Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Saartje (Selma) Engel nee Wijnberg
Interview with USHMM
Saartje (Selma) Wijnberg was born on the 15 May 1922 in Groningen, Netherlands. After a period in hiding she was captured by the Germans, and after a spell in prison in Amsterdam, she was deported to Vught and then Westerbork Transit Camp.
On 6 April 1943 she was deported to the death camp Sobibor in Poland, with 2019 other Jewish men, women and children. They arrived in Sobibor on 9 April 1943, selected by the SS to work, she worked in the Sorting Barracks, and the Waldkommando (Forest Brigade).
She found true love in the death camp with the Polish Jew Chaim Engel, and she escaped with Chaim during the uprising on the 14 October 1943.
Her story is important as she is one of only two Dutch survivors of the Sobibor death camp, the other one was Ursula Stern.After being liberated by the advancing Red Army on 23 June 1944, she settled with Chaim for a short time, in Holland, before emigrating to the USA.
Chaim Engel died on 4 July 2003 in New Haven, USA.
Below is Selma Engel’s oral testimony given to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, it is an amazing story, and deserves the widest possible audience.
Saartje (Selma) Engel
Extracts from Interview on 16 July 1990 USHMM
Why don’t you tell me your name?
My name is Selma Engel, Wijnberg is my maiden name.
Where were you born?
I was born in Groningen, but we lived all these years. I was seven years old, we went to Zwolle, that’s another city.
What year were you born?
Can you tell me a little bit what it was like in the town you were born and grew up?
Yes, in Holland it was very nice to live. It was something like I live now, like the children growing up in Brandford Connecticut. I had only not-Jewish friends.
I had a few Jewish friends, and it was very assimilated. The way the Jews really lived was that we had – the Judaism was more in the house. I mean we lived in the country, so it was more in the house and not outside.
So, I don’t know how to explain it, we, didn’t go with – nobody went with beards or with peyos. Something like that, we didn’t see it. But life was very nice in Holland, was not anti-Semitism and my parents had a hotel.
They had a kosher hotel, and they had the only kosher hotel in the state where we lived. Like Holland is all divided in states, and it was the state of Overijssel: and so a lot of Jewish people came to our hotel because we had also – it was a small hotel.
It was on a cattle market, and we lived – a part of – most the business came from the cattle market, as is typical in Europe. It is not so much here- and so we had a lot of Jewish salesmen. They slept over in our hotel. So it was a lot of Judaism, and Jewish people came always to the hotel.
And also when there was a kosher, wedding party or something like that came, that was always catered for in our hotel. So a lot of Jewish life went on in our hotel. My mother was very religious – my father was not that religious – but we had to be religious because we had a kosher hotel and that goes together with it.
And you went to school?
I went to school, the elementary school: and then I went to high school. And the war broke out when I was not even eighteen years old. So I finished high school, and then, was – that was the end because right away we were not allowed to go to school.
We were not allowed to go to work- we were not allowed to do anything. That was the first thing what the Germans did in Holland, to take us out from learning and anything.
I started working in a hospital, because I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing. And I start working in the hospital and cooking for Jewish patients. But that was, after a short time, that was also not allowed anymore.
Like in 1941 that was not allowed anymore. So, then I started helping all the Jewish people. I remember in that time we had already a star- we had to wear a star.
And I went to another – I took the star off. I always was a little bit against and I took the star off, and I went with the train to another town and helped an older family, an older couple, although they were not allowed to have any help anymore from not-Jewish people.
And we were not allowed to do really anything at all. So that was a very short time. Also my father died on a heart attack in 1941. On May 10 1940 the war broke out in Holland – the Germans came into Holland and the war was only five days. I had two brothers what were in the army. And it was a very nervous atmosphere, because we had a lot of Jewish people in the hotel, because a Friday – from Friday or Saturday the war started and they stayed – there were a lot of Jewish people would stay overnight – and they stayed in our hotel, and everyone was tremendously panicky.
Very panicky right away, and because they know what happened in Germany – it was next to the border which was where we lived. You know Holland is very small – and so they run away and some – we have a lot of water in Holland – the Ijssel was a big river, and they left the car in the water. They drove them in the water, and they went farther together, because they thought the Germans cannot take it.
So it was a big panic. And after five days – well there was a lot of traitors in Holland so the war didn’t take long. And they didn’t start right away, the Germans.
They did it very slowly, because they know they couldn’t do it like it was in Poland, right away and in Germany perhaps. But they did it very slowly and very often- they did it in a way that nobody felt that there was something going on and would happen some serious things.
What happened with the hotel, or what did you begin to notice?
In 1941, there was a club in Holland, and it was a men’s club. Very sophisticated, for lawyers and the Germans right away took that building. So, one of the head of the police and the owner from that men’s club came to my mother and say, you know “Why don’t you go out of the hotel, so the German’s don’t take it. And we take your hotel and that you will be saved.”
And my mother was very upset, of course. They really – my father died, what I told you – they really built that hotel by themselves, really built it. And to leave everything, just to go out what you have in your hand, was very hard.
So I don’t remember exactly what was going on. I know after many talks with the police and with this man, the owner, my mother had to go out of the hotel and could just take with her – they talked her into it, perhaps it was the best – they could just go out of the hotel.
And there was another Jewish family in our home town what, had a little house, very poor little house in a very poor area, and we moved into that little house.
But I have to tell – yeah – it was already – we moved into that little house and it was horrible. There was no hot water and there was no bathroom and it was a very poor neighbourhood and I really hated it.
I remember and it was a very difficult time because, you were not allowed to go out and you hear the Germans already walking through your door. And also one day the Germans took all the people what went over to another religion, like there were was a Jewish boy by the name of Wijnberg and he went over to the Catholic religion, and they picked up all the people that went over to the Catholic religion.
