Chaim Engel Interview

chaim engel

Chaim Engel - (USHMM)

Interview with Chaim Engel and USHMM on July 16, 1990

We're on. We're about to start. Would you please tell me your full name please?

Chaim Engel

Where and when were you born?

I was born in January 1916 in - i was born in a small place really. Brudzew, but when I was five years old, my father moved to Lodz. I remember when we lived in this place, they had a textile store - they called him 'the millionaire.' He probably made a living, that's all, but wasn't. He had a store, so automatically he was called a 'millionaire.' And that's the reason my father left, was just afraid. It's the anti-Semitism for Jews, so he left. He left, he went, moved to Lodz. It was when I was around five years old. And he started a different thing. My father was really not a businessman. He was really a scholar. He studied for rabbi. He never practiced it, but a very Talmudistic - he was really a - let me call a scholar. That's probably the right word. But he had to make a living, so he had this textile and he then came to Lodz to live and he started different kind of business; and, we, we not poor but we made it all the years, we made a living, nice living. And my youth was, in a big city. I went to schools, to a Jewish school which also had, from the government, you had to go to school to make, regular school. How do you call it? The.....

Public School?

Public schools. So while you - there were schools. Jewish schools, what they had it connected together. That covered that too. So you had both things in the same. And that's the kind of school I went. And I finished, the middle school maybe till around 14 or 15 years. And then I started to work. My uncle had a factory, a textile - stockings, they made stockings there, also textile. And i worked with him there for a year, and then I .....

What, what was life like for a teenager at that point?

Well, well, we always felt that we were Jews. There were sections in Lodz, I wouldn't go as a Jew, because you were a Jew. I don't know - discrimination of, it was so much against Jews. I assume I didn't really felt it so much, because i lived more in the area of Jews and I maybe didn't have so much contact with non-Jews, but the - you always were aware that you are a Jew. You didn't go in certain sections, which were not Jewish. You felt that you are a Jew because the laws which were there or the surroundings what non-Jews, how they acted and reacted to you being a Jew. So that was really what was as far as i can remember as a teenager.

Did you join clubs? Were you part of a group?

Not really. We were more - Jews, my friends, who are Jewish, mostly, and we not really lived in an area where were just Jews living. We were also in an area where lived other people, but your contact mostly you had with the Jews, because you were resented very much from the non-Jewish. Very seldom that you had a non-Jewish friend. And my time was that I worked, I worked till, when we are 20, 20 you had to go to the army. When you are 20 you went to the army for one and a half years. And that was in 1938. But my mother died in 1936. She was sick, I don't know exactly what, i think bronchitis or whatever. Anyway she died and i was about 20 and there comes the time I had to go in the army and my father remarried after a short time, married, and I resented this. So as it came I had to go in the army and I served in the Polish army, for almost one and a half years.

My time expired. You - after one and a half years would have been on September the 15th, 1939, and the war broke out on 1st September, so I ended up being a soldier while the war broke out, so I was in the war as a soldier, Polish army, against the Germans. Now talking about the reaction of non-Jews to the Jews, when I was in the army, I went in the war. I was just afraid from my comrades and from my sergeant as much as, i was from the Germans. I didn't trust them. They mentioned, 'You are a Jew,' and things like that. So I was really afraid in time like that can happen anything with you. So we fought till the 25th, whatever the two weeks, three weeks; and i ended up, i became a Prisoner Of War. And the first reaction I had on the front with that soldier, the German soldier what took me said, 'Are you a Jew?' I just said, 'Yes.' But he didn't react. He could shoot me or whatever. He didn't - said, 'Go, Go Go.' And they didn't do anything to me.

So, but anyway, they took us as Prisoners Of War. They kept us for two days outside in a field and it was cold already and they sent us to Germany, as Prisoners Of War. And as a Prisoner Of War, we worked; it was very bad. I got sick and they hardly fed you. We didn't get hardly any food , and you know any - maybe I need some medication  or whatever, I didn't get anything. And most of all was our work. We went cleaning the streets in Leipzig. It was - must have been near to Leipzig. I remember that. And we cleaned the streets and - till the one day came that all the Jewish Prisoners of War from Poland had to be sent back to Poland. That was in March 1940, and they sent us back to Poland, because they figured for the Jewish Prisoners of War, still has some more privileges than a Jew in Poland, and they wanted to get rid of the Jews. That's the reason they send us back. And I came and I thought i go back to the place where my father lived. When I came there I found out that in 1939 already, in December, they already took all the Jews out. There was a big apartment house, so all the Jews taken out and sent them away to Lublin.

