Selma Engel-Wijnberg

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Selma Engel-Wijnberg
Koninklijke onderscheiding voor Selma Engel-Wijnberg (cropped).jpg
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]

Branford, Connecticut Town in Connecticut, United States

Branford is a shoreline town located on Long Island Sound in New Haven County, Connecticut, 8 miles (13 km) east of New Haven. The population was 28,026 at the 2010 census.


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]

Zwolle City and municipality in Overijssel, Netherlands

Zwolle is a city and municipality in the northeastern Netherlands serving as Overijssel's capital. With a population of 125,806, it is the second-largest municipality of the province after Enschede.

De Bilt Municipality in Utrecht, Netherlands

De Bilt is a municipality and a town in the Netherlands, in the province of Utrecht. De Bilt had a population of 42,815 in 2017 and is the seat of the headquarters of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute, KNMI.

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]

Herzogenbusch concentration camp

Herzogenbusch concentration camp was a Nazi concentration camp located in Vught near the city of 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands. Herzogenbusch was, with Natzweiler-Struthof in occupied France, the only concentration camp run directly by the SS in western Europe outside Germany. The camp was first used in 1943 and held 31,000 prisoners. 749 prisoners died in the camp, and the others were transferred to other camps shortly before the camp was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1944. After the war the camp was used as a prison for Germans and Dutch collaborators. Today there is a visitors' center with exhibitions and a national monument remembering the camp and its victims. The camp is now a museum.

<i>Sonderkommando</i> work units of German Nazi death camp prisoners forced to dispose of corpses

Sonderkommandos were work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed of prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommandos, who were always inmates, were unrelated to the SS-Sonderkommandos which were ad hoc units formed from various SS offices between 1938 and 1945.

Brudzew, Łódź Voivodeship Village in Łódź, Poland

Brudzew is a village in the administrative district of Gmina Błaszki, within Sieradz County, Łódź Voivodeship, in central Poland. It lies approximately 7 kilometres (4 mi) south-east of Błaszki, 17 km (11 mi) west of Sieradz, and 69 km (43 mi) west of the regional capital Łódź.

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]

Hayloft space above barn-building or stable agricultural

A hayloft is a space above a barn, stable or cow-shed, traditionally used for storage of hay or other fodder for the animals below. Haylofts were used mainly before the widespread use of very large hay bales, which allow simpler handling of bulk hay.

Red Army 1917–1946 ground and air warfare branch of the Soviet Unions military

The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, frequently shortened to Red Army was the army and the air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and, after 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The army was established immediately after the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks raised an army to oppose the military confederations of their adversaries during the Russian Civil War. Beginning in February 1946, the Red Army, along with the Soviet Navy, embodied the main component of the Soviet Armed Forces; taking the official name of "Soviet Army", until its dissolution in December 1991.

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]

Poland republic in Central Europe

Poland, officially the Republic of Poland, is a country located in Central Europe. It is divided into 16 administrative subdivisions, covering an area of 312,696 square kilometres (120,733 sq mi), and has a largely temperate seasonal climate. With a population of approximately 38.5 million people, Poland is the sixth most populous member state of the European Union. Poland's capital and largest metropolis is Warsaw. Other major cities include Kraków, Łódź, Wrocław, Poznań, Gdańsk, and Szczecin.

Chełm Place in Lublin, Poland

Chełm is a city in eastern Poland with 63,949 inhabitants (2015). It is located to the south-east of Lublin, north of Zamość and south of Biała Podlaska, some 25 kilometres from the border with Ukraine. Chełm used to be the capital of the Chełm Voivodeship until it became part of the Lublin Voivodeship in 1999.

Parczew County County in Lublin, Poland

Parczew County is a unit of territorial administration and local government (powiat) in Lublin Voivodeship, eastern Poland. It was established on January 1, 1999, as a result of the Polish local government reforms passed in 1998. Its administrative seat and only town is Parczew, which lies 48 kilometres (30 mi) north-east of the regional capital Lublin.

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]

Valkenswaard Municipality in North Brabant, Netherlands

Valkenswaard is a municipality and a town in the southern Netherlands, in the Metropoolregio Eindhoven of the province of North Brabant. The municipality had a population of 30,615 in 2017 and spans an area of 56.49 km2 (21.81 sq mi) of which 1.48 km2 (0.57 sq mi) is water.

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]

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  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.