Selma Engel who, following a prisoners’ revolt, escaped the Nazi death camp Sobibor, died Tuesday, Dec. 4 in East Haven, Connecticut.
Born Saartje Wynberg in 1922 in Groningen, the Netherlands, Wynberg grew up in the Dutch city of Zwolle, where her parents had a kosher hotel that served Jewish farmers who brought their livestock to the neighboring cattle market. At the time, the Zwolle region had the second largest Jewish population in the Netherlands.
When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Wynberg went into hiding. She was seized in a “round-up” in 1942, and sent to two concentration camps before being shipped to the Sobibor extermination camp in Eastern Poland, where it is estimated 167,000 people were murdered, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Although most Jews were routed to their deaths in the gas chambers upon arrival, Wynberg was selected to work at sorting clothing of the gassed prisoners. When for entertainment, the Nazi SS officers staged a mock-ball and forced the prisoners to dance, a Polish Jewish inmate, Chaim Engel, approached Wynberg and asked her to dance with him. The two became a couple and, following the war, were married.
Realizing they would likely be murdered, on Oct. 14, 1943 a group of prisoners, including both Wynberg and Chaim Engel, staged a revolt by luring officers to out of sight locations in the camp, where they were killed with knives and axes. The couple, along with some 300 other prisoners escaped, navigating their way through machine gun fire and surrounding minefields and reaching the nearby woods.
Eventually Wynberg and Engel found refuge with a Polish peasant family, who hid them in their barn. While there, Wynberg kept a diary which she later donated to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive. When the Red Army defeated the Nazis in Poland some nine months later the couple were among only 58 Sobibor escapees to have survived the war.
The couple remained in Poland for six months, where they became parents of a son, Emiel, who died as they made their way from Poland back to Zwolle in the Netherlands, arriving in June 1945. In Zwolle, they had a daughter, Alida, and a son, Ferdinand (Fred), and established a textile store. However, Poles were unwelcome in Holland and, by marrying a Polish man, Selma had jeopardized her own Dutch citizenship. Rather than risk deportation to Poland, the family of four emigrated to Israel. They settled in the farming community of Beit Yitzhak. However, following the 1956 Sinai War, Chaim foresaw continuing conflict with the surrounding Arab countries and, having had enough of the upheaval of war, in 1959 the family immigrated to the U.S., settling first in Westport and then in Branford. Together with Alida’s then-husband Bernie Rosenblatt, Chaim became co-owner of a jewelry store in Old Saybrook.
The couple testified in Nazi war-crimes trials, and became active in Holocaust remembrance and education efforts. They spoke to history classes and assemblies at schools throughout the region, committed to teaching subsequent generations about the evils of prejudice. Their story was recounted in several books and movies, most notably in the book Escape from Sobibor, which was later made into a film. They are also featured in the permanent exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in which survivors retell their experiences.
After Chaim Engel died in 2003, Selma continued speaking on her own. In 2010, she was knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands, in recognition of her Holocaust education efforts. In 2017, at the age of 95, Selma was too weak to travel to Holland. However, some 40 relatives were hosted by the government of her hometown of Zwolle for the dedication of an exhibit housed in the Zwolle Jewish Museum in the town’s synagogue that tells the story of Selma’s life. The mayor of Zwolle also issued a formal apology on behalf of the Dutch government for the way in which Selma and Chaim had been treated following their return from Poland. Town authorities have announced plans to establish a monument on the site of the razed Hotel Wynberg, which Selma’s parents owned and operated before the Holocaust.
Selma Wynberg Engel is survived by her children, Alida Engel and her husband Gene Burger of New Haven, and Fred Engel and his wife Barbara of Westerly, Rhode Island; her granddaughters, Tagan Engel and her husband Enroue Halfkenny, Kendra Rosenblatt, Emily Engel and her husband Benjamin Riley, and Heidi Engel and her husband Alex Kalejs; and her great grandchildren, Ifadayo Engel-Halfkenny and Tomi Tsela Engel-Halfkenny.