Alfons von Deschwanden was a 19 year old draftee and a private in the HKP 562 unit commanded by Major Karl Plagge when he and his comrades were ordered to the Eastern Front and found themselves in Vilna in July 1941. Alfons came from a Catholic family that had been persecuted for rejecting the Nazi regime during the 1930s. Before he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, by talking to older friends from his Catholic Youth Group returning from German occupied Poland, he learned of terrible atrocities being committed against Jews in the East. Thus when the HKP 562 unit paused in the Panerai forest on their way to Vilna, Alfons heard volleys of gunfire coming from the forest, he intuitively understood that he was hearing the execution of Jews. Years later when asked if Wehrmacht soldiers knew about the genocide he said "If ones eyes and ears were open, one could see the truth".
While serving as a mechanic for the HKP 562 Engineering unit which was tasked with repairing damaged vehicles on the Eastern Front, he supervised a dozen Jewish slave laborers employed by the HKP unit in the spare parts warehouse he was in charge of. While working alongside these Jewish workers he learned more details about the killing of Jews being carried out by the Nazis and their local collaborators as well as the difficult conditions within the Vilna Ghetto. Over time the Jewish workers came to see that Alfons had a sympathetic and just attitude and turned to him for help in their struggle for life. They asked him to help them smuggle food for their families into the Vilna Ghetto, to stand with them during terrifying inspections by their SS overlords and he even helped one of his workers, Samuel Taboryski, by hiding his wife and 2 year old child under his workbench in the spare parts warehouse for two days before the notorious Kinder Aktion of March 27, 1944.
Over time Alfon's commander, Major Karl Plagge became aware that Private von Deschwanden was a “Like-Minded” person. Alfons recalled that on the night of July 1, 1944, after Plagge had warned the Jews that the SS was coming to kill them, Alfons was unexpectedly ordered by the unit's Master Sergeant to be in charge of the guard detail and man the machine gun at the Subocz Street camp for the first time. (As a mechanic, he had no weapons training and had never stood guard before). He was ordered to shoot any Jews trying to escape. Thinking back on this unusual circumstance in the decades that followed the war, Alfons came to believe that Plagge covertly placed him in this position because he could trust him not to shoot the Jews who, following Plagge's warning, he expected to try to escape. Their escape route involved leaving the barracks after dark and going to the Blacksmith shop, then jumping out a second floor window placing them near a wooden perimeter fence that ran just a few feet away and enabled them to penetrate to the outside world. As Plagge guessed, Alfons did not shoot the escaping Jews that he observed that night. While saving the lives of many Jewish workers, this exposed Alfons to great danger after the SS learned that nearly 35 Jews were missing on the morning of July 2. Fortunately Alfons and the rest of the HKP unit soldiers were ordered to retreat that very morning and he was able to escape before the SS could finish their investigation into the night time escapes at the Subocz Street camp. (In 2005 Alfons drew a sketch of the camp layout on the night of July 1, 1944).
Many years after the war, two HKP families who survived the war and were living in Israel (the Uspitz and Taboryski families) tracked Alfons down through the German Embassy and wrote to thank him for protecting and helping them during the war. Shoshana Uspitz who was grateful for his assistance during a time filled with terror wrote in July 1971: “For us, you were like a shining star in the darkness”. During the 1970s Alfons reunited with both families, inviting them to his home in Offenburg Germany and visiting them in Israel. The Uspitz Letters can be viewed in German (Scanned original and transcript) and in English. The more detailed and dramatic Taboryski letters can be viewed in German (Scanned original and transcript) and in English.