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09/15/2017

UHart Archaeology Team Verifies Story of Courage and Survival During Holocaust

Touching the Past Creates the Future

An intriguing story that took place during the Holocaust is about Nazi Officer Karl Plagge who risked his career and his life to try to save more than 1,250 Jews. Plagge put Jewish men, women, and children to work at HKP, a vehicle labor camp on the outskirts of Vilna, Lithuania to give them a chance to survive the attempted annihilation of Lithuania’s Jewish population by the Nazis. Plagge also gave the Jews a warning the day before the Nazis arrived to liquidate the camp.

"But when you see this place through the eyes of someone who lived in its horrific past, the past and the present collide and the stories come alive.”

That warning saved many including Sidney Handler who was 10-years-old at the time. Handler was among an international research team, including students and Holocaust survivors, which traveled to HKP this summer led by University of Hartford Professor of Jewish History and Archaeologist Richard Freund. Also on the team was UHart Judaic studies and ceramics major Merav David ’19 of Livingston, N.J. Merav says she had the honor of meeting and befriending Handler, who she describes as a kindhearted man with a good sense of humor and, sadly, a traumatic past. “He survived HKP at age 10 thanks to his mother's ability to hide him during the first round up of children for 'vaccinations,'” Merav explains. “It was the second mass murder attempt by the SS who had decided the camp’s liberation meant that all evidence had to be destroyed, and all Jews in the camp had to be killed.”

The research team was able to locate the burial sites of some 400 people who did not survive the camp’s liquidation in July 1944. “Sidney actually provided some of the testimony as to where the graves would be, because a few days post-liberation he was asked to return with others to rebury the bodies,” says Merav. “It takes a strong person to come back to such a place, but he truly felt it was his responsibility to make known what happened there.” 

Using concrete scanners, thermal cameras, ground penetrating radar, and other noninvasive archaeological methods, Freund’s team found the hiding places or “malinas” within the camp’s two brick apartment buildings.

Freund adds that he was amazed to find that the buildings are in nearly the same condition as they were 75 years ago, and that it’s chilling to think that there are people living there. “They don’t know it was like a concentration camp. And behind their walls are hiding places where people hid from the Nazis.”

Merav also was surprised to see that HKP looks like an apartment complex with people walking around carrying groceries and dogs lazily sleeping on the sidewalk. “But when you see this place through the eyes of someone who lived in its horrific past, the past and the present collide and the stories come alive.”

Plagge is the only Nazi to be named a righteous Gentile, a title given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from Holocaust. He survived the war, died in Germany in 1957, and always felt he didn’t do enough. 

The evidence gathered at HKP and the story of Plagge’s compassion and bravery will be the subject of a 2018 full-length television documentary by Associated Producers that will feature interviews with Freund, students, research team members, and survivors.

“He’s called the Oskar Schindler of Lithuania,” says Freund, comparing Plagge to the man who saved thousands of Polish Jews by putting them to work in his factories and whose story is detailed in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List. But Freund claims what Plagge did, as a Nazi officer, was much more risky. 

If you are interested in learning more before the documentary airs:  

On October 30, the University’s Museum of Jewish Civilization will open a new exhibit, Vilna, the Jerusalem of the North. It will include findings about HKP and additional archeological sites in Lithuania. The exhibit also will feature student-produced virtual reality videos that will enable visitors to experience what it’s like to be a part of the excavation team, and 

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, you can attend Choiceless Choices: Leadership in Vilna during the Holocaust, a panel discussion in the University’s Wilde Auditorium, featuring Connecticut physician and author Michael Good, author of Searching for Major Plagge, and whose mother and grandfather survived HKP.