Selma Engel-Wijnberg

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Selma Engel-Wijnberg
Selma Engel-Wijnberg in Westerbork (4517784914) (2).jpg
Selma Engel-Wijnberg (left)
visiting Westerbork, 2010
Born Saartje (Selme) Wijnberg
(1922-05-15) 15 May 1922 (age 96)
Groningen, Netherlands
Residence Branford, Connecticut, U.S.
Spouse(s) Chaim Engel (1945-2003; his death)
Children 2 (+ 1 deceased)
Awards Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau

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


Wijnberg was born in Groningen, Netherlands and raised in Zwolle where her parents owned and managed the Hotel Wijnberg.[4] She was 16 and a half years old in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. The Germans rolled into the Netherlands in May 1940.[1] In September 1942 she first hid in Utrecht, and later in De Bilt.[citation needed]

While hiding she used the name "Greetje van den Berg". 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. She survived the selection and was assigned to the Sonderkommando unit in Lager II sorting clothes of the victims of gassing. The labourers lived mainly on food stolen from the Holocaust trains because the rations they received from the Germans were too small to sustain life. In the sorting barracks Wijnberg met her future husband.[5][6]

During the Sonderkommando revolt in Sobibor on 14 October 1943, she escaped with Chaim Engel, a Polish Jew from Brudzew (10 January 1916 – 4 July 2003). The two had met and fallen in love at Sobibor. Armed with a knife, the couple fled under gunfire through the main gate and the forest.[5] They were rescued by the Poles and hid for nine months in the attic of a farm until the retreat of Nazi Germany from occupied Poland in July 1944 during the Red Army counter-offensive.[7]

The couple married, and she became pregnant. They journeyed through Poland via Chełm and Parczew, where their son Emiel was born, then to Lublin. They crossed the Ukraine by train to Chernivtsi and to Odessa. They left by boat for Marseille, France. During the journey, Emiel died. His body was buried at sea near Greece. From Marseille they traveled by train to Zwolle and returned to Selma's parents' home, Hotel Wijnberg.[8]

After the Second World War[edit]

Minister Hans Kolfschoten decided that Chaim Engel could not remain in the Netherlands as he was an unwanted foreigner. In the Netherlands they married again on 18 September 1945. The police of Zwolle concluded that Selma, by marrying Engel, a Pole, had become a Polish citizen. The police asked the Ministry of Justice what should happen with them both. They would not be returned to Poland because Poland had been taken over by the Soviet Union. It was decided not to intern them in a DP camp for foreigners near Valkenswaard because the holding centre was full and Selma was of Dutch origin.[9]

In Zwolle, Selma gave birth to two more children, a son and a daughter. They set up a velvet and fashion store.[10][5] In 1951 they moved to Israel where they settled in Kibbutz Moledet and later in Beit Yitzhak. Chaim did not feel at home in Israel, so in 1957 they decided to move to the United States where they settled in Branford, Connecticut. 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-rememberings ceremony on behalf of the Dutch government. She did not accept the apologies, because they were "too late". The same day she was decorated with the grade of Knight in de Order of Oranje-Nassau. It was the first time since she had left in 1951 that she returned to the Netherlands.[11][12]

Movie, documentary and book[edit]

In the 1987 movie, Escape from Sobibor[13], her character was played by Ellis van Maarseveen (nl). Ad van Liempt wrote a biography about her Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde; (ISBN 978-90-74274-42-5)[14] and made a documentary about her which was aired by the NOS on Dutch television.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Liempt 2010, p. 120-21.
  4. ^ Liempt 2010, p. 13.
  5. ^ a b c De Ree Archiefsystemen. "Chaim Engel". Sobibor Interviews. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD). 
  6. ^ 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 May 25, 2016. Linda Kuzmack interview with Chaim Engel. Permanent Collection 
  7. ^ Liempt 2010, p. 104.
  8. ^ Liempt 2010, p. 113.
  9. ^ Liempt 2010, p. 118.
  10. ^ Liempt 2010, p. 119.
  11. ^ Officiële excuses voor Sobibor-overlevende,, 8 April 2010.
  12. ^ "Dutch death camp survivor knighted". 
  13. ^ Escape from Sobibor on IMDb
  14. ^ "Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde" at
  15. ^ Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde,, 11 April 2010.