Remembering Selma Engel: Holocaust Survivor Told The World

On Sunday, the New York Times published a remarkable obituary.

It began:

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 on Tuesday in East Haven, Conn. She was 96.

The story told how — as a young Dutch Jew — Selma was among 58 prisoners who braved machine gun fire to escape from Sobibor. Only one other is believed to still be alive.

She and a young man named Chaim were on the run for 2 weeks before a Polish peasant family hid them in a hayloft.

Selma Engel (Photo courtesy of New York Times, via Alexander Perchersky Foundation)

Back in the Netherlands, Selma told Russian reporters about the Sobibor extermination camp. A September 1944 story was the first public description of the place where up to 350,000 were murdered.

Selma and Chaim married in 1945. They faced prejudice in the Netherlands because he was a Polish Jew; more than 100,000 Dutch citizens had been deported to camps there.

The couple moved to Israel in 1951. Six years later they came to the US.

And though the Times does not mention it, their new home was on Wilton Road in Westport. They were sponsored by the  owners of Gilbertie’s Nursery.

Chaim got a job at Gristede’s on Main Street, and drove an Arnold bread truck. Selma ironed clothes.

“You can imagine how difficult that was for them,” recalls Selma’s daughter Alida. “They were depressed — especially my mother.”

It was the first time Alida — known then as “Lidy” — and her brother Fred learned about the war. In Israel, their parents never talked about it.

Selma and Chaim Engel with their baby daughter Alida, in the Netherlands in 1946. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

But, Alida notes, “there were many kind folks — especially those my mother ironed for. They tried to help.”

Still, Alida and her brother were different. “Westport was not used to foreigners,” she says. “They didn’t know what to do with me in the public schools. So they taught me diagraphing and speed reading.”

The Engels went through Bedford Elementary and Junior High in Westport, then Staples. She graduated in 1964; he followed 2 years later.

Yet Alida ended up feeling extremely happy in school, and still has many friends from those days. She made plenty of friends, in part through sports. She played field hockey and ran track for Jinny Parker at Staples High School. Fred played soccer.

Alida Engel (2nd from left, red hair) with dolls at Klein’s Department Store in Westport.

Chaim and Selma eventually bought a card shop in Stamford. They ran it until they purchased a jewelry store with Alida’s ex-husband in Old Saybrook. In 1973 the couple moved to Branford. She lived there almost until her death.

But the story comes full circle. Alida’s niece, Emily Engel Riley, now lives in Westport, with her husband and children.

And speaking of stories: The Times says that although Selma and Chaim told theirs many times,

it was largely unknown in the postwar Netherlands until the last decade, when a team of Dutch historians, including Mr. Van Liempt, visited Mrs. Engel in Connecticut to research a book about her. It was published in 2010 as “Selma, the Woman Who Survived Sobibor” and led to a documentary film of the same name.

Now Selma’s story is known all over the world.

Including her first American hometown: Westport.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary.)

13 responses to “Remembering Selma Engel: Holocaust Survivor Told The World

  1. That is an awesome story thanks for sharing

  2. Great story, but I am confused about this part: “They faced prejudice in the Netherlands because he was a Polish Jew; more than 100,000 Dutch citizens had been deported to camps there.”

    I assume you meant: they faced prejudice in the Netherlands because they were Jews, or perhaps even because one of them was a Jew from a foreign land.

    Neither Polish Jews — nor Polish Catholics — bore responsibility for the fact that Germans built extermination camps there during a brutal occupation in which millions of Poles of all religions were killed.

    • Thanks for asking, Peter. Here is a fuller version, from the New York Times obituary:

      “After the war, the couple, who formally married in 1945, settled in Zwolle, Mrs. Engel’s hometown, where they established a textile store and had two children. Their first child, a baby boy, had died in 1944 as they were making their way back to the Netherlands.

      “But they encountered deep resentment toward Mr. 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. Mrs. Engel was the only woman from the Netherlands to survive the camp.

      “The prejudice against them made the couple feel trapped. The authorities threatened them with deportation, Mr. Engel because he was from Poland and Mrs. Engel because she had married him, making her, in their eyes, a Polish citizen, too.

      “Poland, however, was no longer accepting the return of Polish citizens expelled from other countries, and the Engels had little interest in going there anyway.

      “They moved to Israel in 1951 and to the United States in 1957, yearning to live in a peaceful country after the Sinai War of 1956.”

      • I realize Polish anti-semitism has a long, complex and bitter history, but still – even after reading the NYT piece – I cannot understand why the Dutch would resent a Polish Jewish survivor of the camps. Further, I cannot understand whether this resentment occurred among Dutch Christians, Jews or both. I will write the NYT reporter, Ms. Seelye, for elaboration.

  3. Karen Gilbertie Roche

    Good friends of my parents – myother and Fsthrt sponsored them toget them to the US

    • Yes, it was your parents who sponsored us and your mother’s sister Trudy and family. Thank you. That’s how we ended up in Westport.

      • Karen Gilbertie Roche

        My parents and Aunty Trudy were very special and I am honored by them. My mother and Father helped get Trudy Fritz Evelyn and Deny here too ❤️

  4. Wonderful story. Don’t miss this opportunity to bear witness to similar lessons of hope and resilience from our Community’s Holocaust Survivors this Sunday, 12/16 for the 3PM performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Westport Country Playhouse. For more information…
    Please visit https://jewishphilanthropyct.salsalabs.org/pjourwayperformance or https://www.facebook.com/PJLibraryCT.

  5. Dan- thank you so much for sharing this story and so many others that give us the opportunity to pause and consider the amazing stories of our town and it’s people.

  6. What a beautiful and heart warming story to know they were supported in our little town. Thank you to the Gilberti’s!

  7. I went to school grades 5-12 with Lidy and still remember her arrival with her beautiful red hair.She keeps in touch with fellow Staples grads and sometimes joins us here.Her parents story is one of hope ,inspiration and survival.
    My late mother had a Polish background and from what my grandmother told me I can confirm the strong anti-semitism in Poland.Of course there were exceptions but the climate was clearly anti Semitic. I have had the good fortune to return to Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto.As the number of Holacaust survivors dwindles daily I hope we will not forget their stories.

  8. this whole thread about the Gilbertie Family in Westport that’s coming out of this post of Dan’s is really, really heart warming; no words quite describe how encouraging it is to still hear stories about people sponsoring refugees in real need of a safe place.

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