Chiune Sugihara, 1941. This year’s Raoul Wallenberg Day event includes the screening of Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. (photo from Vilnius-Green House exhibit)
On Sunday, Jan. 19, the 15th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day event pays tribute to courageous actions by diplomats Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Chiune Sugihara of Japan. During the Second World War, they engaged in selfless acts of civil courage, at grave risk to themselves and their families, to rescue many tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
This year, the Vancouver-based Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society focuses on the story of Sugihara. The event features a showing of the biographical film drama Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. As a consular official for Japan in eastern Europe during the Second World War, Sugihara saved thousands of refugees by issuing transit visas that allowed people to escape Nazi German forces. Once reviled in Japan, today Sugihara is considered a hero, with museums and a memorial site.
The keynote speaker on Jan. 19 is George Bluman, a local descendent of Sugihara visa recipients and an international expert on Sugihara’s life. Some of those saved by his visas ended up in Vancouver and other parts of Canada.
When possible, the Civil Courage Society also presents an award to an individual associated with British Columbia who, at significant personal risk, helped improve the lives of others while defying unjust laws or norms, past or present. Past recipients include Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh, Chief Robert Joseph and Mary Kitagawa. Their stories inspire Canadians to act with courage and live by their moral values.
This year’s event – sponsored by the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson, and supported by several organizations and volunteers – is being held at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, and it begins at 1 p.m. Admission is free; donations are appreciated. A reception follows. For more information, visit wsccs.ca. New volunteers and nominations for the Civil Courage Award are always welcomed.
One of the apartment buildings at the
HKP complex. (photo from Richard Freund)
Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, we are still learning about aspects of what happened. For example, the documentary The Good Nazi tells the little-known story of a Nazi from Vilna who tried to rescue more than 1,200 Jews. It airs on VisionTV Jan. 21, and again April 29.
In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Prof.
Richard Freund of the University of Hartford to tell him about Maj. Karl
Plagge, a Nazi who oversaw a military vehicle repair complex that was used as
cover for 1,257 Jews in Vilnius (Vilna). Good described how his father, mother
and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at
length in his 2006 book The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews
(Fordham University Press).
While interesting to Freund, who works within a
department known for its Holocaust studies, nothing further came of that
meeting. That is, until 2015.
By then, Freund had directed six archeological
projects in Israel and three in Europe on behalf of the university, including
research at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. In 2015, he was in
Lithuania doing research on a Holocaust-era escape tunnel, adjacent to the
Great Synagogue of Vilna. He and his team had brought with them specialized
equipment that enabled non-invasive examination of the ground and walls, and
they offered it to anyone wanting to do such research. The Vilna Gaon State
Jewish Museum came calling, and brought Freund to a site on the outskirts of
Vilna, where he was told about Plagge.
Of that moment, Freund told the Independent,
“I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Karl Plagge? I know that name!’”
Freund connected with survivor Sidney Handler,
who was 10 years old when he hid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the
Nazis left in July 1944, Handler was forced to move dead bodies, and could
point out decades later where 400 Jews were buried.
“We could have gone through the entire 20 acres
and not located exactly where that was,” said Freund.
Using scanners, thermal cameras, radar and
other methods, Freund’s team discovered and recorded the various hiding places,
also called malinas. Under Plagge’s plan, Jews had built malinas in building
crevices, behind the walls, to keep out of sight when Nazis came to “liquidate”
The garage (repair shop) was dubbed HKP. It was
on Subocz Street and is likely the only Holocaust-related labour camp left
completely intact. Until recently, people had been living in the two six-floor
buildings, which comprised 216 apartments.
Freund reached out to filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, telling him how important it was to document the site, the story, and reveal it to the world. Things were made all the more pressing when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers were going to demolish the site. Fortunately, before this happened, Jacobovici took a film and photographic crew to HKP, in January 2018.
The Turning of Plagge
In 1941, Karl Plagge was placed in command of
the HKP 562, a unit responsible for repairs of military vehicles damaged on the
eastern front. Plagge experienced something of a pang of conscience – he hadn’t
signed on to genocide. He made the decision to leverage his position and use
Jews as “slave labour” for HKP, pleading the case to his superiors that, if
Jews didn’t work there, there would be no one to fix the vehicles.
Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews was knowledgeable
in fixing cars; they were accountants, lawyers, hairdressers, academics, cooks
and others. They all learned various HKP tasks on the job, and Plagge somehow
convinced the Nazi SS that every single one of them was necessary for HKP.
Even though the entire charade was met with a
barely tolerated wink and nod by Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (and correct)
hunch that their patience would eventually wear thin.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS,
announced, in the summer of 1943, that he wanted every Jew in Eastern Europe
eliminated, irrespective of whether they were contributing to the war effort in
a work camp. So, with Plagge’s approval, his workers carved out malinas in the
walls of the buildings and in attic rafters.
