Two Nazi officers and a UK UN representative - opinion

In today’s column, we look at two men who wore Nazi uniforms, but what a difference. But we need to view the two Nazis in the lens provided by the UN ambassador from the UK.

 MAJOR KARL PLAGGE: Survivors petitioned that he be designated among the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. In 2004, he received that recognition. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM PHOTO ARCHIVES)
MAJOR KARL PLAGGE: Survivors petitioned that he be designated among the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. In 2004, he received that recognition.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM PHOTO ARCHIVES)

Things are not always what they seem to be. Two different people can look at the same event and experience different emotions. Individuals may have the same title in a governmental office and conduct themselves in completely different ways toward the public they serve.

We all experience this kind of duplicity. We stand in line and hope to get the clerk who is compassionate. In court, appealing a large fine for a traffic ticket we didn’t deserve, we hope to get the judge who is reasonable and kind.

In today’s column, we look at two men who wore Nazi uniforms, but what a difference. But we need to view the two Nazis in the lens provided by the UN ambassador from the UK.

Major Karl Plagge, a member of the Nazi party until he quit the party in 1939, served as a Wehrmacht officer in Vilna during the German occupation of Lithuania, in the summer of 1941. Through his efforts, the lives of hundreds of Vilna Jews were saved.

Kurt Becher was an SS officer in Budapest during the German occupation of Hungary, in the spring of 1944. Through his efforts, over 1600 Jews on the Kastner train escaped to Switzerland.

 Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 26, 2022, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 26, 2022, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

But now for the comparison. Plagge is enshrined in Yad Vashem among the Righteous Among the Nations; Becher is not. Both were Nazis and both rescued some Jews from the clutches of the Final Solution.

At first glance, one might think that they complement each other in an effort to save Jews from their would-be murderers. But they do not!

What then was the difference between those two men?

To answer the question, some background is required. Hugh MacIntosh Foot, Baron Caradon, was the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN from 1964 until 1970. This period included the Six Day War and the War of Attrition (a.k.a. The Forgotten War) between Israel and a coalition of Egypt, Jordan and Syria (June 1967-August 1970). During that period, 968 Israelis were killed.

It was during this period that anti-Israel rhetoric in the UN became stronger and louder. Lord Caradon (who had drafted Resolution 242) was one of the more eloquent voices speaking out vociferously against the Jewish state.

The Political Science Club at Yeshiva College invited Lord Caradon to speak on campus during Club Hour one Thursday in 1969. That invitation evoked an uproar! The loud noise and some irresponsible language came to the attention of the rabbi, the late Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He called for an ad hoc meeting of the student body the night before the scheduled Lord Caradon event.

He cited the difference between Greek logic and Judaism. Greek philosophy could not tolerate a dialectic. For example, either man was great, or man was nothing more than a lowly creature not dissimilar from animals. The loftiness of man was highlighted by the Greeks’ conception of gods as images of men. In Judaism, on the other hand, the dialectic is ever present. Man is both a great being created in the image of God and at the same time, a lowly creature not much more than an animal (Kohelet 3:19).

The rabbi gave other examples. Almighty God is both transcendent and immanent. The Torah upholds socialism with shmita (sabbatical year) laws and gifts to the poor, and at the same time safeguards private property in three tractates of the Talmud. Torah law encourages husbands and wives to be intimate, and it also requires them to be separate at different points in the female cycle. The particularism of Israel coexists with the universality of being a nation among other nations, to name a few.

Hence, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that, on the one hand we should advocate strongly for Israel; but, on the other hand, we should receive the British representative, Lord Caradon, with respect. There is no contradiction between these two positions. They coexist in the dialectical reality of history.

Indeed, there were two sides to the man who was Lord Caradon. On the one hand, he was a diplomat representing a civilized nation; on the other hand, he advocated positions that were contrary to the needs of Israel at that point in its young life. Hence, there was the tension of a dialectic.

With Kurt Becher and Karl Plagge, there were no two sides: Becher was evil and Plagge was righteous.

How so?

Becher served in the SS in Poland in the early 1940s. He is guilty of the murder of many Jews. In Budapest in 1944, he extorted a fortune of money from Rudolf Kastner and helped get the Kastner train and some 1,600 Jewish refugees out of Hungary to Switzerland. Undoubtedly, some of them would have been murdered without Becher’s assistance (Anne Porter, The Kastner Train). But there was nothing genuinely good about Becher.

After the war, Becher was arrested and put on trial for war crimes. The sad irony is that Kastner, who survived and moved to Israel, traveled to Europe and testified at Becher’s trial on Becher’s behalf. Becher was exonerated of all crimes, set free to return to civilian life and went on to become a very wealthy man, using the fortune he extorted from the Jews as a foundation for his business ventures.

On the other hand, Plagge was a noble man. In his book, The Search For Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews, Michael Good tells the story of Plagge’s nobility and kindness during his service with the Germans in Vilna, after 1941.

He used his position as an officer in the German army to employ Jews who lived in the Vilna Ghetto. When the Germans chose to liquidate the ghetto, he set up a forced labor camp where he saved many Jews by issuing work permits and advocating for the fact that these workers were essential for the German war effort. He also saved their wives and children, using the argument that they would work better if they would be motivated to keep their families alive.

When the SS decided to liquidate the work camp, he warned his Jewish workers and told them to hide. About 200 of them were able to survive in hiding. Only 2,000 of Vilna’s Jews survived the war. The largest number of them were beneficiaries of Plagge’s largesse.

Plagge was arrested after the war and put on trial. A good number of the Jews that he had saved testified on his behalf. The court exonerated him. The survivors later petitioned that he be designated among the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. In 2004, he received that recognition.

There are many times in life when as students of history, (and we all ought to be students of history), we need to be able to see beyond what events seem to mean on the surface. Discerning people should be able to see both sides of the often complicated and ambiguous circumstances that we encounter, as was the case with Lord Caradon. In addition, we frequently also need to see beyond ambiguity and recognize either good or evil in the absolute sense of those terms.

A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel. The opinions in this article are those of the authors only.