Selma and Chaim
Saartje (Selma) Wijnberg-Engel was born on May 15, 1922. She was the fourth child of Alida and Samuel Wijnberg. Her mother was a very religious person and a volunteer in Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization. Her father ran a kosher hotel in Zwolle, near the cattle market. Orthodox Jewish merchants often stopped there for the night. Selma recalled years later that none of the people around her wore a beard or peyote (side curls), that she had no Jewish friends, and that she was unacquainted with anti-Semitism. Shortly after the start of the war in the Netherlands, Selma's father died and the hotel came under German control. A Catholic priest helped make it possible for her to take refuge with an Aryan family in Utrecht. However, someone informed on her and she was arrested and imprisoned. From the prison in Utrecht, she was deported to the concentration camp in Vught, and from there to the transit camp in Westerbork.
Early in the morning on April 6, 1943-this happened every Tuesday-a transport left Westerbork for the East. The prisoners received a little food for the journey and boarded freight cars prepared for them. Until this day, the Jews deported from Westerbork had traveled in passenger cars, accompanied by a nursing staff. This time, there were no illusions. The freight cars were empty, a bit of straw was strewn on the floors, and a bucket stood in the corner, to be used as a latrine. The trip lasted three days and three nights. The train halted often, but the doors never opened. The lucky ones could peep out the tiny window. They saw villages that looked increasingly miserable, and endless forests. They arrived in Sobibór on Friday, April 9. It was one of those transports that the Sobibór prisoners waited impatiently for, in hopes of better food than usual and tips for carrying baggage. When the doors opened, the bullwhips whistled and shouts rang out. The people pushed and tripped over each other as they clambered out. Those incapable of walking took their places in wagons that went straight to the chapel that served as an infirmary. There, as usual, SS Unterscharführer Paul Bredow was on duty with several Ukrainians. Bredow personally shot the elderly and the sick, after first ordering them to sit down on the edge of an open grave.
Along with several girls she had made friends with in the prison in Amsterdam, Selma Wijnberg was assigned to the SS Sonderkommando Sobibór. Oberscharführer Frenzel, who stood off to the side assessing the passing procession, chose them for work.
"What will happen to us?" Selma asked.
"One shower," said a friend. "One shower and it's allover."
However, the girls chosen for labor were not destined for the showers that day.
They were taken to an isolated part of the camp where the barracks for prisoners stood. Among the boys there who were preparing to go to work, Selma recognized acquaintances from Zwolle. One of them had lived for a time in her father's hotel after the Germans turned his family out of their home. Now, he would be Selma's sole support. She went up to him and said hello, but he did not respond. None of the Dutch people who were already in the camp wanted to talk to the newcomers.
The girls set out with the others to work in the sorting room, where they were ordered to segregate the better clothing from the worse. They searched the pockets and rucksacks. They had no idea who these garments belonged to, until Selma came across her uncle's clothes. Then they realized that these were the personal effects of people from their own transport. However, they still could not guess what would happen to them. An hour later, they all lined up for roll call, after which the Germans declared that there would be a party. A violin and accordion played dance tunes and it was almost like it used to be back home, in Zwolle-except that no one laughed.
Chaim was born in Brudzew, in central Poland, in 1916. His father owned a small fabric store. When Chaim was 5, feelings in Brudzew turned against the Jews, and his parents moved to Łódź. There, he attended a Jewish primary school before enrolling in a vocational school for textile workers. He worked in his uncle's shop. He lived and worked in surroundings that were almost entirely Jewish. In 1939, he served in the Polish army and fought in the war to defend the country. His service ended in mid-September of that year. As a prisoner of the Germans, he was sent to forced labor in Leipzig. The following March, as a Jewish prisoner of war, he was sent back to Poland. He performed compulsory labor on a farm near Lublin.
In the summer of 1942, Chaim was sent with his brother and a friend from the ghetto in Izbica to Sobibór. Immediately after they arrived, they went through selection. The camp was steadily expanding, and they needed skilled workers. A German asked Chaim where he was from. From Łódź, Chaim replied. The German ordered him to step out of the column. His brother was not chosen.
By this time, many Jews from the General Government had already heard about what was happening to Jews in the East. Yet the young people remained full of hope that they would be assigned to labor. Years later, Chaim recalled that he had no idea what that selection meant.