As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer
edge of Vilnius in June 1944, it was a sign that the Allies were nearing
victory. In this context, on July 1, 1944, Plagge made an impromptu
announcement in front of an SS commander and the Jewish workers, who gathered
to listen. He explained that his unit was being transferred westbound and,
though he requested his labourers be allowed to join, his superiors wouldn’t
permit it. All of this was code for the Jewish prisoners to take cover. Roughly
half of the workers – some 500 of them – hid away in malinas or ran from the
camp, while others decided to stay.
When Nazi troops took over the camp two days
later, 500 Jewish workers appeared for roll call, and were killed. It took the
Nazis three more days to comb the camp and the surrounding area for any
survivors, eventually finding roughly 200 Jews, all of whom were shot.
When the Soviets finally took over Vilnius
later that week, approximately 250 of HKP’s Jews in hiding emerged.
When the war was over, Plagge returned home to
Darmstadt, Germany, where, for the next two years he lived quietly, until he
was brought to court as a former Nazi. Somehow, word traveled to a displaced
persons camp in Stuttgart, a three-hour drive away, where many survivors of HKP
had ended up. In Plagge’s defence, the survivors sent a representative to
testify to the court in the hopes the charges would be overturned.
The testimony resulted in a favourable judgment, and Plagge received the status of an exonerated person. In 2005, after evidence and survivor testimony, Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre posthumously bestowed the title Righteous Among the Nations on Plagge.
The Good Nazi was produced in Canada for VisionTV by Toronto-based Associated Producers. Jacobovici was writer and executive producer, Moses Znaimer executive producer, Bienstock producer and co-director, Yaron Niski co-director and Felix Golubev line producer/executive producer.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in
more than 100 publications around the world.
On Nov. 7, members of the Kalkman family – left to right are Danielle, Victoria, Matthew, Peter and Bonnie – received the Righteous Among the Nations award from the consulate general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, on behalf of Dirk and Klaasje Kalkman. (photo by Rhonda Dent Photography)
One night in the Dutch village of Moordrecht, the call went out: the Nazis were doing a round-up. In a round-up, the Nazis would surround a neighbourhood and then search house by house for those they hunted: Jews, resistance fighters and others they deemed enemies. Wim Kalkman’s family rushed to prepare for their arrival: two Dutchmen who refused to work as forced labour building battlements for the Nazis were taken through a trap door under the carpet in the living room. The really dangerous guest of the family, however, was hidden in plain view. Tanta Ina, they called her, saying she was an aunt who had fled the battle zone on the coast to find refuge with the family.
Tanta Ina was not related to the Kalkmans, however. She was a Jewish woman, the widow of a Dutch-Jewish nobleman who the family had been urged to protect by Reverend Henk Post, the brother of Dutch resistance fighter Johannes Post and a fellow clergyman to Wim’s father, Dirk.
Dirk Kalkman, a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, and his wife Klaasje, had taken Catharina Six tot Oterleek-Kuijper in and given her a new identity. They hid her, with the help of their four children, from 1943 to 1945, at great personal risk. On that fearful night, the Nazis did not discover the two Dutchmen or Tanta Ina, who sat on the couch with the rest of the family while they were all interrogated. When a Nazi soldier asked young Wim if the family was hiding anyone, he broke into a gale of nervous laughter, which confused the Nazis, who also began laughing. Fearful of Wim’s sister, who was suffering from diphtheria, the Nazis rushed their search and left.
This was the story that was told to Wim’s son, Peter, and his grandson, Matthew, both of whom were in Vancouver Nov. 7 to receive the Righteous Among the Nations award from the consulate general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, on behalf of Dirk and Klaasje Kalkman.
Righteous Among the Nations are non-Jews who assisted or sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, often at the risk of great peril for themselves and families. The project was established by Yad Vashem in 1963 and to date has granted the award to more than 26,000 people. It had been Wim Kalkman’s lifelong dream to see his parents honoured for their heroism, as Matthew Kalkman told those gathered at the Rothstein Theatre for the ceremony.
After Peter Kalkman read his father’s account of that terrifying night and told the story of his grandparents’ protection of Tanta Ina, Matthew Kalkman gave an emotional speech, often through tears, about the importance of his great-grandparents’ actions to his own life. He said he had first connected with the reality of what his great-grandparents had done when he visited the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
When his grandfather Wim died in 2014, they discovered a note expressing his dying wish that Wim’s father be honoured. Matthew took up the task personally and, together with researchers in the Netherlands, was able to find definitive evidence of what happened in the Kalkman household so many years ago.
The award was given to the Kalkmans by Consul General Galit Baram on behalf of the state of Israel and by Josh Hacker on behalf of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem. Liel Amdour, a classical guitarist born in Israel, played two pieces of music that embodied hope and rebirth, and Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and Salomon Casseres, president of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, also spoke, as did Karen James, the chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board. All of the speakers touched upon the importance of remembering the heroes of the Holocaust as inspirations in the current times of resurgent nationalism, racism and xenophobia.
Casseres, who has Dutch ancestry, also stressed the relevance of the Kalkmans’ story for himself, as a descendant of Dutch Jews who survived the Holocaust. “In Hebrew,” he said, “we say kol hakavod, which means ‘all the respect.’” In Dutch, he added, “A hearty thank you for your family’s deeds of heroism.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.