So I followed them. I didn't know exactly where, but somehow - I don't remember how i found him. I found him where he is, and I came there and he had a hard time, because they took only with them whatever they had on their shoulder and they had on them. They didn't , could take - you couldn't take anything with them. So that was a hard time. Didn't have anything. So was a very , a very hard time. So when I came back and I looked down what's going on, so I figured - I went, I went to a farmer and asked if I can be a help there, as farner's help. And he agreed to it, and he kept me there as a farm worker and I just did farm work. Was a Ukrainian family, and, he paid me. They gave me food and shelter and I think he paid me by the year with so much bags of corn or whatever, what I could sell and that i could help my family with that. And i was there for one and a half years, and then my brother who was nine years old, younger, was in the age that he could - he was about 18 or something - so he could - 17, 18, that he - i found him a job too.

What was it like on the farm for you?

Now they were, they were nice people and they took me like a farm's help, and probably I was cheaper than anybody else, but they were nice people. They were pretty good to me. They were not really to mistreat me or something like that. And, I had to do all the work. They were very nice people, I cannot say they mistreated me, but my father lived in a place, not in the village where i work on the farm. It was a small place, not far from the farm about five miles away, things like that. So sometimes when I had a day off I could go back there and I walked. A matter of fact back then there was not any transportation there, and there was very hard for the people, for the Jews. Very hard. Very restricted, curfew. They couldn't do much, but mostly they went to Lublin, brought some merchandise  and sold it, and that's the way they could live, cause it was not that - they probably didn't trade much and there was not any industry whatever. So they had really a hard time and the Germans mistreated the Jews.  If he saw one on the street and he didn't like him, he could shoot him like that and they buried him in a place where he stood - where he shot him.

So we had places where you have to watch - just not to go on these places because there is somebody buried there, so this really was a sad time. It was also very dangerous to go from my village to the place where my father lived because if a German saw you on the road and he didn't like you for whatever reason, he shot you and there was no recourse. He couldn't tell anybody, nobody will listen. He was king, as far as a Jew was concerned. He didn't need any laws to ever, to adhere to it. He just, just did whatever he liked, he felt like. So that was really - you got used to live with it. You took it already for normal, the way it is. You just watched out that you are not around what get shot or whatever, so we worked there and the restrictions for the Jews, because every time more restrictions and more restrictions till, one day the only things what Jews could do is working at a farm, as a farmer's help. So we were still safe for a little time, because in the meantime they sent all these Jews, sent away to all these concentration camps.

And in June 1942, when they, they sent a transport of Jews away from the place, and my father was in this group, with his second wife, with my step-mother. They were in this transport . Later while being in Sobibor, I found out that this transport went to Sobibor, because I met people, younger ones, who went with this transport and they worked there, so they knew about it.

So to come back to my story, when I - so I, as I say we still were able to work at the farm, till one day they came the restrictions; Jews couldn't work at farmers. Everybody has to concentrate in the next place, nearest place, bigger place - all the Jews around what work for the farmers, so in  other words, it was strict, no, no Jews anymore. So we know what's going on, so we didn't go, so my brother and my friend were - all three we worked at the farmers. So we decided not to go to this place. We thought, 'Lets go in the woods. Maybe we'll find some partisans  or something like that.' So we went in the woods, instead of going to that place and we walked around in the woods. We didn't have any food. It was cold and no shelter, nothing, so we had to come, find our way out of it because we didn't find any partisans and you couldn't live like that and the people, the Polish people wouldn't help you. They didn't. First of all we were afraid to show our face and if we did even they were very reluctant to have anything to do with you. You were afraid they might go to tell the Germans that you are there.

So we heard somehow that in Izbica - was a city about maybe 10, 15 miles away, 20 miles, whatever - that there are still some Jews in this place, so we walked till we came there. We came there in the evening. And we came there were still Jews there and we talked with the other Jews, what still lived there and surely everybody was helpful to do. We told them where we came from  and what - sure- they took us in. Every stranger, they took us in, in the house and it was full of Jews, you know, on the floor and everybody just took care of a shelter; and the same night the Germans came at night and drove all the people out of the houses to collect them in the centre of the city and to go to send them away to the camps. Now we were still - there was this old house, you had this attic and things like that, so we tried to hide there in the building- not to come out, but they didn't do any effort to get you out because they figured eventually you will have to come out.

No food, no shelter, no facilities, you have to come out, and that is what happened. After three nights hiding and not having food, whoever was hiding came out of this place and the others went already what they collected, they went already- sent them to a camp and we were the ones who were hiding. So later they took us to the trains, to the freight trains; and, whatever people they collected, they pushed us in, in this freight train, as many people as they could squeeze in and we were standing, no moving, nothing and the whole night we traveled in this train. Now there were people who fell down. People had to go to the bathroom and there was, there was a mess - you cannot imagine. But you had no choice, nothing.