"We couldn't believe it, since it was unimaginable, simply unbearable. Impossible that something like that could happen to us. That was why, when they chose us, I did not know what it really meant. Life or death."[i]
Although he was a handsome man, Chaim looked terrible that day when the transport arrived from Westerbork. He was wearing two pairs of riding trousers, and had a beat-up hat on his head. He had a girl in the camp, but, when he saw Selma, he could not take his eyes off her. He went up and asked her to dance. She didn't like him, but she agreed. When the party was winding down, Selma ran into her friends from her hometown. They asked her, "Do you know what those flames mean?" Then they told her.
When they were marching to the sorting room the next morning, Chaim tried to stay close to Selma. People from the Netherlands usually acted the same way when they learned the truth about the camp. Unused to hard conditions, they fell into depression, and then despair, and in the end they died.
Chaim was a Jew from Poland, and he learned quickly how he should look at roll call, how to work so as not to get a beating from the kapo, and how to organize additional food for himself. Now he was ready to help Selma. Work in the sorting room was fairly safe and not very hard. They had to segregate the items according to a set procedure. Bills, coins, and jewelry separately. Then the other valuables, such as watches, pens, knives, pocket knives, flashlights, and wallets. Men's clothing in one pile and women's and children's in another, since the men's was destined for the front. Food was the hardest part. Those who ate from the camp kitchen talked about "hay soup and black water." The slices of clay-like bread were barely edible. The ravenous Dutch usually consumed what they were given, but the Poles knew how to take risks and acquire something additional. Such opportunities, of course, were reserved for those who worked in the sorting room. They ran a big risk taking food from the luggage, but they had to eat if they wanted to survive. Everyone caught pilfering got a flogging. The prisoners were assembled in front of the barracks then so they had a good view of the punishment awaiting those who stole. Still, they kept doing it. Before long, Selma was also smuggling food and better clothing to her girlfriends. The two basic principles that Chaim taught her were: "Don't draw attention to yourself" and "Don't look at things you can't take." In any case, he was always by her side. Even Oberscharführer Frenzel took to calling them "the newlyweds."
In August, transports from abroad stopped arriving in Sobibór. Now, even those who always had extra food began going hungry. Furthermore, there was fear that, since there weren't any transports, there would be no need for laborers and the camp would be liquidated. The prisoners planned a mass escape.
On the morning of October 14, Chaim told Selma to dress warm and put on comfortable shoes. He knew that the mutiny was set for that day. He wanted to be sure that they would be close to each other when it broke out. Selma had recently had typhus and was not yet fully recovered. They agreed to meet at the barracks used for sorting medicine.
It didn't look as if anything was going on in the camp, but Chaim heard, while they were waiting for roll call, that two prisoners were going to the administration building to kill one of the SS men. One of them backed out at the last moment. Chaim took his place.
Years later, he recalled: "I don't regard myself as a big hero or a brave man. I was rather fighting for survival, in self-defense. If I hadn't done it, the whole plan could have been ruined. . . . It wasn't a decision. More of a reaction, an instinctive reaction. I said, 'Let's do it. Let's go and do it.' We went into the office and killed that German. Every time I stuck the knife in, I said, 'That's for my father, that's for my mother, that's for all the people, all the Jews you killed.' Then the knife slipped. I lost my grip and cut myself."[ii]
Selma and Chaim escaped together. Selma had to keep stopping because she had diarrhea. She always got it when she was really afraid. This time too. She was hot i n all her clothing, so she took it off one piece at a time and threw it aside. Her necklace with a Jewish pendant on it also broke. It's better that way, she thought-they didn't know where they'd end up.
They kept running until it got dark. When they reached the edge of a forest meadow, they heard people speaking Yiddish. There were eight men standing in the meadow. One of them had a gun. They went up to them. At last, they were among their own.
"Can we join you?" Chaim asked.
"We don't want you!" came the reply, and one of the men pointed a gun at them.
They won't shoot me in front of him, Selma thought, and shielded Chaim with her body. The man was surprised, turned away, and disappeared among the trees. Chaim and Selma were sure they would hear gunshots, but nothing of the kind occurred. They could not join, because Selma's presence would be too dangerous for all of them-she didn't speak Polish and didn't know Polish ways. If they had to take shelter in a village, her presence would make things much harder. Those me preferred not to take risks. Chaim decided to go looking for the farm where he had worked in 1940. He counted on the good will of the farmer who knew him. They traveled by night and slept during the day. Selma was scared to death. She saw apparitions at night. She was freezing cold. Now she regretted casting aside her additional clothing. Her feet swelled up so badly that the day came when she could not put her shoes on. All of this slowed them down. Fortunately, they had money and jewels that Chaim had provided for them before the escape. He kept them in a case for spectacles. He hoped that the "fortune" would save their lives. Every day at twilight, they went to a farm and asked for food. They paid for it. Once, a farmer permitted them to sleep in his barn, but they had to promise to leave at night. He explained that he had small children and feared that a neighbor would notice something and report him. After 10 days, they came to another farm. They were starving, they had lice, and they were very frightened. They decided to pay a lot, in order to be able to rest up and regain their strength.
