in engineering and then obtained a Master's degree in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Frankfurt am Main in 1932. He then ran a medical laboratory in his mother's house in an attempt to support his family through the recession. He risked his livelihood by continuing to treat Jewish patients and repeatedly condemned racial 'science' as unscientific.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Karl Plagge was drafted into the army where, due to his disability, he was assigned roles in support services. He was given charge of an engineering unit at an army motor repair workshop in Vilnius.

Resisting Nazi regulations

Karl continued to resist Nazi regulations in the workshop, refusing to tolerate the brutality towards civilians, which was common, and supporting their welfare whenever he could.  His final act of courage, in the final days before the German retreat, was to issue a veiled warning to the camp's Jewish prisoners, in the presence of an SS officer, about the imminent arrival of the SS deaths squads. Two hundred and fifty prisoners were able to go into hiding after his warning and remained undiscovered until the Soviet troops liberated the camp shortly afterwards.

'Righteous Among the Nations'

In 2006, Karl Plagge's actions were honoured by the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority, who bestowed upon him the title 'Righteous Among the Nations', an honour given to non-Jews who risked their own life to save the lives of Jews. 

Dr Jane Essex gave the following reasons when asked what inspired her to nominate Karl Plagge for 175 faces of chemistry:

“I nominated him because he seemed to embody so many facets of diversity to the point of paradox: a Nazi who saved Jews, a disabled person who pursued a career long before equality was the norm, a German exiled in Lithuania, an educated person who superintended vehicle repairs. I also think that his work really represents the Royal Society of Chemistry's motto 'for the sake of knowledge and the benefit of mankind' in the way he used his science to help these most vulnerable of humans.”

Words by Andrea Banham
Images courtesy of Thomas Wittinger
Published May 2013

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