Selma Engel Interview

chaim and selma

Selma Engel - third from left with Chaim and their baby in Odessa - (USHMM)

Interview with USHMM - July 16, 1990

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 incarcerated first in Vught and then the Westerbork Transit Camp. On April 6, 1943, she was deported from Westerbork, to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, along with 2019 other Jewish men, women and children. They arrived in Sobibor on April 9, 1943, where she was selected to work by the SS. She worked in the Sorting Barracks and the Waldkommando (Forest Brigade).

She found true love in the Sobibor death camp with a fellow inmate, the Polish Jew, Chaim Engel, and they both escaped from Sobibor during the uprising on October 14, 1943. Her account 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 June 23, 1944, she settled with Chaim, for a short time in Holland, before emigrating to the United States of America.

Chaim Engel died on July 4, 2003, in New Haven, USA. Selma Engel passed away on December 4, 2018, in East Haven, USA.

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 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 of 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 who 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 knew 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 were 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 knew 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 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 said. '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 the Germans took all the people that went over to another religion, like there 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, my two brothers and me. My oldest brother was married. I come from a family of four children and I was the youngest. I had three older brothers. And they took us already to the German border. But in Holland there 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 back-pack 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 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 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 us. 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 it is 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 a work camp, but I am talking now where it is 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 said, '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 come home at weekends.

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 that 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 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 who lived in there. And the Catholic priest came to me and started to talk to me and he said, 'How do you think that you can save your life?' And I said, 'The only way that, the Jews can save their lives, is when non-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 who 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 tremendously 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 a sandwich under my pillow, so at night when I came to my bed, 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 that they took in, and a professor, it was there I met his wife, and they came upstairs and they wanted 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 and I wanted to go and visit them.And I was very happy that I could talk with anybody, and they were very Christian - they really tried to get me 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 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. This 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 away - 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. I testified for that they saved - that's 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 knew there was another Jewish family there, and they have a chance to get away. And so I didn't tell them, but the people where i was 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 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 she still 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 visited 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 did i know about that? 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.

Okay - How did you get to Amsterdam?

i don't remember