A Love Story similar to Lale & Gita’s in The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Selma and Chaim Engel with their family in happier times

Selma and Chaim Engel with their family in happier times

Stories like Selma Engel’s should never be forgotten. Born Saartje Wijnberg, as a young Dutch Jew, she was sent to Sobibor Camp in Poland in a sealed freight train in 1943. She was one of the lucky ones, not only to survive, but to meet her future husband Chaim. Both survived and managed to escape following a prisoners’ revolt. After emigrating to the US in 1957, she changed her name to Selma Engel, where she lived until her death, aged 96, in December 2018.

I think my fascination with WW2 stories from Holland must stem from my Dutch background, but there do seem to be an awful lot of tales of courage and daring that have come to light recently. The sad fact is that these heroic individuals, most in their 90s, are dying and we only find out about their harrowing stories from their obituaries.

Saartje Wijnberg - Selma Engel

I read, this week, the obituary of Selma Engel, a Dutch Jewish woman, born Saartje Wijnberg, who was brought up in Zwolle, where her parents owned a hotel. She changed her name on more than one occasion, a necessity if she was to avoid detection by the Nazis.

Not long after the Netherlands capitulated in May 1940, Saartje went into hiding as Greetje van den Berg in Utrecht, but the family in whose house she was hiding informed on her. She was arrested and sent to prison in Amsterdam before being deported to Westerbork. Anyone who has heard of Westerbork will know it wasn’t a labour camp, as unsuspecting Jews believed, but a transit camp for the Polish concentration camps - and almost certain death.

So it was in April 1943 that she was herded onto a train, crammed in with 2,200 others, to endure three days and nights without food, water and a barrel in the corner for a toilet.

On April 9th, they arrived at Sobibor camp in Poland where Nazi guards were waiting with whips. She was “lucky” and was directed to join the much smaller group of healthy, young women who became workers. The majority were sent straight to the gas chambers.

Saartje and Chaim find one another

The parallels with Lale and Gita’s story in The Tattooist of Auschwitz are striking. Hers was also a love story. In Sobibor camp she met Chaim Engel, a former Polish solider, as she worked alongside him sorting through the belongings of arrivals who were sent to their death in the gas chambers. Incredibly, Selma and Chaim were able to defy the camp guards’ surveillance and meet in secret, and he protected her against camp inmates who distrusted Dutch Jews because they spoke German.

After six months, there was a prisoners’ revolt in Sobibor, one of the few places  where the Holocaust was defied. After weeks of planning, prisoners killed SS guards with homemade knives and fled over barbed wire fences to freedom in the woods. Many didn’t make it and were killed by machinegun fire or mines, or were tracked down and shot.

 It was a miracle that Saartje and Chaim managed to escape through the main camp gate and spent the next two weeks hiding by day and travelling by night. Eventually, they found a Polish farmer who was prepared to hide them in his hayloft. They paid him with valuables they’d smuggled out and remained hidden for nine more months before the Russian army arrived to liberate them. The couple married and they travelled through Ukraine to Odessa and onto France by board. Tragically, their baby son, conceived while in hiding in Poland, died from drinking contaminated milk.

Saaartje and Chaim moved to Zwolle and had another son and daughter, before emigrating to Israel and eventually to Connecticut, US, where Saartje became Selma. Chaim died in 2003.

Selma returned to Holland in 2010 for the first time since 1951 to be appointed Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau. However, she refused to accept an official Dutch apology for how she’d been treated, saying that it was inappropriate for what had happened to so many people, including most of her own family.  

The story of the Sobibor uprising was one I had never heard of. Its existence was largely forgotten as it had been razed to the ground on the orders of Nazi leaders after the revolt. But the story lives on in a 1987 television film Escape from Sobibor, based partly on Saartje’s recollections, and a book Dancing Through Darkness by Ann Markham Walsh.