Selma Engel-Wijnberg

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Selma Engel-Wijnberg
Selma Engel-Wijnberg in 2010
Saartje (Selme) Wijnberg

(1922-05-15)15 May 1922
Groningen, Netherlands
Died4 December 2018(2018-12-04) (aged 96)
Chaim Engel
(m. 1945;his death 2003)
AwardsKnight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau

Selma Engel-Wijnberg (born Saartje "Selme" Wijnberg; [1] [2] 15 May 1922 – 4 December 2018) was a Dutch Jewish Holocaust survivor who successfully escaped from Sobibor extermination camp and survived the war. Engel-Wijnberg immigrated to the United States from Israel with her family in 1957, settling in Branford, Connecticut. She returned to Europe only to testify against the war criminals of Sobibor. [3]


Early life

Wijnberg was born in Groningen, Netherlands, and raised in Zwolle, where her parents owned and managed the Hotel Wijnberg. [4] FIve days before Wijnberg turned 18, the Germans rolled into the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. [1] In September 1942 she first hid in Utrecht, and later in De Bilt. [5]

Holocaust years

While hiding she used the name "Greetje van den Berg". [5] She was rounded up on 18 December 1942, and two months later transferred to Camp Vught, then to Camp Westerbork and finally to Sobibor on 9 April 1943. [5] She survived the selection and was assigned to the Sonderkommando unit in Lager II sorting clothes of the victims of gassing. [5] In the sorting barracks Wijnberg met her future husband, Chaim Engel (10 January 1916 – 4 July 2003), a Polish Jew from Brudzew [6] [7] six years her senior. They were able to communicate in German, and he helped her survive, carrying her to the latrines when she contracted typhus and helping her rest when the guards weren't looking. [8]

During the Sonderkommando revolt in Sobibor on 14 October 1943, she escaped with Engel. [6] She provided Chaim with a knife, with which he stabbed a Nazi, and the couple fled under gunfire through the main gate and the forest. [6] [9] They found shelter with a Polish couple, whom they paid [8] for hiding for nine months in a barn's hayloft until the retreat of Nazi Germany from occupied Poland in July 1944 during the Red Army counter-offensive. [10] By that time, Selma was pregnant. [8]

The couple married, [5] and they journeyed through Poland via Chełm and Parczew, where their son Emiel was born, then to Lublin. [9] They crossed the Ukraine by train to Chernivtsi and to Odessa and soon left by boat for Marseille, France. [9] During the journey, Emiel died and his body was buried at sea near Greece. [9] From Marseille they traveled by train to Zwolle and returned to Selma's parents' home, Hotel Wijnberg. [11]

After the Second World War

In the Netherlands Chaim and Selma married again on 18 September 1945. [12] The police of Zwolle concluded that Selma, by marrying Engel, a Pole, had become a Polish citizen. They could not be returned to Poland because the latter's government no longer accepted the return of Polish citizens expelled from foreign countries. It was decided not to intern them in a DP camp for foreigners near Valkenswaard because the holding center was full and Selma was of Dutch origin. [13]

In Zwolle, Selma gave birth to two more children, a son and a daughter. [12] They set up a velvet and fashion store. [14] [6] In a 2015 interview, she said she and Chaim hated the Netherlands, [8] and the family made aliyah (migrated to Israel) in 1951, moving around several times. However, Chaim did not feel comfortable there, so in 1957 they decided to move to the United States where they settled in Branford, Connecticut. [9] [15] [6] They returned to Europe on some occasions to testify against the war criminals of Sobibor. [3]

On 12 April 2010, Minister Ab Klink apologized during the Westerbork remembrance ceremony on behalf of the Dutch government. [16] Despite rejecting the apology, she was decorated with the grade of Knight in the Order of Oranje-Nassau. [16] [15] It was the first time since she had left in 1951 that she returned to the Netherlands. [17] [18]


Wijnberg died in Branford, Connecticut on 4 December 2018 at the age of 96. [19]

Movie, documentary and book

In the 1987 movie, Escape from Sobibor , her character was played by Ellis van Maarseveen  [ nl ]. [20] Ad van Liempt wrote a biography about her entitled Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde; ( ISBN   978-90-74274-42-5) [21] and made a documentary about her which was aired by the NOS on Dutch television. [22]


  1. 1 2 Holocaust Encyclopedia. "Selma Wijnberg". Profile. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  2. Ann Markham Walsh & Saartje (Selme) Wijnberg Engel (2012). Dancing Through Darkness: The Inspiring Story of Nazi Death Camp Survivors, Chaim and Selma Engel. Dunham Books. ISBN   0985532882.
  3. 1 2 Liempt 2010, p. 120-21.
  4. Liempt 2010, p. 13.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 "Saartje (Selma) Engel nee Wijnberg". Holocaust Research Project. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 De Ree Archiefsystemen. "Chaim Engel". Sobibor Interviews. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD).
  7. Chaim Engel (16 July 1990). Oral history interview (video recording). Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Branch. Event occurs at 25:37. Retrieved 25 May 2016. Linda Kuzmack interview with Chaim Engel. Permanent Collection
  8. 1 2 3 4 "Selma Wijnberg was de laatste Nederlandse overlevende van Sobibór". Trouw (in Dutch). 4 December 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2018.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 "Holocaust survivor from Branford tells of love amid horror (video)". New Haven Register. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  10. Liempt 2010, p. 104.
  11. Liempt 2010, p. 113.
  12. 1 2 "Chaim Engel, 87, a Sobibor Escapee, Dies". The New York Times . Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  13. Liempt 2010, p. 118.
  14. Liempt 2010, p. 119.
  15. 1 2 "Last Dutch Sobibór survivor (96) died". Teller Report. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  16. 1 2 "Dutch American death camp survivor receives apology and knighthood". Godutch. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  17. Officiële excuses voor Sobibor-overlevende,, 8 April 2010.
  18. "Dutch death camp survivor knighted".
  19. Sobibor-overlevende Selma Engel-Wijnberg (96) overleden
  20. "Selma Wijnberg: de vrouw die Sobibor overleefde". Drentheindeoorlog. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  21. "Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde" at
  22. Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde,, 11 April 2010.