So they didn’t know – they picked my mother and my two brothers and me. My oldest brother was married. I come from a family from four children and I was the youngest. I had three older brothers. And they took us already to the German border.
But in Holland was a Jewish Raad ( Jewish Council) , a Jewish group of people. What they say they help the Jews going to, Poland and Germany, but they went after it and they know that they made a mistake and we were already one or two days.
Okay, fine, Can you just go back and explain why you were taken?
Because that was a mistake. It was a mistake that they took us because, they didn’t know that the Wijnberg , that boy, that he was it – they thought that we were it, because we had the same name – and so they sent us already.
We always had a little backpack staying by the door because everybody knows already, that it would be perhaps something like what happened, that, that we would be called up, so we went to Enschede. We went to Enschede it was on the German border.
And when we were there the Dutch Jewish organisation, the Jewish Raad was there – I don’t know how it is in English. They went to work very effectively and they got us back to my Zwolle, where I lived.
And I remember when we came back.
And how did you get back?
I don’t know how exactly. They talked with the Germans and they told them they have the wrong people and they have to have this other boy who went over to the Catholic religion and not we. We were Jews and that is the reason they got us back.
They went after that- they said “they had the wrong people.” But that was just a postponing of time. And so we went – I remember we came back and all the people were standing on the street and everybody was cheering that we came back and everybody came to our house and congratulated us.
That is the reason its so in my memory, that thing, that way. But it didn’t help much.
What happened when you did go back?
Nothing happened. We just –
What was your life like?
Our life was – we were not allowed to do anything, so it was very upsetting. It was very strenuous and it was very nervous. And the men had to go already to work camp but I am talking now where its already the end of 1941, beginning 1942 or so.
And I remember my brother was – one of my brothers was hidden and he just got married not long before, and her father had to go to a work camp.
And they started already talking: they say “Oh when somebody goes to a work camp, then my father will be sent away. So you better come out of the hiding place.”
So my brother came out of the hiding place and her father – they would have sent him anyway- my – you know, the rumours go around. You didn’t know what was going on – and so my brother came out – and the men went to working camps, but they were allowed to go home at weekends. So nobody saw something difficult in it, not so serious in it.
They thought, “Oh they have to go there for helping, doing things,” and they came weekends home. So, in between also, there were things going on in my home town.
That a young group of men didn’t have anything to do. They are all – everybody what had a business was taken away already for the Germans and they put Volk – traitors that went with the Germans- they put in these businesses. So the men didn’t have anything to do.
And we were not allowed to go out of the house after five o’clock at night – we have to stay in. So these men, eight young married men, came together and played cards. And one of the traitors, a Dutch man, went to the Germans and said “You know that a bunch of Jews are sitting there playing cards.”
And they took these eight men and sent them to Poland. So that was going on a lot – it was a lot of Dutch people – not Jewish people what were the traitors, and you had to be very, very careful to not to talk and not to say anything.
I tried to do something, what I told you, I went to Apeldoorn and helped – and that’s a little town not far from my hometown – and helped an older family, an older couple.
But it was after a very short time also very dangerous. And there was not much what you could do. I remember one day as I walked in the street where I was, was a big house and there was a Catholic priest lived in there. And the catholic priest came to me and he started to talk to me and he said, “How do you think that you can save your life?”
And I say, “The only way that, I, that the Jews can save their lives, is when not-Jewish people take us in.” And, the same evening he came to me and said “I have a house for you. I have a place for you where you can go. And be ready tomorrow morning at five o’clock, six o’clock.”
I don’t remember exactly what time, but very early in the morning, “with your bicycle and a little bit what you can take with you on the bicycle, and I will bring you there.”
And that is what I did. I remember I say goodbye to my mother and to my brothers and I never saw them again. That was the last time, that I ever saw my family, and we went to Utrecht, and I went to a family – no, a woman, she was a nurse. She came also from my hometown.
I went to her house and stayed with her a few months. And that was very nice, a very nice place with this woman to live – she was the whole day gone and I was the whole day alone. And then she had another family what she wanted to take in and I went to another family’s house.
A very large house with a lot of room, and I was there the maid. I had to clean the house, and I was not allowed to talk to anybody. I was not allowed to open the door ever. I was not allowed to go out of the house: and there was no food in the house and it was very hard already.
Food in Holland – they suffered tremendous in the war – they didn’t have much to eat and they didn’t have much. It was very difficult and these people, they really didn’t have anything in the house.
I remember they cooked the bones ten times to make soup and they had the cat’s plate already with it. It was very awful famine – it was a very awful time for me to be there alone. And I didn’t get much to eat there. I remember I stole sometimes an apple, or I put in a sandwich under my pillow so at night when I came to my bed that I had something to eat, because there was, really nothing to eat there.
These people – when I was there a few months, they had another Jewish family and they took in and a professor, it was there – I met his wife, and they came upstairs and they want to use me also as a maid.
I didn’t let it, they wanted me to clean the oven and things like that, and I didn’t do that. Because I was so very lonely and so unhappy, one day they told me that not far from them is another Jewish family hidden and I wanted to go and visit them.
And I was very happy that I could talk with somebody. So after three months being alone in that locked up house not really having anybody to talk with anybody, and they were very Christian – they really tried me to get over to their religion too – I went to this family.
At the moment that I came into this family’s house, the police came. And I was very sure that I was safe because I had a passport and it was – every Jew in Holland had to have a passport with a “J” and that was it.
So there wasn’t – there was a family hidden there, a lawyer. And what I didn’t know, the people where I was hidden were traitors. That is what I heard when I came back.
