In a low-rent building complex on the outskirts of Vilnius, Lithuania, a remarkable and largely unknown story of heroism during the Holocaust unfolds. Major Carl Plaguei, a former commander of a Nazi forced labor camp, defied expectations by creating a covert operation to save the lives of the remaining Jews in Vilnius. In a surprising turn of events, a few Jewish survivors from the labor camp even came forward to testify on his behalf during his trial in 1947. Today, a team of scientists, historians, and survivors have converged on the site to unearth the truth behind Major Plaguei’s actions using advanced non-invasive technologies.
The Holocaust Labor Camp: The building complex, once known as HKP, is the only remaining Holocaust labor camp in Europe that hasn’t been destroyed or turned into a memorial. During World War II, it served as a place where hundreds of Jews were both saved and murdered. Major Plaguei, an Nazi officer, devised a unique plan to protect the Jewish prisoners by transforming the camp into a vehicle repair shop for the German army. Plaguei argued that keeping families together would make them more enthusiastic workers, and thus, families were housed and worked together in the camp.
Plaguei’s Vision and the Creation of Workshops: Major Plaguei’s vision went beyond a mere repair shop. He sought to provide a lifeline for the Jewish prisoners. Recognizing their lack of automotive skills, he certified them as skilled mechanics, even though most were shopkeepers, teachers, and businessmen. Through determination and training, the prisoners quickly acquired the necessary skills, transforming into the skilled workers Plaguei claimed them to be. To keep the women and children occupied and safe from the SS, Plaguei set up clothing workshops in the camp, ensuring their survival.
The Conflict between Plaguei and the SS: While Plaguei fought to protect and save the Jewish workforce, the SS remained committed to the destruction of all Jews in Vilnius. This created a permanent conflict between Plaguei and the SS, with Plaguei’s efforts to protect and save lives often at odds with the SS’s ruthless pursuit of genocide.
The Search for Mass Graves and Hiding Places: In the present day, a team of scientists and historians employ state-of-the-art non-invasive technologies to uncover the mass graves and hiding places within the HKP site. Using aerial imagery from drones, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), and concrete imaging, they piece together the history of the site. Their investigations confirm the existence of mass graves and reveal evidence of executions, temporary burials, and bullet holes in the western building. Additionally, they discover remnants of hiding places called “molinas” under the buildings.
Survivor Testimonies and Emotional Reunions: Throughout the exploration, survivors recount their harrowing experiences of hiding, witnessing executions, and the loss of loved ones. Emotional reunions occur as survivors return to the site for the first time in over seven decades, reflecting on the tragic events that unfolded there.
Major Plaguei’s Guilt and Legacy: After the war, Major Plaguei faced trial as an accomplice in war crimes. Although he was acquitted due to the testimony of Jewish survivors, he carried a heavy burden of guilt. Plaguei never spoke about his actions during the war, haunted by the fact that many lives were lost in Vilnius. His self-perceived failure to save everyone remained with him until the end.