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Selma Engel, 96, dies; escaped death camp and revealed its horror

Her daughter, Alida Engel, confirmed the death, at an assisted living facility.

A Dutch Jew, Engel was among 58 prisoners who escaped from the secret Sobibor extermination camp in Eastern Poland and lived to see the end of the war. Only one other former Sobibor prisoner, Semyon Rozenfeld, of Israel, is believed to be alive today.

When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Engel was forced into hiding. In 1942, they seized her during a roundup of Jews and sent her to two concentration camps in succession before shipping her to Sobibor in April 1943. It was one of the Nazis’ camps used solely for exterminating Jews.

Most prisoners sent to Sobibor were instantly gassed or shot to death, but Engel, who was 20, was selected to sort the clothing of the dead and thus was spared.

Knowing that all the prisoners would be killed sooner or later, a group of them staged a revolt. At 4 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1943, they lured guards to remote locations and killed 11 of them with knives and axes.

About 600 prisoners broke free and fled under machine-gun fire. With the grounds dotted with land mines, only about half made it to the fences. Search squads recaptured most of the rest.

One prisoner, Chaim Engel, who would become her husband, had also survived as a clothes sorter. He grabbed Selma’s hand and fled with her. They were among only a few to escape.

The couple went on the run for at least two weeks before finding refuge with a Polish peasant family, who, for a fee, hid them in a hayloft in their barn. They remained there for nine months, until it was safe for them to set off on a long journey back to the Netherlands.

Within days of the uprising, with escapees on the loose and fearing that Sobibor would be discovered, the Germans liquidated the camp, plowing it under and planting crops to disguise it as a farm.

But they could not stop Selma Engel. Well before arriving in the Netherlands, she began telling the world what she had witnessed and, along with her husband, would continue to do so for the rest of her life.

In July 1944, shortly after the Red Army had crossed the Polish border, she and two other Sobibor escapees told Russian reporters about the camp, according to “Sobibor Extermination Camp 1942-1943,” a 2015 book by Marek Bem.

Their account was published in Sept. 2, 1944, in the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda under the headline “The Death Factory in Sobibor.” It was the first public description of the camp.

All told, at least 167,000 people and possibly as many as 350,000 were killed at Sobibor from March 1942 to October 1943.

“Selma and Chaim and others told the world about what happened in Sobibor,” Ad Van Liempt, a Dutch historian and author, said in a telephone interview. “They let the secret out.”

They went on to testify at the trials of German officers, provided written and oral accounts of their ordeal and were interviewed for books and other publications over the decades.

Engel was born Saartje Wijnberg (pronounced SAR-cha WINE-berg) on May 15, 1922, in Groningen, Netherlands. She and her three brothers grew up in the city of Zwolle, where their parents, Samuel and Alida, ran a kosher hotel. She Anglicized her name when she moved to the United States in 1957.

She finished high school just as the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Her father died of a heart attack in 1941, unrelated to the war. She lost most of the rest of her family in the Holocaust.

After the war, the couple, who formally married in 1945, settled in Zwolle, Selma Engel’s hometown, where they established a textile store and had two children. Their first child, a boy, had died in 1944 as they were making their way back to the Netherlands.

But they encountered deep resentment toward Chaim Engel, a Polish Jew. Despite the massive losses that Poles themselves suffered in World War II, many viewed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust; more than 100,000 Dutch citizens had been deported to camps in Poland, and more than 34,000 Dutch Jews had been killed at Sobibor. Selma Engel was the only woman from the Netherlands to survive the camp.

The prejudice against them made the couple feel trapped. The authorities threatened them with deportation, Chaim Engel because he was from Poland and Selma Engel because she had married him, making her, in their eyes, a Polish citizen, too.

Poland, however, was no longer accepting the return of Polish citizens expelled from other countries, and the Engels had little interest in going there anyway.

They moved to Israel in 1951 and to the United States in 1957, yearning to live in a peaceful country after the Sinai War of 1956.

Chaim Engel eventually became a jeweler in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. They lived in Branford, Connecticut, for almost 50 years.

Although they had told their story many times, it was largely unknown in the postwar Netherlands until the last decade, when a team of Dutch historians, including Van Liempt, visited Engel in Connecticut to research a book about her. It was published in 2010 as “Selma, the Woman Who Survived Sobibor” and led to a documentary film of the same name.

In addition to her daughter, Engel is survived by a son, Ferdinand, as well as four granddaughters and eight great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2003.

On April 12, 2010, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands knighted Engel in recognition of her historical witness. On the same day, the Dutch minister of health care, Ab Klink, issued a formal apology.

“I apologize for the way the Dutch government treated you and your husband almost 65 years ago,” he said. “It is almost unthinkable. I say to you: We are very, very sorry.”

Engel said was honored to receive the knighthood, but she rejected the apology, telling family and friends that it was too little, too late.

Asked to explain how Engel could accept one but not the other, her granddaughter, Tagan Engel, who accompanied Engel to the ceremonies in 2010, said in an email that her grandmother had seen them as two different things.

With the knighthood, Tagan Engel wrote, her grandmother had “accepted the acknowledgment and attention to her story after so many years, but that was not the same as accepting an apology for the killing of all but a handful of her family and hundreds of thousands of other Jews.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Katharine Q. Seelye © 2018 The New York Times


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