Twenty –eight Jews were caught after that, after I was the first one to be hidden there – and nothing happened to the people that lived in that house.
Always when the Germans found Jews in a house, they took the whole family – most of the time the whole family, but sometimes just the men.
This never happened to these people- but I didn’t know – I heard it all after the war. These men went to jail but because I didn’t know, after the war, I testified for that they saved – that what I know.
Later I heard what happened to them. So anyway, the police tried to get to know from me where I was hidden, but I didn’t want to tell them because I thought I know there was another Jewish family there, and they have a chance then, to get away.
And so I didn’t tell them but the people where I caught told them. So in the evening I had to go back to the place where I was hidden and they went to my room. I was in the attic. I had a room in the attic.
And they opened the bed and they found the sandwich that I told you about, the sandwich I put under my pillow when I was very hungry. And they said, “See! Look what the Jews did! You know – see, you give them food to eat and still she steals from you.”
I remember that very – there’s not many things that I remember, but that I remember. I had to go back to the police station in Utrecht.- I was a week in the police station in Utrecht.
I could have got away from there, I had a brother who was married and he was in hiding in Utrecht and I visit him and I did not get along with my sister-in-law.
I still – she’s still alive, I don’t get along with her. Anyway, the kids were very small and it was dirty and they were very poor.” And I thought, “When I have to go to my brother….. I just didn’t want to.”
So the police asked me in Utrecht – they knew that I could get away, so there was an underground already what I did not know about. That was already October 1942 – I didn’t know there was an underground already in Holland, very strong
And my mother did not give me any money- I didn’t have any money and I thought when you have no money, where do I go? You know, you have to go somewhere – so I didn’t go away and that – I remember that many times they tried to get me out, so in 19- then I went, from there I went to Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam I was in jail. I was in jail in Amsterdam for three months.
Okay -How did you get to Amsterdam?
I don’t remember.
I don’t remember. I was together in Utrecht in jail with this family. I don’t remember much about it. I remember they had a police, they always – I was young – I was nineteen, in between – young, good looking at the time and the head of police tried to get me, also something that he wants to take me to his house and – I don’t know, there was something not so good.
So I don’t remember how we came to Amsterdam. I think by truck, or with a bus. I have no idea. I don’t remember that at all. I came – I remember I was three months in jail, I remember my family in Amsterdam knew about and they sent me some things to the jail.
I was in a cell with seven – several – eight, nine women, we didn’t get much to eat- we were with a professor’s wife, and a doctor’s wife, and a girl from a beautician, and somebody else from the street and I, I you know, it is really very worldly.
It was the first time that in my life I met people who really told me things about the world, when I was brought up in a very small town, very confined to a small group area.
Anyway I remember once I was laughing, there was the woman what opened and gave us our food, was a very mean German woman. And she says, “Do you have a brother that works in so and so hotel?”
And my brother was in a hotel school, and he had to work in a hotel and she was a maid there. So she remembers my brother and after that we got better food and we could share that together with the girls in the room.
I remember also – I smoked in that time – and I had a cigarette and I had no matches. I remember I was sitting for hours holding my cigarette on the lamp perhaps it started making fire. But it didn’t work so I gave the cigarettes to this woman, and she was happy with this.
Were they all Jews?
Yeah they were all Jews. I was there over Christmas there till the beginning of January – I think the first or the second of January. And it was a very difficult time.- they took us out every day and we had to walk around, so like you see in the movies, but they didn’t hit us.
They didn’t do any punishments to us, but we didn’t get much to eat and you didn’t know what would happen to you. After three months we had to go out and I remember we went to an office and we were standing there with a whole bunch of Jewish girls. Girls from my age, seven, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old.
I was already along between twenty years old then- getting a little bit older. So we were standing there, I remember one girl was singing, that song, a German song, that – what will happen to us.
I – we met there also one of the one of the girls who was a survivor, Ursula – Ursula Stern – Ula Stern and we, we somehow stick together. Mimie Katz was one of the girl’s names, and we somehow stick together from that point on.
We went together to another concentration camp in Holland – it was 1943 and we were one of the first people that came here, though we didn’t have any blankets and it was January.
They didn’t have much food there and, there were only women – women were separate from the men. The men were in the other camp, another part and we were in one part. The men had it very difficult.
They right away shaved the hair from the men, they didn’t get to eat. They had to work very heavy labour and they got punished very badly. Because when I went later to Westerbork I went together with these men and I met them.
We – I was very lucky, again there was a man that recognised me, that had stayed in our hotel and he said “Do you like to have a good job?” And I said, “Yes, he said “Would you like to be the head of the laundry?”
I said “Yes”, I didn’t know anything about laundry, but I thought everything is better then – perhaps it looks good. So I worked in the laundry and I had to assort clothes and they were sent out.
And most of the time half didn’t come back, so it was not so good. Everybody was very unhappy – we the girls we met in jail somehow we stick a little bit together, I don’t know why but when we went to Westerbork, we also came together in the train – sitting together in the train.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the Concentration Camp before you?
No. What I don’t remember much. It was three months long. I know we didn’t get much to eat, and I had to work there assorting clothes. And I remember the bathrooms were together and they were very – a lot of older people and I don’t even remember if there were showers.
There was no salt, and we had to eat the food with no salt – and I couldn’t eat it. I remember more the week when I was in Westerbork, when we went in the train to Westerbork and I was sitting together with one of the young men from my home town.
And he was always very good looking and I remember he was mar – he was in love with a married woman and he – they were sitting together and he looked awful.
I mean you could see he didn’t get to eat and he looked horrible. And with his wife and girlfriend we went together to Westerbork. And when I came to Westerbork I remember that they tried to get me out of the barrack where I was in – they couldn’t get me out because I was hidden.