"Will you hide us?" they asked the farmer, a stranger.
"No. I live too close to the road. But I can lead you to my brother's place tomorrow. Wait in the barn," he said.
The next day, Selma disguised herself as a country woman and rode on the cart driven by the farmer. Chaim lay hidden under the hay.
They would remain in hiding at Adam and Stefka's place until the Red Army arrived. They could finally bathe and wash their clothes. Then their hosts led them to the cowshed, where they had prepared a hiding place. They climbed up into something like a loft. They got blankets. The rules were simple: no loud talking, no coming down from the loft, and no unnecessary moving around during the day. They got one meal a day. And although the hiding place was very expensive, they were relatively safe at last. At first, it was hard for Selma to take the smell of the cow manure, and she felt like throwing up. She couldn't get used to the rats, lice, and scabies, either. She gave Stefka money to buy salve on several occasions, but she never brought it.
The first half a year went fairly smoothly. They got enough food to keep them alive, some paper on which they wrote love letters to each other, and even a little wool from which Selma knitted warm socks. There, as in the camp, they were everything to each other. They passed whole days lying beneath the straw, dreaming. They made plans for the future. They made love.
In April, Selma wrote in her diary: "I think I'm pregnant. My breasts are getting big. This will cost us our lives. They will never agree to let us stay on. We can't have a child here. We can't go out on the street. They'd shoot us immediately. We can't go to the doctor. No doctor would dare help a Jewish woman. We haven't known each other long and we want to live like human beings for a while. We have no family. Everything's gone. God, help us in this misfortune. Now we'll join the dead. Why didn't I die in Sobibór a year ago? I wouldn't have had to struggle with this misfortune. But I still have my husband, my beloved husband."[iii]
On the night of July 23, 1944, the front was so close that they could hear airplanes flying over the farm and artillery fire that made everything shake. Soviet vehicles approached during the day and the first soldiers appeared. Chaim and Selma dressed in clothes they had been saving for that occasion for nine months. Selma couldn't button her trousers. They got halfway down the ladder, right into the embrace of the soldiers. At last, they were free. It was July 23, 1944.
Because of the growing threat from Polish antisemites, they left the village in the first half of August. They went to Chełm, where Chaim worked in a hospital for wounded soldiers. After a certain time, he obtained false documents and they fled to Parczewo. There, they were married, and their son Emil was born. Even there, however, they did not feel safe. They moved to Lubln that winter, where Solomon Podchlebnik took them in (he had escaped from Sobibór earlier, in the "Waldkommando escape"). His apartment was shelter for many escapees. However, the attacks on Jewish survivors intensified. In December 1944, Leon Feldhendler, the leader of the uprising in Sobibór, was shot in Lublin by Polish antisemites.
Selma and Chaim left Poland in 1945. Their journey to Odessa through Romania lasted from January to May 1945. Their son Emil died on the sea voyage from Odessa to Marseilles. They reached the Netherlands by train. They lived in Zwolle, Selma's hometown, where they ran the family hotel along with her survivor-brother, Abraham, and his wife. Their two children, Alida and Ferdinand, were born there. They emigrated to Israel in 1951, and to the USA in 1957. Chaim went into business and eventually became a jeweler. They moved to Branford, Connecticut, in the 1970s. Chaim died on August 4, 2003, and is buried there.
Selma still has the photographs of her mother that were thrown from the train on the way to Auschwitz. Someone found them after the war and returned them to her. On the back of the picture, Alida Nathans Wijnberg wrote: "Dear children. You have heard for sure what happened. Who knows? With God's help, we will see each other in better times. Be strong."[iv]
[i] Interview by Linda Kuzmack with Selmą Wijnberg Engel and Chaimem Engel for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1990. http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/phistories/
[ii] Escape from Sobibor. A true story of Triumph and Survival. Richarda Rashke (NY 1982).
[iii] Interview by the author with Selma Wijnberg Engel, 2009.
[iv] Escape from Sobibor
środa, 22 lutego 2017
Licznik odwiedzin: 156 159
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