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Sobibor Interviews

Chaim Engel

Chaim Engel

"I was lucky enough to be put to work sorting clothes"
Chaim Engel (1916) from Brudzev served in the Polish army and was taken captive by the Germans during the occupation of his country. Being Jewish, he was put on a transport from the POW camp to Lublin. From there he and his brother were taken to Sobibor in November 1942. Later Engel understood that most of the prisoners in his transport were gassed upon arrival. ‘I,’ said the 26-year-old soldier, ‘was lucky enough to be selected with about fifteen others as so-called Arbeitsjuden to be put to work sorting clothes in Lager II.’

Like the other Jews who had to work in the camp, Engel initially had no idea what was happening close by in Lager III, where the gas chambers were. The SS made sure there was no contact between those who were put to work in this section and the prisoners who worked elsewhere in the camp. But the secret could not remain hidden for long. The gas chambers that had been made invisible were about three hundred metres from the barracks where Engel and the others worked and slept. From their barracks they could hear the screaming of the victims who were being herded into the gas chambers. Also, through the holes in the fence they sometimes caught a glimpse of naked people, who were rushed from the undressing area to the gas chambers. And then there was the stench of corpses and later the towering flames. There was much speculation among prisoners on exactly what was happening in Lager III. Some thought the victims were killed with the gas called Zyklon-B. Engel suspected the gas chambers were outfitted with trapdoors for the bodies to fall through after the gassing.

"the Dutch knew nothing about the plan"
Engel worked in the sorting barracks in Lager II, where the possessions of the gassed prisoners were taken as quickly as possible. The suitcases, bags and coats contained many items that needed to be sorted. The clothes and shoes had already been collected at the undressing area and taken to the sorting barracks. Everything that came in here was to be sorted into men’s clothing, women’s clothing and children’s clothing. Then everything was organized according to size and also quality. In the sorting barracks Engel met his future wife Saartje Wijnberg from Groningen. Together they sorted underwear and made bundles of 25 pieces. They also had to unpick seams that might hide small items, and gather them in boxes. The SS in the barracks closely monitored that all Stars of David, armbands and names were removed from the clothes. For almost all clothing from the camps found its way through welfare organizations like Kraft durch Freude and Winterhilfswerk to families in need in Germany. Naturally they were not to know about the origins of the generous gifts of the Third Reich.

The Arbeitshäftlinge in Sobibor were fully aware that they would also be killed one day. Sometimes, when there was a shortage of labour, male prisoners were sent to work in Lager III and everyone knew the fate awaiting them there. Not one prisoner had ever left this section of the camp alive. Furthermore the prisoners who worked in the barracks were subjected to the constant terror of the SS and the Ukrainian guards, who dished out severe beatings, often without provocation. And so many prisoners were always trying to think of ways to escape from the camp. A few individual attempts were made in Sobibor, some successfully. But it was not until the arrival of the POWs from the Red Army that a plan was devised for an uprising against the SS and the escape of a large group of prisoners. Engel was one of the small group of people who prepared the escape. ‘The Dutch,’ Engel said in 1946, ‘knew nothing about the plan.’ At the last moment Engel informed his girlfriend Saartje.

"when the uprising started, there were about 400 Dutch"
The escape plan consisted of luring as many SS as possible into barracks or offices and killing them there within one hour. Engel was to eliminate Rudolf Beckmann, the leader of the sorting detail in Lager II. Roll call would then proceed as usual, and the Soviet prisoners would appear there dressed in German uniforms to mislead the Ukrainian guards. They would march the prisoners to the gate, supposedly to work outside the camp. The escape, which took place on 14 October 1943, did not go completely according to plan. As agreed a number of SS were lured into the barracks and offices where they were subsequently murdered with knives and axes. Engel also carried out his task successfully. After killing the SS - of whom on that day fewer were present in the camp than normal - roll call took place as usual, albeit at a slightly earlier time. The prisoners dressed like SS also showed up at the roll call area as planned. But things went sour when the prisoners became restless due to the unusual time they were told to line up and because they did not see familiar SS. The by now suspicious prisoners, not being aware of the escape plan, panicked and started walking in every direction. They killed a guard who came running and admonished them to line up. After that pure chaos ensued and a bloody gunfight broke out between the armed prisoners and the camp guards.

‘When the uprising started, there were about 400 Dutch survivors’, Engel reported. ‘Some of them managed to leave the camp in the total chaos. They had to walk right through the machine gun fire.’ Among those who managed to make it the forest unharmed were Engel and his girlfriend Saartje Wijnberg. They joined the Polish partisans and later went into hiding on a farm. After their liberation by the Red Army in June 1944 near Chelm, they stayed in Poland for six another months, where Saartje gave birth to their child. Via Lublin, Czernewitz, Odessa, Marseille and Tilburg the three of them arrived in Zwolle in early June 1945. Their little son Emiel had died at sea due to lack of proper food. Chaim Engel and Selma Wijnberg later emigrated to the United States.

Gezin Wijnberg

HCO-gezin Wijnberg












Gezin Wijnberg











Watch an interview on YouTube
with Chaim Engel and other survivors



Read the story Chaim Engel told
the USHMM on 16 July 1990


Back to the article on Selma Wijnberg

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