Westerbork was not a concentration camp, it was a camp- but you could stay in Westerbork it was safe – it was a camp that only people went through.
A lot of people stayed there, and stayed there for a long time, there was very good eating and it was entertaining and it was like a little village.
And when you could stay in Westerbork, you were safe for life, but when I couldn’t stay because I was hidden and I was punished for that – because I had no chance to stay.
What do you mean you were hidden?
I was hidden in Holland by these not-Jewish people. So this uncle tried to get me out of the barrack but we couldn’t – we stayed there a week and somehow like Ursula Stern and Mimie Katz and five other girls, I forgot the names because they went right away to the gas chambers.
So just a few girls what I stayed in Sobibor with, I remember vividly. So we were in Westerbork and we were not allowed to go out of this barrack and that was in April.
I was three months in Vught – and in April – beginning of April I think, I don’t remember the date exactly, but you can find it out, one morning they gave us some food and we had to go to a freight car.
I remember also not so much about Westerbork either, forty years long we never talk to people, I remember they didn’t do us harm, and there were no Germans. Only there were all Jews what we saw, who worked with us in Westerbork.
I didn’t see any Germans, the Germans were outside, you know in different places. I remember now that we had to go into the train my uncle who was in Westerbork went in the same transport as me to Sobibor.
We went in the first transport which went to Sobibor in freight wagons, till now they all went in regular passenger trains. We were the first ones that went in freight trains, they put some straw on the ground and there was a barrel for the toilet in the corner and I don’t remember – I think it was open.
Now we were so 60 people they put in the train – and it was a very scary feeling – I remember we were all nervous. We did – these young girls, we stick together also like we stuck together in Westerbork, we sat together in the train. I think we got some food, because I don’t remember we were hungry.
In that time all the Germans were standing outside and when the train got closed with the door and the lock on it and there was just a little window on top.
We were very afraid and we were very scared. There were a lot of older people in the train, and everybody wants to look through this window, but we were afraid because the Germans were shooting later on.
When we went away, we stopped many times and many times was always shooting on the outside and they were with dogs on the outside, and we could see through this little window what people were doing to us.
We thought just anti-Semites – you know, they want us dead. We went farther and farther, and the farther we went – the poorer the people looked and after three days we thought we were in Russia.
We had no idea. I thought I go to my mother.- I want to go to my mother and brothers. But I forgot to tell you when I was hidden the woman- the man that brought me to Utrecht was my English teacher and his wife came to me when I was hidden in Utrecht and she told me one day that my mother on the way out of the house – she was planning to hide somewhere – somebody told the Germans that my mother wants to go and hide somewhere and they caught my mother.
And they send my mother already to Poland and my brothers too. My two brothers and one newly married brother – and so I wanted to go to my mother.
That’s all I thought about – also when I was in Utrecht I wanted to go to my mother. So we had no idea that Holland – in Holland was no Anti- Semitism - we didn’t grow up with Anti – Semitism – we didn’t grow up to be afraid that you say something and something would happen to you.
And so we had no idea what would happen to us. So after three days and three nights we came to Sobibor.
I was just going to say – can you recall anything else about the train ride?
I can just recall the train ride was very scary, I remember we didn’t have anything to drink – we were very thirsty, I think it was very hot. We had no idea where we went – I remember that we came out at Sobibor.
They opened the doors and then we heard screaming and the whips and we heard “Raus! Raus! Raus!” That we had to go out of the train with whips hitting us already and everybody stumbled over each other.
And I remember there was a trolley, you know it was a dump cart that goes over, we saw all the people who couldn’t walk being thrown in them and little children went in that trolley.
And it was very confusing, you know, we had to throw way our baggage, that little package, the backpack we had. We had to throw that in a place. I remember vividly also that one woman threw away her package and her baby went, and she said to a German “Oh my child! - My child”
And he had a whip and he hit this woman and saw blood coming from her face and he said “We will take care of this baby. You go!”
So then we went farther and we stick somehow together with these young girls and we passed all these Germans. All the SS were standing there on the side and we passed all these Germans and they say “You’re Out, You’re Out.
And they pull us out and we settled on the side. We didn’t know what will happen to us – we stay on the side and I say to the girls “What will happen to us?”
“One shower” she always said “One bath and its all over”. I didn’t know even what she was talking about – so we were standing there on the side – I think we were ten or twelve or twenty – I don’t know exactly how many girls.
That’s the first transport that took young girls – Dutch young girls, we were standing on the side and we saw all the people passing by.
I think the women went first and then the men went at last. But I don’t remember exactly – I saw them walking already that side to the gas chamber, that they had to take their clothes off.
And I remember that also that we heard them speaking to the group of us standing there and said – “You came to Sobibor and everything will be okay,” and “Here is a little card. You can write home that you are here in Sobibor and you are – you go to a work camp.”
“And you have to take a shower because it is better for you, that you take a shower – so we will give you other clothes.” That I remember that they were talking to them, they say “Here is a card. You can write to Holland.”
For us we were standing on the side and they brought us to Camp One.
How long did you stand on the side like that?
So long that the people came and they were gone. So the men were on the right side.
Where did they all go?
We couldn’t see it. We were standing on a spot – they were already going to the gas chambers, because Sobibor was a death camp. They – everybody went straight to the gas chamber.
There was just a very small camp. When we came there was a very small group of people who were living and working in Sobibor. So all the two thousand people that we came with went straight to the gas chamber, so the one group went to the gas chamber, we went to where we slept.
The camp was divided in three parts. One part we slept and one part we worked and one part was Lager Drei (Camp III). Lager Drei was the death camp, when you were once there, or even looked at there – you never came back.
