In the aftermath of the Second World War there was a worldwide search for former Nazis. Here Barnoldswick historian Alan Roberts explains how a local group searched for a former prisoner at Skipton’s Raikeswood Camp - Second Lieutenant Karl Plagge. The former Bradford Pals training camp had been used during WW1 as a prisoner of war camp for German officers between January 1918 until their repatriation in October 1919.

Later, during the Second World War and bearing the title of ‘Major’, Plagge had been in charge of a slave labour camp in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Their mission was not to exact revenge, but to thank him for saving their lives and to ensure that he, himself was not suffering any hardship as a result.

IN the wake of the ill-fated German attack on Russia in 1941, the German SS and its Lithuanian collaborators set about the extermination of the country’s Jewish population.

When it became clear that the German offensive would continue into a second year, the German Army needed a vast number of slave labourers to make fur coats for the Russian winter, to repair motor vehicles, and to sew damaged uniforms. There was a desperate need for skilled artisans.

Karl Plagge was in charge of a large motor vehicle repair facility. It was Plagge who issued work certificates to ensure the survival of Jewish men and women who clearly did not possess the necessary skills. American doctor Michael Good’s grandfather was an efficient stock control clerk, but he was certainly not a qualified mechanic. He and other Jewish families knew the debt they owed to Major Plagge.

Plagge treated his prisoners with respect. He had them weighed each week to make sure they were being fed properly and even established a 40-bed hospital on site. He had to play a very careful game. He wanted his officers and men to follow his example, and yet with spies and informers everywhere he had to be extremely cautious.

The SS considered Jewish people to be sub-human, and could and would kill Jewish people indiscriminately. It was against this background that Plagge personally intervened to rescue prisoner David Swirski who was on the point of being shot by an SS officer. Plagge immediately took charge of the situation and interrogated the prisoner behind closed doors.

A bloodied Swirski emerged shortly afterwards, but the injuries and sounds emanating from the interrogation room had been a complete fabrication. Plagge had simply done what was needed in order to save a man’s life.

In a shameful incident when Plagge was away on leave, the SS entered the camp and forcibly removed 250 children. Those children were never seen again. Only a few dozen children remained in the camp. Michael Good’s mother Pearl, who was just 13 years old at the time, survived by hiding in a cubbyhole underneath a toilet.

Plagge later doubted if he would have been able to alter the course of events if he had actually been present in the camp at the time.

He did however have one further card to play. When the tide of the war eventually turned against the Germans and it seemed inevitable that his unit would have to withdraw to the west, he broke the news to an assembled group of prisoners saying that they would be entrusted into the care of the SS. The prisoners understood exactly what Plagge meant, and immediately made plans to either escape or hide from certain death at the hands of the SS.

Michael Good became fascinated by Plagge’s story and wanted to find out more. He eventually wrote a book, The Search for Major Plagge ̶ the Nazi who saved Jews.

Plagge was put on trial for having once been a Nazi who commanded a Jewish slave labour camp. Despite compelling evidence from his former prisoners who testified to his uniquely moral actions, Plagge did not want to be exonerated. He felt that no German was completely innocent of crimes committed in the name of the German nation. Plagge was accordingly found guilty of being what was known as a ‘fellow traveller’.

Little is known how Plagge spent the period after the war until his death in 1957. He died childless and had complained of an injury as a result of two motor vehicle accidents during the war. He also claimed to have difficulty walking after contracting polio as a prisoner of war.

At a ceremony in Israel in 2005, Plagge was posthumously awarded the title of ‘Righteous among Nations’, a title bestowed on non-Jews who had risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The German prisoners at Skipton wrote that they were generally quite well-treated. I wondered if Lieutenant Plagge’s humane treatment at Skipton could have influenced his actions in Lithuania.

I discussed the German experience at Skipton with Michael Good who felt that Plagge’s time here ‘may have influenced his general attitude about how victors should treat the conquered. He had a very old-fashioned sense of honour and chivalry.’

Michael was surprised at the conditions shown in the photograph believed to have been taken in Skipton Camp in 1918. The German officers were extremely resourceful and had constructed a bar at one end of one of the larger huts.

This photograph originally appeared in Michael’s book and is one of only a handful of photographs of Skipton Camp known to survive.