So that after the morning - in the morning we ended up arriving in Sobibor. That is the way we arrived in Sobibor. So I was with my brother and myself and my friend; and we all meet the rest of the people, about 700 -800 people, and they took us out from the trains and they put us in two lines and they start collecting - picking out people. I didn't know what the picking out means, so one German asked me, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'From Lodz.' 'Out!' And they went further. 'What are you?' A carpenter' Out!'

Things like that, so they picked about 18-20 people. Well let me say that we hear in Poland what happens with the Jews. They kill Jews and they gas Jews and things like that. But we really as young people, we didn't really believe that something like that is possible. We thought, maybe the younger people will be taken to work - maybe only the older people. You just didn't want to believe, because it was so incomprehensible, so unbelievable that something like that can happen, that you just - even if you had the intelligence, you didn't believe it. So when they picked us out in the camp, I really didn't know what the picking out means, whether life or death. So they took us the 20 people, they took us on one side and the others went to the camp, to the gas chambers, what we found out later.

So we worked in there- went in the afternoon, they took us with all the other people to separate the clothes. That started to be our work and I started to separate the clothes - that was the clothes from people who had just arrived with the transport what we came with and while I did that I find the clothes of my brother, the pictures from my family, so I knew already - they already told me, what's going on. So I knew already what happened - that he went to the gas chamber with my friend, and I am here separating his clothes. So you can imagine what went through my mind when that happened.

What did you do? How did you handle that?

Well I really don't know - everything stopped for me, like i stopped functioning. I just heard all the stories before that didn't penetrate me. I didn't accept it, but that made it already accepting. That is the truth. Day in, day out and then after work, they always kept us around five o'clock, before it gets dark, we go back to the barracks where we sleep. Selma told about how the work was divided, there was a section where the Germans lived and that was really fixed up nicely with gardens and things like that. And there were barracks where we lived, mostly where we slept, in other words. And there were a few places in the camp where they had a shoemaker, a goldsmith, a tailor, a regular smith, things like that, but that was mostly not for the camp. That was mostly work done for the Germans in the camp. When they need some work, they did it - like the Goldsmith who made for them good different things, like rings.

You see, the camp really was - that was one of many camps, of about four or five camps, what really was a death camp. It was not a concentration camp - the distinction is the death camp, people came there, they were directed to the gas chamber. They - the small group what worked like us, was just to keep the things going - in other words separating the clothes, cleaning out. Before we came, about a few months before the start, it was different. When a transport came, they picked out about 50-60 people from this transport and when already all the people had gone into the gas chamber, they cleaned up after them and then these people were shot in the gas chamber, in Camp Three. Later they found it was more efficient for them to have permanent people doing the cleaning up, the separating of all the things, and that was the starting of permanent groups in this camp that worked there. And we were the ones who did this kind of work. So it was as i have explained we lived apart from where the Germans lived - we lived in the place where we worked and there was Lager Three, or Camp Three where the people went to the gas chambers and there in the beginning there was burying.


Buried them. And later they were burned. They had a big roaster thing that they burned the people. Now also we had hard times, everyday almost they beat you; they mistreated you. They made you work day and night, but you were young and you could take it, as much as you could take it. Whoever couldn't take it was taken to Camp Three and was shot. A lot of people couldn't make it and they just fell from this kind of work and the food you have and things like there was a change of people. Very often a lot of people were changed because they just couldn't make it. They couldn't physically, they couldn't make it. Now the people who worked in Lager Three was often changed, because the people worked directly with the bodies and having to work on that, most people, mentally they couldn't take it, and they were changed.They had to change the groups - they killed them, they killed them and they picked out another group of people and they took them, or they took some of ours or things like that. They took and if you went there once you never came out of it because that was the real end, the real end. Nobody could come out from that.

So in the camp itself the food what they gave you really was - we called it straw soup - that was something you couldn't even swallow. You had to spit it out and in the morning, black water and a slice of bread for the 24 hours. Now if you had to live on that , you couldn't really live there, but because we work with these clothes, separating the clothes when the people came - they always brought with them - you saw - they couldn't take much  with them the people what got sent on the transport. They just took them from the houses and say, 'Go ,' so they took with them - usually what you take with you the valuables what you can in small things like diamonds, rings and things like that. They figure, 'They'll let me take something, you never know what happens.' And also some food - they take cans of food and we brought it back and we ate it. Now if they caught you - you were shot on the place. You had a piece, a can, or whatever, they shot you. They didn't even question, ask you nothing, just shot you.