So they brought us to Camp One, I saw people from my home town. I saw boys what I grew up with, as far back as their father and mother were my best – my parents best friends.
And I remember I saw one boy who stayed with us in the hotel – in the wartime, in 1941- because he had to go out of his house. The Germans took his house and he stayed with us.
And I was so happy to see them, I said “Hi, how are you?” And I waved to them – he was just standing there and he didn’t say anything. And they were very scary and they didn’t answer us- so they went to work first and then we went to work.
And we came to a barrack and we had to assort clothes. We had to do first quality, and second quality. We had to look at what was in the pockets and to take it out.
And we had to empty the knapsacks, I had no idea that it was from the people that had arrived. It was very stupid but I didn’t. I remember that we all assorted the clothes, and then after four or five o’clock, I had to assort even the clothes from this uncle, from the man with five children was also in this transport.
At five o’clock we had to go on a roll call, go out on a roll call and we brought to Lager One where we slept. And we came to Lager One we had to dance for the Germans. There were some Jews who had instruments who were already longer in the camp and they had some instruments.
In between the fire was burning and you could smell, you know from the bones and hair – and the fire was burning that was like over the whole camp. Was very big, very big.
And we had to dance. The Germans were standing there laughing and having fun – some of the Jews had instruments, they were playing the music, like a sub-distance from the Germans and it was an order that we had to dance.
And Chaim my husband asked me to dance and that was the first time I met Chaim. I remember he looked terrible. He had no hair and had some hat on and strange pants he wore.
He always wore two pants because, when they hit him then it didn’t hurt so much. So he had another pants on and I – it was very strange, I don’t remember much about the dancing really, but I remember we had to dance.
When I went away from that I met these Dutch boys who I remember from my home town. And they told me “Do you know what that fire means?”
And I say “No.” And they, they were all married and all their wives went to the gas chamber. And they cried, and they told me and it was very upsetting.
I still couldn’t comprehend it. I think it took me a long time to think about it – all those people I came with that they were dead. So after that we talked together, we got very close. They were very hungry – we didn’t get anything to eat in the camp.
They didn’t work within the barracks – they worked some place else. I was lucky that I start working assorting clothes, so I had a chance to steal food from the backpacks the Dutch people brought when there was a transport.
They didn’t have a chance to get anything. There was a German Jew and he was a traitor, Chaim my husband always say, “He wants to be holier than the Pope,” and he told the Germans that the Dutch men – there were 72 Dutch men in the camp – that they want to run away.
We never know if it was truth or if it was just a lie. I remember they had to go on roll call – I remember one of the boys Zeehandelaar was the last name, Maurits Zeehandelaar – he had a little piece of butter and he brought it to me. He said “When I come back, save it for me.”
So he gives me the little piece of butter and he – they were shot. Seventy-two Dutch boys were shot, so they never came back. So that was a very short time that we was – after I was in the camp that they got shot.
I remember we didn’t get much to eat – in the morning we got some black water and bread, it was for the whole day. It was like clay – it was very sour and you couldn’t eat it.
And I remember that from the beginning the Dutch people always tried to get that bread and I gave it to them because we could steal and together we could make some food. They were very hungry.
Later on we get more Dutch people in the camp – somehow the Dutch always came to us and they wanted to have some food from the others.
We had a little group of people, later on came also, a cousin of mine came to the Sobibor camp. And so I and Mimie Katz was another Dutch girl was in the camp and Ula we shared our food in the evening when we came together and we helped each other when we got sick and things like that.
We – most of the time worked assorting clothes- when no transport came we had to work in the woods and clear the woods, or we had to clear the railway, rail railroad.
Or we had to throw out the ashes from the – what we got. We didn’t get it – they brought it. In the fields we had to assort – throw it in the fields for fertilising.
So I got typhus, I got sick from typhus. So there is a big part in Sobibor what I don’t remember because I got typhus. And you were not allowed to be sick in Sobibor – everybody who was sick went straight to the gas chamber.
I remember I was sick and one day I stayed in the barrack, the barrack had no toilet. We were not – we had – there was a pail and that was our bathroom, and we slept in two rows, three rows and the floor.
We all with the lice in a very short time and there was another animal also red and that was full and that little bit of food what was sometimes put under the pillow and there were the mice.
I remember one day I put a pillow up and it was all mice with little babies under my pillow with that what – and we were already – I remember I was so upset from the first lice what I had that Chaim fell right away in love with me, so that was a big help for me too.
You know that the time in Sobibor was not so difficult if I would have been alone – but Chaim was already six months longer in the camp.
Now Chaim already had a girlfriend Esther Raab – and I think she was jealous. Chaim right away fell in love with me, so he was a big help for me and all the time in the camp, because I don’t think when I wouldn’t have Chaim, I wouldn’t have made it.
Ultimately, definitely, not out of the camp, but when I was sick Chaim took me to the bathroom and made me walk and he brought me, I think food, I don’t remember much from that time, when I had typhus because I was very sick and you had to go to work.
And because of Chaim and also because of the girlfriends what I had – I say they helped me through this time because that I remember.
Later on they told me that I fell asleep and they hide me when we had to clear the woods, so they hide me somewhere that I could sleep.
And also one day, Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel came out. Frenzel was one of the worst SS in the camp and he came to Camp One. He went with his whip, he went in the barrack and everybody in the barrack was sick, had to go out and had to stay in the middle.
I remember so vividly there was a boy from I knew from Assen, from another town, from the Zionist organisation and he was standing there and, they all were standing for a long time in the middle of the camp and they all got shot, right away.
