Tag Archives: Chaim Engel

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.)