Now a lot of times they did it, they caught somebody, they took us out to show what happens if somebody steals, but we still kept doing it regardless, and so we really had - sometimes we had food to eat. So even the time when we didn't have food one evened out with the other, so we were not - as far as that was concerned, not they fed us, but we fed ourselves. We took the food, we stole the food and so we had sometimes from the transport, we had the food. And also, as for clothes what I mentioned -people ask you, 'In the camp you look not so bad dressed, ' and things like that. Now we work with these clothes, so if we had a ripped jacket and we saw another one, we took another jacket and we didn't have special camp clothes. We had our regular clothes, what we came in, so there as far as that , but there was always the - if you didn't look right  or the German maybe he had a drink and he didn't like your look, he took you out and shot you. There was nothing - he didn't have to give any account to anybody what he is doing. He just did whatever he felt like. Now we had somewhat - we had to be very careful, because they always were suspicious.

And if they had any suspicion, justified or not justified, you could be a target of it. What they did, sometimes they took us out from our beds and they, they took us and shot people and things like that, you didn't look right, you didn't walk right. And also when they took us out on Appell and you didn't stay right, he decided to give you 25 whiplashes - they had whips. 25 whiplashes on your bare bottom. So i had it a few times. I got beaten, so I took when I was on my work - I saw some other pants, so I took two pairs of pants. I figured if they beat me , it wouldn't be so bad. So they found out that, so I got beaten and I had to take off both my pants. And you got beaten with 25 whiplashes and if you, you had to count it, if you didn't - stopped counting in the middle, you had to start from the beginning and he gave you another 25.

So that was really, one of the minor things - the main thing was we always were living with that people seeing what we - the transports that came and went to the gas chambers - men, women and children, and that was always a heart-breaking thing to see and that was really ............. Ours is beating alright, the next day you were better, but that is not so important , but that what we saw happening, that really touched us. But it is strange that even, even if you were young and you know there is no way out of here, even if you think, 'its just a fantasy,' you think, 'I will come out of here alright.' Its just your hope , your hope is justified hope, not justified hope, but you think because your will for life is so - you think, 'Ah, one day I will come out of it.'

There was not really any reason to believe it will happen, because it was , it was around with barbed wire, mines around, in the woods guards around, dogs around and even if you get out you wouldn't even know where to go. So there was not really any real hope whatever, not any spark of hope there, that you can come out ever. But still you know, you are young, you think it was so far from reality really, thinking that - how can you imagine  - they burn people - they kill people, young people, children. You couldn't believe that . So if you are not fully aware, you thought it was not true, you just dream. But really that was, what happened. So in general to say, that really was the situation in the camp , so there are different cases what happened - there was a group who worked outside the camp, about 10-15 people whatever, and they went out with two Ukrainians to work there. One day they killed one of the Ukrainian guards and they started to run away; so a few got away and the rest were caught and brought back to the camp. And then what happened we had to go on Appell, and they took us to show how they shot all these people and we had to see it as a lesson when you run away.

There was another one, a similar story happened - somebody ran away, so this time it was different; they took each 10th - they put us on Appell and every 10th of the line they picked out and every 10th they collected, they took with them and they shot them together. Now I happened  to be number nine in a line, when they picked the 10th, so luck was with me, somehow i guess. So they shot this group, so things like that happened very, very often. I really couldn't recall how many times - probably Selma told about this - 72 Dutch people; there was a rumour that they wanted to run away, so they took the whole 72 to Camp Three and they shot them all. Things like that happened very often, one of the Germans Frenzel , he shot a dentist for no reason. We had to see how he put him down and turned around and shot him in his back, in the neck here and he fell down.

Can you tell us a little more about Frenzel and the kinds of things he did?

Well the - each German was really an, an individual by himself, Although they all had - they came for one purpose, just to treat the Jews there, but each one reacted to his character. As I mentioned once , there was one what was there for some whatever reason, but he was not the worst one. He could give a Jew another piece of bread, but the other one like Frenzel, he looked for trouble not for him, for the Jews. He didn't like somebody, he shot them, He would -people would - sometimes you couldn't go to work. They were in the barrack for a day. He didn't like you, if you are so long for a day. He took them out and took them to Camp Three and they shot all of them, so each individual really was what he was, by himself. It was not a command they had to do that. Like we had another one Wagner - -the worst one of them all, the worst thing about him is he was very sharp and very suspicious, If he had his eye and his intuition and his feeling for so - he could smell out something, there will be trouble tomorrow , so we were always careful.