When I – then he screamed and I came out and he recognised me, and I don’t remember if it was Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner, or Frenzel – now one of the two – I mixed it up – he say to me “Go back to work!”
So I could go back to work. Just luck. Frenzel picked me out too: Frenzel somehow always picked me out. When I had very heavy work – I don’t know why- just luck. He picked me out and gave me easier work.
We had sometimes to go in the woods and pick mushrooms for the Germans, some of the girls I remember put everything. I put them in my bra and underpants and when we came home we cooked them in a little something what the Polish girls had.
Then we had to go out picking blueberries sometimes, but we were not allowed to eat them. So when we came back then we had to show our tongues. And we were very hungry in that time.
When no transports came, we were very hungry, because you couldn’t save the food because the mice and the rats, they took the food away from under your pillow. So we were very hungry.
Somehow Frenzel, when I had heavy work – we also had to go in the woods cutting trees and bringing from one place to the other, or filling up these trolleys, what the people cam in, with sand.
And that we had to do on the – they were the Germans, also the Kapos with the whips in back of us, and they – we had to put it somewhere.
You know, when there didn’t come transports, we were terrible, we are like animals already, because we were happy when there came a transport, because we know when it comes in a long time no transport, we go to the gas chamber.
And when there comes a transport, then we were happy that they came. When there came a transport from Holland, everything went very smoothly.
And there came also transports from Poland- we were locked up in our area and there was also shooting. There came also a transport from Belzec – my husband will tell that story from Belzec.
I remember that we got locked up in our things and we thought “that’s the end of us.” There was shooting and there was screaming and there was – it was very scary, and that was from Belzec – they did not want to go to the gas chamber, so they shot them on the spot.
And many times when transports came from Polish Jews – they didn’t want to go to the gas chamber because they know they went to the gas. So they just shot them on the spot.
Also on many times we had to stay on roll call the whole night because an animal walked on one of the mines, because Sobibor was with mines, three times or two times and sometimes an animal walked on there – I don’t know what kind of animal – and then we had to stay the whole night on roll call.
And we always made it that Chaim and I stayed together. Two Jews ran away – they made it too. And we had to go back and we stayed on roll call.
And Chaim – the men had to stay separate and the women had to stay separate. We stayed in Lager One on roll call, and they cut, they picked out every tenth person. So okay, imagine what a nervous wreck I was – they picked out every tenth person, so it could have been Chaim.
Chaim was number nine -.they were all shot. I remember so vividly, there was one woman, and one man was number ten and his girlfriend or his wife was there. And she says, “When he goes, I go with him.”
So she went also with him and they got shot. You hear the shooting. Shooting was – killing was nothing. You know you live with the minute – you live with the second. I mean somebody died or somebody could – I mean you lived in such fear, every minute of the day - that you don’t know one day from the other.
And every time when I saw Chaim or if he saw me, we were happy that we were still alive. We were always together – they called us bride and bridegroom, because we were always together.
We tried always to be together, so I was like a tomboy. I was always the only girl from four children and I grew up and I was the youngest so I grew up with my four brothers.
So I remember that Chaim always calmed me down, I stole a lot of food always from the packages. And that was very dangerous – when they caught us, they would shoot straight away.
And I remember once they killed some people in the woods. There was a group of men who had to work in the woods, cutting trees, and they had a plan to run away.
And when they were in the woods they killed some Ukrainians who were guarding them. They were Polish Jews not Dutch Jews. Dutch Jews they didn’t think about running away, because we didn’t know where we could run.
So they didn’t, and some got out alive, but most of the Dutch Jews they shot and they caught some and brought them back. And we had to stay on roll call – I had a lot of food in my coat- I remember I put it in a coat
One woman was crying when her husband – she was a Dutch woman – who got killed and I knew they would not do anything to her, so I say “Will you take my coat?”
And she took my coat, because I knew for sure they wouldn’t do, they wouldn’t look over her if she had some food when she was crying. And they had sometimes, you know some feeling for the Dutch people. And they too – didn’t take me to look over my clothes, but they took some of the other people to look if they had food with them.
After that we had to go on roll call on a big place, and we were standing, and again Chaim and I were standing next to each other. They took a bunch of people and we had to stand 10 or 20 people – I don’t remember the amount – and they had to stand farther up, and they will shoot them.
They planned to shoot them. My system was always – and was perhaps because I do a lot now when we see a movie where we don’t want to see, we take it away, right away- I never looked , as they shoot these 10 people.
We had to all stay on roll call together, the whole camp and we had to look what will happen to you when you do things like and they all shoot them.
I saw the Germans went again and shoot them again, that I remember, but I didn’t see them falling. Also I remember vividly that one boy opened a can of sardines and they almost killed him. His arm was almost – he was almost dead. They put him on a piece of wood and everybody who worked in the barracks had to go on roll call and we had to watch this boy and Wagner said:
"This will happen to you – when you open a can of sardines or you eat anything from the things coming in. The same will happen to you.”
So I remember this boy laying there and we know this boy. You know some of the things stays in your mind, what happened to people. I remember also once a man was standing and he did something wrong and Wagner took a shovel and cut his head in two pieces. You know I see him standing there this man, and then he dropped dead.
Once was a Kapo he was lying in bed- a young boy of 15,16 years old and he was a very nice kid – Pim was his name, I think Pim, and Frenzel and Wagner came in and say “Out. Up, Up. You have to go on – there comes a transport. You have to go out and work.”
And he put with his whip, like that – out as a joke. He was asleep and Wagner took him out and shot him. You know your life was nothing, I remember that when we return from work and we had to go home, we had to sing and we had to go down and up as a punishment.
