Selma Wynberg Engel, who escaped a Nazi extermination camp after a prisoner uprising and was among the first to tell the world about the camp’s existence, died Tuesday in East Haven, Conn. She was 96.
A Dutch Jew, Engel was among 58 prisoners who escaped from the secret Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland.
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Engel was forced into hiding. In 1942, they seized her during a roundup of Jews and sent her to two concentration camps in succession before shipping her to Sobibor in April 1943. It was one of the Nazis’ camps used solely for killing Jews.
Most prisoners sent to Sobibor were instantly gassed or shot to death, but Engel, who was 20, was selected to sort the clothing of the dead.
Knowing that all the prisoners would be killed sooner or later, a group revolted. On Oct. 14, 1943, they lured guards to remote locations and killed 11 of them with knives and axes.
About 600 prisoners broke free and fled under machine-gun fire. Search squads recaptured most. One prisoner, Chaim Engel, who would become her husband, had also survived as a clothes sorter. He grabbed Selma’s hand and fled with her. They were among only a few to escape.
The couple found refuge with a Polish peasant family, who, for a fee, hid them in a hayloft. They remained there for nine months, until it was safe for them to set off on a long journey to the Netherlands.
Within days of the uprising and fearing that Sobibor would be discovered, the Germans liquidated the camp, plowing it under and planting crops.
But they could not stop Selma Engel. She began telling her story about what she had witnessed and, along with her husband, would continue to do so for the rest of her life.
In July 1944, shortly after the Red Army had crossed the Polish border, she and two other Sobibor escapees told Russian reporters about the camp. Their account was published in Sept. 2, 1944, in the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda under the headline “The Death Factory in Sobibor.” It was the first public description of the camp.
All told, at least 167,000 people and possibly as many as 350,000 were killed at Sobibor from March 1942 to October 1943. “Selma and Chaim and others told the world about what happened in Sobibor,” Dutch historian Ad Van Liempt said in an interview. “They let the secret out.”
They went on to testify at the trials of German officers, provided written and oral accounts of their ordeal and were interviewed for books and other publications.
Engel was born Saartje Wijnberg on May 15, 1922, in Groningen, Netherlands. She and her three brothers grew up in Zwolle, where their parents, Samuel and Alida, ran a kosher hotel. She Anglicized her name when she moved to the United States in 1957.
Engel, who finished high school just as the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, lost most of her family in the Holocaust.
After the war, the couple settled in Zwolle, Selma Engel’s hometown, where they started a textile store and had two children. Their first child, a boy, had died in 1944 as they were making their way back to the Netherlands.
But they encountered deep resentment toward Chaim Engel, a Polish Jew. Despite the massive losses that Poles themselves suffered in World War II, many viewed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust; more than 100,000 Dutch citizens had been deported to camps in Poland, and more than 34,000 Dutch Jews had been killed at Sobibor.
The prejudice against them made the couple feel trapped. The authorities threatened them with deportation; Chaim Engel because he was from Poland and Selma Engel because she had married him, making her, in their eyes, a Polish citizen, too.
They moved to Israel in 1951 and to the United States in 1957. Chaim Engel became a jeweler, and they lived in Branford, Conn., for nearly 50 years.
Although they had told their story many times, it was largely unknown in the postwar Netherlands until the last decade, when a team of Dutch historians, including Van Liempt, visited Selma in Connecticut to research a book. It was published in 2010 as “Selma, the Woman Who Survived Sobibor” and led to a documentary film.
On April 12, 2010, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands knighted Engel in recognition of her historical witness. On the same day, the Dutch minister of health care, Ab Klink, issued a formal apology.
“I apologize for the way the Dutch government treated you and your husband almost 65 years ago,” he said. “It is almost unthinkable. I say to you: We are very, very sorry.”
Engel rejected the apology, telling friends it was too little, too late.