When he was around – we had a name for him, “VaYikru”  Now that means – we called him “VaYikru”, because we didn’t want any name, popular name, that you don’t recognise it, so we knew to be alert and keep out of his way, because it always happened with him something. He always took somebody – he killed him, or beat him or whatever, so we always were very careful as far as that. So what I want to point out, the claim that these guards say they had to do the things, are definitely not true.

First of all, a lot of times they asked for volunteers, because they didn’t want to work they went there, but they were not commanded to particularly shoot this one or do this one.

Their function was to go there and to see that if work functions – that the people come from the train, go to the gas chamber and do the things, but each individual showed his character there and when he was the one what he wanted to hurt personally, he did it there, and he didn’t have to give any account of what he is doing.

So Frenzel was really one of the bad ones – if he could kill people he did. We had one for example who worked in Lager Three and he used to be a boxer, Oberscharfuhrer Herbert Gomerski and for him they made a special whip, what was heavier. One day he came back from Lager Three and we were on the Appell and he came – Frenzel was with us – and he was bragging to Frenzel – we understood, we speak German – so he says to him that he just killed a Jew with 12 hits with his whip.

So they chose that each character lived out his character there. My work was separating clothes when transports came at night – sometimes they took people out any time, anybody to do different kinds of work. What they did, they cut the hair of the women – the women went to the gas chamber after the men and then they stopped. About one or two barracks before the gas chamber was a barrack where they left their luggage and they had to undress – and there was barrack next to the gas chamber where they cut at randomly, they cut the hair of the women.

They utilized it, they sent it back to Germany, for brushes, for everything. So we were sometimes picked out at night to cut the hair, and it happens once I happened to be one of this group. I had to go also to cut the hair. Now we were about 10 feet from the gas chamber. There was – the gas chamber was here and there was like the barrack like I say next to it so they came. If the Polish transports were – the Polish Jews knew more what’s going on. They knew they’re going to death and also they were more religious and the women came in and we were young boys, 20,22, five – and we were standing there.

They came in naked and we had to cut their hair. There was horrible yelling and screaming for all these, from knowing, from feeling they go to the gas chamber. On top of that they’re ashamed to put it in. But with the Dutch transport was quieter – they didn’t know really  - they didn’t realise really that they’re going to the camp, to death, so I happened to cut somebody’s hair and they started to talk to me, “How is it here and what ….?”

They still didn’t believe already, and the Germans around the small room but a little bigger than that, so we couldn’t, we couldn’t talk to them, so I didn’t say a word.

I couldn’t – because they didn’t want us to talk to them. They were afraid we tell them or things like that, so we couldn’t say anything, but that was a horrible thing to see these women with children and all ages and things like that. We knew where they would go.  So as I say hard to tell this picture. They cut randomly the hair, something like they chopped up down here and send away those people, so to the lowest point these people were brought down when they went to the …….

Its unbelievable how takes it to tell that – whoever didn’t see it cannot describe it, how that really looks or feels like. We were always sick from it when we came back from that, but as I say that was random. Sometimes they took us to this kind of work and we did other things. Like for example we had one time on a Sunday they locked us up in the barracks – we were not allowed to go out and a train arrived and there came some people in this camp. And there was full with guards and all the guards were in, all the Germans and everything, and they took them further down from where people usually arrive and they go and take their luggage and we heard a lot of shooting.

So much shooting and shooting, we didn’t know what’s going on. The next day they took us to work to separate the clothes and we are separating the clothes from these people that were shot. They’re full with blood- terrible and while we are separating the clothes we – I found in a pocket of one of those of one of these trousers – I found a little note written in Yiddish and it says, “We come from Belzec.”

Belzec was another camp like that and where the people that did the kind of work that we do, and to liquidate Belzec they brought them to Sobibor. And the people knew where they go, so they put a resentment, so they shot them. They just shot them in the train, so all these people, and they say, and the note says, “We are from there, we know where we go. Take revenge for us.”

So our hopes for coming out was really no hope whatever, no hope whatever. We knew what the end is. It’s just if the transports are finished, we are finished and we go and we will be shot, all of us. i don’t remember, there is so many de- so many accidents – incidents that happened in the camp were so horrible. I really don’t come fresh to my mind to tell what it is, but stories like that happened almost every other day.

Almost every other day, it was if we lived through a day – if we made it through a day, if you make it to the evening you know you lived today. Otherwise you didn’t know what tomorrow is, because tomorrow morning if he didn’t like what you looked like, you could be dead.

Constantly like that. So we lived with this – its hard to say how you lived a life like that – you just live with the minute. You don’t make plans – you don’t think far – you don’t – you concentrate, you just concentrate on the minute. I want to make the first ten minutes, the next minute, the next minute and that is the way we really lived, because its impossible to explain what it means to live in a situation like that. And nobody – if somebody tries to say something about – its impossible to say. Even the ones what lived through it couldn’t explain really how that was, to live like that.