You had to lay down, “hinlegen und aufstehen” in German, you had to lay down on the order from the Germans as a punishment. We had to sing very nice, many times we had to sing on the inside of the hall where we slept.
We had to walk around 10 people together like in Sing Sing – like in the movies from the Sing Sing. And it was beautiful singing – when Russian Jews came and also the Polish Jews and we had to walk along singing Russian, Polish and German songs.
I was six months in the camp – when I look back I cant remember that it was six months, because I was a long time sick, so there was a big part I don’t remember.
How long were you sick?
I don’t remember, I was sick a week – six weeks. Chaim always covered up for me, a lot of times. And also my girls, the girls Ula, Ursula Stern- what I did from the beginning for them when they were sick, or we could help each other.
You have to have somebody what covers up for you in a camp, if not you couldn’t live. You lived – I slept together with Mimie Katz – she came from Holland , Haarlem – and Ula, where I slept in the middle.
So when something, we, could help each other, that’s what we did, so I don’t remember but the camp got bigger and bigger. More people came from Minsk, there was a ghetto in Minsk – people from Minsk came over and we made big barracks, the building – big barracks in Sobibor and we were all very scared because there came no transports.
When the Minsk transports came this guy from Ger – from Russia, Sasha, he died not long ago, he came with a group of Russian Jews. I didn’t talk with these people because we Dutch people were like – the Polish Jews hold together tremendous and some of the young girls were friends with the Polish Jews.
So Katty Gokkes, she was also a Dutch girl and she was friendly with one of the Kapos. She was very beautiful. The German, the Polish Jews thought she was very beautiful.
She had a friendship with one of the Polish Jews and that was the reason she knows everything and she could tell Ula. But when you didn’t have a Polish friend – the Poles stick together tremendously. They spoke Yiddish, we didn’t speak Yiddish, in Holland they didn’t speak Yiddish, we spoke German not Yiddish, so we were goyim, we were not Jews.
In the eyes of the Polish Jews, we were not Jews. We were Jews of course – we were at Sobibor, but we did not know anything about the uprising.
I remember there was another girl – Viool was her name- that she came to Sobibor with her father and two sisters and they could sing very beautifully and they were always singing. She got typhus and she was very sick and she also had a boyfriend and he left her there. He didn’t take her – he ran away by himself.
There was another Dutch man – not a – from Czechoslovakia, he’s alive – Kurt Thomas and he was friendly with Katty Gokkes. She was his girlfriend and when they run away and they were in the woods he said “Where’s Katty?”.
I have no idea where Katty is. “You should have taken her with you like Chaim did.” Katty Gokkes also died. Almost everybody died – but anyway I didn’t know anything what was going on from the uprising. So one day – it was, it was very dangerous also – it was like a war. Just a few people know about it – there was just a very small group who knew about the uprising in Sobibor.
And one day Chaim tells me “Try to get some clothes. Try to get some boots and dress yourself up.” I was already much better and there is a barrack – all the boots, all the clothes went to different barracks, different tents, big tents. The boots were together, the clothes were together.
Oh yeah, one day my mother knitted a lot and all my clothes was always knitted. Especially when I go to Poland, my mother made sure that in the backpack was all warm clothes.
Ula Stern was a big person and I was a big person. One day she couldn’t find any clothes so she went to the barrack and she coincidentally she took one of the dresses that my mother knitted.
And she came to the barrack and I remember she had my dress on – I was very upset of course, it was my mother’s dr – made that, so……
Those that were sent to Poland they made bundles – people worked there organised everything to separate and it went in the trains what went back.
When the Jews came the trains went back with all the clothes what went back to Germany. Before the people went to the gas chamber, the men had to go and cut their hair and that also went back to Germany.
Everything, also the gold and we had to separate gold and many times when we had to assort clothes we found diamonds and gold in them. I remember once I found a whole handful of diamonds and a German saw it and he took it.
The Germans when they went on vacation to Germany, they took the backpack full with gold and with silver, and with everything what they could grab.
So when you found something you had to give it up, I had to assort the clothes and I was not so clever really, that I thought about the Germans and they take the gold – but a lot of people took it and hid it.
I always cut out all the clothes I had assorted I cut it in pieces when I saw that’s the only sabotage what I can do. And when I found something that nobody could see I give it to Chaim.
The fireman who had to burn all the pictures and all the documents that came to Sobibor – that was Chaim’s best friend Szmuel was his name. Chaim many times put money under it, in the bottom and that went to him and he buried it in the ground.
That was hidden in the ground for when we run away – Chaim made sure that he got some money. I didn’t know anything about the uprising or anything what was going – absolutely no idea.
So when Chaim told me to try to get some warm clothes, he told me, “Take some warm clothes”, and he told me what the plan is. Then he told me I was not allowed to tell it to anybody absolutely- and that’s my always guilty feeling. I had a cousin there, and I didn’t tell her, and the same day she said “I will make some food.”
She worked in the laundry for the Germans and she had a chance to cook something, and I didn’t tell her and she didn’t come out. And I always feel guilty that I didn’t do it.
So I went to a barrack, there, was one German that was sometimes good. He did not punish us much and he gave me a pair of boots. I had a lot of clothes on, which was very dumb, because when the German would have seen me with so many clothes on he would have asked “Why do you have so much clothes on?”
So Chaim told me, “On four o’clock be by a big place.” That is also the medicine, all the medicine the Dutch people brought a lot of medicine and that went also in one big place where, where they put the medicine, so the medicine was in that big place.
And there he say, “Come there at four o’clock.” So I make sure that I walked there at four o’clock. Everybody was working. Just a small group of people were involved in this uprising.
So everything went through normal. I walked – I don’t know how, how I came to that, was allowed to walk there. Anyway, I walked there. I remember also in the camp, once before the uprising, that I walked somewhere and I heard the Germans speak to the whole group of people on the transport. I saw the Rabbi and the Cantor from my home town, sitting there.
I was planning just to run to them – but I couldn’t have done anything. Also many times I saw people from my home town walking – there was a little window and I saw people from my home town passing this window and I was afraid that they would see me.
Whole families I saw walking to the gas chamber, many, many times, and I couldn’t say anything there was no way- there was nothing I could do.
So I walked to Chaim and at four o’clock I arrive there. I remember I walked in there and one of the Kapos – Wieszubski was his name, he killed already a few Germans and he was very nervous, and I said “Take a pill for it, something for your nerves to calm down, ” and he took it.
I remember it was bitter and he spat it out saying “I don’t need it.” So I met Chaim – he was not involved in the uprising but somehow he say to me “come there”, and from there we will go in the area for roll call.”
So he wanted to be sure that we are together when there is a roll call, and there was a boy standing there and he was involved in the uprising and he had to kill one German.
Together with the Kapo Wieszubski and he said – I was standing together with him and Chaim – he said “I am afraid to go.” Chaim said “You have to go.”
And he said “I am afraid.” Chaim said “there is no way back.” What we knew already there was one young boy who had the chance to walk around the camp and he knew already there were ten dead.
We know its our death when we get caught – “that’s the end.” The electricity was already cut off and the telephone was already cut off, so we know there were no connections anymore.
So Chaim had no choice, he run inside and took a knife, put it in his boots and he walked to this office where SS – Oberscharführer Beckmann was.
And he had no choice, I remember that he was gone. I was inside to take the knife or something like that and I didn’t see him going away to the barrack, and I went looking for him.
I got so panicky, when I know already there was an uprising and there was something going on there, and I couldn’t find Chaim. And then one of the boys said that “Chaim is in that barrack and I went looking where Chaim was and I hear screaming, like someone killing a pig.
This screaming was of course the SS man and they were killing him with knives. We couldn’t use guns or anything because no one was allowed to hear – hear that we were killing Germans, because they were all over, the Ukrainians were standing there, and the Poles were all around.
So I went back to the spot where I went for roll call because it was very dangerous. I know when I was standing there when just one German would walk around and if a Ukrainian would see me there – I know that I went back to that barrack and then there was the roll call.
I went to the roll call and it was already a little bit unorganised and finally Chaim comes out and he, he was bleeding. When the knife slipped out of the head of this German and he got a cut in his arm.
And he was bleeding all over, and I remember I thought “God forbid we come somewhere and he sees this blood.” And you know, I had no idea what will happen now.
Were running away or just ….. so I cleaned him up a bit. So in the time that we were walking and I think I had a handkerchief and I put a handkerchief on his arm.
And it was bleeding and we were walking to Camp One - that we go home. In between more people came from all sides and I remember there came a Ukrainian on a bicycle and they just killed him like nothing. Somebody had taken an axe or a knife, who knows and everybody start coming there together.
What I remember everybody says “Hurrah” or something. And then we started running and we were lucky we were running to the entrance of Sobibor.
I remember that then Frenzel starts shooting. I hear guns starting already the Germans knew what was going on. When we started walking and I cleaned Chaim up, a truck came and one of the Germans was on this truck and a Kapo went on this truck and tried – but he never came out so I think he got killed on this truck.
There was a family – an older man – he had three sons, he had three brothers and his father was there – he survived I have met the father in Israel. The three boys were Kapos and they didn’t come out.
So when we start running Frenzel was already shooting and he had something in front of him. I saw it, it was a little house and everybody stopped before that little house.
So Chaim took my hand and he said “Come” its no use we stay there. And then everybody starts running and then we walked to this gate, everybody was falling around next to us.
You hear mines going and people dropping dead, you know on the mines and you only wish you didn’t see much. You just run, you just run. I remember I had a necklace full with Jewish emblems and I thought “Oh when I come in a non-Jewish area, I better take that off.”
So that was the first thing what I took off and threw away. And then I had to run and run and I took all the clothes off , I just had on what I normally had.
I was very nervous of course when you had to run I get diarrhoea and I had to stop all the time. We heard shooting behind us and we heard screaming, and we are running and running till we came – and it was dark.
At four o’clock – five o’clock it started to be dark already, we are running, running and we come across a whole bunch of Jews. We stayed there together, people from Sobibor.
I saw Kurt Thomas – Chaim was the only one who took his girlfriend, he took his Dutch girlfriend. We run and we come together with a bunch of these Polish Jews and Chaim says to them, “Can we stay together?”
And one had a gun and he wants to shoot Chaim because he was afraid of me because I don’t speak Polish. You know they are afraid. So I jumped in front of Chaim, and he didn’t shoot.
And we went away the two of us, we left them all, Chaim had some money, some gold pieces and some diamonds and we thought it was a lot of money.
I have no idea how much it was. He had it where you put the glasses in – a case, he had filled with diamonds and gold. He thought we can save our lives with this – was his brains not mine- I wouldn’t even think about money.
So we went to a farmer in a little village and we asked if we can stay for the night. And he says “Yes.” Chaim gave him a gold piece, a gold dollar.
I don’t know how much it was and we stayed in the attic for the night.
The above oral history testimony is the result of a videotaped interview with Selma Wijnberg Engel conducted by Linda Kuzmack on 16 July 1990 on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The interview cannot be used by a third party for creation of a work for commercial sale. The reader should bear in mind this is a verbatim transcript of spoken rather than written prose.
This transcript has neither been checked for spelling nor verified for accuracy, and therefore it is possible that there are errors.
Copyright SP &CH 2007 H.E.A.R.T