So –but – and there was a group what was thinking of running away.

Let’s hold it for a minute. Before we get to the uprising, would you tell me how you met your wife?

I guess by at work... By at work, because we worked in with separating the clothes and in the evening we came back to the barracks. The men and the women lived in the same compartments, or big…. The camp was circled round with barbed wire and woven with branches from the green – evergreen trees, and – but there were many barracks was in that.

There was a section where the women slept  and we slept in another. The kitchen was there and the work places were they set, so in the evening when we arrived they gave us to eat something and then we have about nine o’clock or eight thirty – depending when it was dark, we had to go and sleep in our barracks.

So the few hours between eating and sleeping we could see each other and I met Selma. She probably knows the details better than I do, but anyway we met and we stayed always together.

So I think that also was really a – that makes it also easier subconsciously, easier for us to endure in this camp because we had each other. We liked each other, and we could communicate together and we were young, so I think it’s a normal reaction to it.

How did you see – keep seeing her, given the camp and the way it was set up?

Yeah, well we tried to be as much as we can together. In other words when we went on Appell we tried to be together and, when – after work we were together. So we worked we went separating the clothes, if possible we were together, so we were pretty often and pretty – very – and very often together.

You had started before to tell us about some of the Nazis – can you tell us about Wagner – Can you tell me the story about him?

Yeah.  Well Wagner as I said was really somebody the most we had to be careful with. He was the most brutal one and a vicious one. He was really – he looked for the occasion to murder somebody, to do something bad to him. He was himself and he had the occasion to do things like that, so he very often sneaked in at night, you know, or in the evening, when we are just walking around in this lot, in the place where we lived, just to sneak out, to be suspicious, to see something.

Maybe he is stalking somebody? I know he went into one barrack, one of – there was a young fellow, he was a Kapo and he slept and he went in  in his room, he start to wake him and he wasn’t reacting quick enough so he took him out with a ----- he killed him. *

He killed him because he didn’t react rightly on it. A matter of fact, the uprising later maybe I will tell – we geared it so – they went every three months they went on vacation, so we all – we planned it to have the uprising when he was not in that time there.

He is on vacation at that time. Every three months they went away on vacation, now when they do that they always prepared themselves to go on vacation. What that means is, they took all the best clothes what they could find – some of the valuables what the people had with them.

They had the biggest suitcase and they filled up all these things. They filled it up till they couldn’t even carry it, it was so heavy. And each one of them took home these big suitcases and with especially the Dutch people brought really nice things with them, and they took all these things. They took them home for themselves, so that was really for them a big holiday. To go home they took with them valuables, what they never could do in their private life – could never afford this kind of things, so that was really what they did.

So that really was for them the purpose of being there, so they could steal and take the things. On top of that what they murdered, that they could steal and take the things with them. Wagner at the end of the war he ran away. He ended up in Brazil** and one of the survivors Stanislaw Szmajzner , who recently died – he was in Brazil too, and when it was Hitler’s birthday they, all these Germans make a coming together and he happens to be there and this Stanislaw Szmajzner he, he somehow found out that he saw that – he went looking for these people. He saw him there and he recognised him, and he said, “You are Wagner.” He said, “No, No. No”  Anyway it ended up that they took him to jail and while he was in jail he hanged himself.So that was the story with Wagner. But while being in a camp we were really – if we were afraid to the most – it was for him. So really that was really a beast – he was so vicious – he was looking already that he can murder someone, kill somebody.

I never saw a person like that, some of them still had sometimes, human feelings you know. You could catch them in a lighter moment, but this one really was just vicious. You couldn’t afford even to look in his face. He didn’t like you to look at him and things like that, so there were – before me were there even others what I didn’t – SS – Hauptsturmfuhrer Stangl.

I think, but I didn’t - I was not in the time when Stangl was. I don’t know anything. I heard only from the others telling – he had a dog and he martyred people with this dog and things like that. Now it was not my time I came in I think in September 1942 – so I was 11 months in the camp because the uprising was in October, so that was not my time.

I remember there came a big transport and there was a lot of people, half dead, dead, no clothes. Terrible, I never saw something like that, its just unbelievable – half skeletons. They must have had a big trip, no food, muddled up before that, so they want to get it over as quick as possible, so we had these trolleys, like the wagons what you have in coal mines, what you swing back and forth – you might have seen them.

So they said all the bodies we had to throw on this to take it to Camp Three. And there were half-live people – we just had to throw them together with the live people, with the dead people together. I see an old lady, a gentle face and things like that, and it was on top of all these bodies. She could hardly talk and they all went just like that. Put her half-alive on the fire there. So things like that really – I couldn’t – I, I couldn’t bring up everything – there were so many of them, I couldn’t really remember everyone of them – it was horrible, horrible.

I just don’t have words for it – you cannot, you cannot tell a story like that.

What kind of food and living conditions did you have?

Well as I said, we all got – the food was – well in the morning we got our slice of bread, a heavy slice of bread, black bread and black water. It was not to drink but that’s all you get, and in the evenings we had a soup. As I said we called it the straw soup, it was from corn. I don’t know exactly the name of it, its with the peels, the corn with the peels, so you couldn’t really swallow that and we called that the “spit soup.”

Now some people couldn’t eat it and they just didn’t eat and died – they couldn’t eat it, especially the Dutch people, who were used to a little bit better life.

So they couldn’t and if you had to live on that you couldn’t make it long and a lot of people didn’t. But we were the ones who were next to the food and we stole it. That’s the reason we had more people, it was illegal, dangerous. They would have shot you, if they catch you, but we nevertheless we did it, so the --- as far as food concerns, that was really the situation, but if you think about how they fed you – forget about it. You couldn’t make it at all, you couldn’t make it. And clothes as I said we came with different clothes, and we just changed, if it was ripped or whatever, we changed to other clothes. They didn’t supply you anything.

They gave you …. They treated you like a commodity, not like a human being, not at all. You were not a human being – you just had to listen the order you get and to do it, just like the robot. You had to do things you were told and if you didn’t do it right, they did away with you.

No fooling around. And there was punishments for whatever reason, the whole evening instead after eating we could go and be in the barracks. They didn’t bring you to eat and they take you around, running around, put down – as a punishment.

They let you run, run, run, fall down and get up, fall down and get up for an hour, two hours, till you get so exhausted and tired, some people died on that place. They couldn’t make it, and some of the younger ones, they did it, so there was a punishment. Things like that happen. As I said they tried to martyr you.

They tried to take away thinking of you…. that you don’t …. You’re not a human being, you are not functioning as a human being, just you have to be a robot and to kill you, any thinking, any initiative, anything --- just to do what you are told and to keep you as long as they need you. So we really were not human beings in their thinking and their functioning and in regard to us, so they didn’t come for that. So they exploit us as much as they could.

Well we were always knowing what’s going on. We were talking about an uprising, in other words we were talking about running away somehow, organised. There was a small group – I was not involved in this group, and there was a lot of talking about how to run away. Now there were many plans how to do it.

It was not an easy task – there were always mines around, guards around, and there were about 150 – 200 Ukrainian guards in the camp on top of the Germans, so that was really a very difficult task to find somehow a way to get out. Till one day, came a transport of Jewish Russian prisoners of war from Minsk.  That was not far from the Russian border where the Germans caught them, the prisoners of war, so they took out the Jewish prisoners of war and send them to Sobibor.

From this group they picked out around 30 people to work in the camp and these people when they came in and they heard what’s going on. They we all soldiers so, and a different spirit – said they want to run away the first day. So we tried to explain to them that its not so easy, “Where do you run? You don’t have the cooperation from the people outside even if you make it already outside, and its not so easy.”

And we told them “also that we have our own plans and we wanted to do the same thing, maybe we can talk together and come up with a common thing, and we can all do the same thing together, what made sense, “ and they agreed on it.

And after many secretive meetings in the evening, we after work, we came together and we talk with them and we talked on different plans, different possibilities, so, till one day we came upon a plan that we make an uprising in this way. We worked till it was the time of October, about five o’clock they brought us back already to the living quarters because they always want to bring us back before dark, so we decided at four o’clock, we start making an uprising in this way.

In each group what worked like us for example, separating the clothes, we had two or three Germans who supervised over us. They supervised us and each group what worked in different ways had two or three Germans who were there to watch them, how they work.

So we decided in each group to assign two people and these people with some pretext, they will have to get them to a warehouse or somewhere and quietly kill them with a knife or an axe, or whatever and just do it, like nothing happened and in the meantime also to cut the wires.

As I said before we tried to gear to do it in the time when Wagner was on vacation. That was really not safe, but safer. And so as I say, we was assigned people in each group to do this kind of work, now there was in the barracks where we lived, there was a goldsmith, a tailor, a shoemaker and that they made for them clothes, shoes, these people there.

So they made – they had to come to fit, so they told them, “In this day I will have the fit for you. Come then, and I will have the fit for you, your shoes or your clothes.” And when they came there were already people with axes or knives – they were hiding behind a curtain or something and they killed them on the spot.

When they came in to fit, they overwhelmed them and they killed them, and shoved them in under… under somewhere that nobody sees, and the work went through like nothing happened. I was not assigned to anything because, you see, I went with Selma and Selma didn’t speak Polish and the whole plan was very secretive. Although it was planned for all of the people in the camp, because everybody could run away, but not many people were told about……………

Afraid it might come out , leak out and then we are all gone, so whoever was, didn’t speak the language, didn’t know somebody, so it was secretive.

So I had my friends there and I knew everything that’s going on, but I was not assigned to anything because of that, because I was with Selma, because she didn’t speak Polsh.So where I worked there, there were some people assigned to kill by the clothes where I worked, at separating the clothes. And there were two people who were assigned to kill somebody in the office, a German in the office, and at the last minute one of them got scared and he didn’t want to go. And I was there and I heard the story and I knew already that there’s 10 to 12 Germans were already killed, so I know – the ordeal I know already.

We are already – unless we get out, otherwise we are dead. So Selma brought me a knife with a point. I said I wanted to go. You see from all those people, what people brought from the transport, utensils and all the things, there was a warehouse for it and we’re not far from this warehouse, so she went there and she picked a knife, a pointed knife. She gave me the knife and I went with the other fellow, I don’t think I was a big hero or a big courageous man, but I figured it’s self defence and survival. If I don’t do it, it might spoil the whole thing. So I instinctively – is not a decision – its not a decision, you just react, instinctively, you react to that, and I figured, “Let us to do and go and do it.”

And I went I went with the man in the office and we killed this German. With every jab I said, “That is for my father, for my mother, for all these people, all the Jews you killed.”  And i…. my knife slipped out, slid from my hand and I cut myself and I was full with blood and when he was dead we ran out of the office and we were lucky. Just then came a big truck with Germans on it, but I somehow ….. there was….the idea when five o’clock comes that we all go back from work to the living quarters, like nothing happened. And that was just at that time and Selma went with this group and she saw me and she took a napkin or whatever she had with them, she tied me up there, wiped off the blood from me and I went with this group to the main quarters where we came in and all the groups from all the places came in, because it was five o’clock.

Then we all start to run away – everybody ran in different directions. I tell it so quick, but there was more tension because it was a whole hour was going on, so we were very tense.We knew there were already Germans killed – we knew already its going on, so we just hoped that nobody unexpectedly comes to a place where he doesn’t supposed to come and finds out what happened.If that is, then we are all killed and lost, so somehow we are lucky with that. We killed these Germans wherever we worked and everything went accordingly to the plan, till we came to the main gate.

Now we could – people ran, ran all over, so the whole camp knew already what’s going on by then, so some run on the mines, got killed. Some people didn’t run at all – they gave up – they didn’t want to run, they just gave up. They just waited till they get killed.But the younger people, most of them and whoever was courageous enough to run, they ran away, and then a lot ran on the main gate. Now we started to run and we were next to a barrack and then I saw Frenzel with a machine gun, and he started to shoot and more people were running. I wanted to hold back because I was afraid of the machine gun, and I figured, “Here is dead, here is maybe something.” So I pulled Selma’s hand and we ran through and somehow, some fell and we made it through the main gate.

So we were lucky we came through. So that is really, I think some luck was with us, so we came through that and then we ended up – it started to be dark and Sobibor was in the woods, so when we came out from the camp, we ended up in the woods. It was rainy and it was wet and she had some boots on and somehow the boot didn’t fit right, so she pulled it off and she couldn’t get it on, so she ran with one boot, half on the foot and on the heal, like that, you know.

We ran the whole night and we didn’t know where we ran and it started to get light, dawn. And I forgot to tell you is when we knew we go away, we took money from the people – the money we should have given to the Germans or sabotage, we took some with us because we figured if we go out we will probably need it if we have any chance to survive. The first night we came to a village and we saw a house and I figured, “Let me go and ask if they can keep us over the day, “ because they were searching there all over.

I told them whatever the figure was – I had dollars, gold, things like that, so I told them I would give them so much money. He probably never heard so much money what I gave him, so he agreed to hold us over the day.

They took us in. And it happened we were six miles from the camp. And later we heard in the same village they were searching the whole day – they found a lot of people, I don’t know if all of them – they found them and took them back to the camp and shot them.

* The Kapo killed was Abraham Fips

** During the interview Chaim said the country was Argentina - this was incorrect it was Brazil


The above oral history is the result of a video-taped interview with Chaim Engel conducted by Linda Kuzmack on July 16, 1990 on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Photograph -USHMM

© Holocaust Historical Society -May 19, 2019