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Selma Wijnberg

Familieportret Selma Wijnberg"the windows had curtains with flowers on them"
In September 1942 twenty-year old Selma Wijnberg went into hiding in De Bilt, where she was arrested, together with a Jewish couple, by the Utrecht police. After being imprisoned in Utrecht and Amsterdam, she was transported to camp Vught in February 1943. Conditions were still reasonable for her then. ‘At camp Vught we smoked the best cigarettes, we had pillows on our beds etc.’, she recounted in 1947. One of the things Selma did was make dolls she would give to the children in the camp. After Vught she was taken to Westerbork, where after eight days she was put on a transport by freight train to Sobibor. Her transport arrived at the camp platform on 9 April 1943. ‘When we arrived at the camp,’ said Selma, ‘it appeared to be ideal. The windows had curtains with flowers on them.’ In the barracks she was taken to, she found Polish girls in beautiful pyjamas and nightgowns. ‘They all looked so elegant. The girls started singing, so we thought we had arrived in paradise.’ The spell did not last long. ‘After one day we knew how things really were.’ Most of the Jews were immediately herded to the gas chambers; the small group that Selma was part of was selected to work in the camp. After being unloaded from the train, the elderly and the sick were thrown on to tipping carts by the Bahnhofkommando; they were killed at another location inside the camp.

That Selma and many others who arrived at the camp initially thought they had come to a fairly pleasant place, was exactly what the camp commanders wanted to achieve with their deception policy. After Selma and some other Dutch girls were selected to work in the camp, they had walked passed the so-called Vorlager. This was the section of the camp complex where the German and Ukrainian camp guards lived. It was designed to make a good impression in order to put the prisoners at ease and prevent panic. The barracks somewhat resembled Tyrolean cottages and carried names like "Lustiger Floh", "Gottes Heimat" and "Schwalbennest".

"sometimes we had plenty to eat for three days in a row"
Selma worked mainly in the sorting barracks in Lager II, where the belongings of the victims - suitcases, bedding, rucksacks - were taken as quickly as possible. One day she found a small child’s doll in the luggage; the child had been transported from Vught via Westerbork to Sobibor. It was a doll Selma had made herself and ‘had given to a child at camp Vught’. The clothes and shoes were collected at the undressing area and taken to the sorting barracks by a special work detail. ‘All the clothes had to be sorted: coats with coats, cloaks with cloaks etc. When this was done each type had to be subdivided into different classes’. Also, the prisoners had to unpick seams and collect any small items that were hidden there. ‘Any money we found, we had to put in a suitcase, but we buried as much of it as we could.’ Selma WijnbergThe SS guards who were there watched closely that all Stars of David, arm bands and names that were sewn into the clothes, were removed. Almost all clothing from the camps went to families in Germany through organizations like Kraft durch Freude. The origins of the clothes had to be hidden from them.

In the luggage and clothes of the victims the Arbeitshäftlinge also found food, sometimes canned, which was a welcome addition to the meagre camp food. ‘Articles of food we took with us to the barracks, so sometimes we had plenty to eat for three days in a row.’ Later the regime at the sorting barracks was tightened and prisoners could be severely punished for concealing food products. ‘Then we had almost no opportunity to open a can; several people were shot for doing that. This is also what happened to a boy who opened a tin of sardines. When he was executed we were forced to stand around him.’

with typhus in sickbay
Besides the gassings in Lager III violence was also the order of the day elsewhere in the camp complex. Every SS guard and most of the Ukrainian guards carried whips, which they loved to use. SS-supervisor Frenzel was known for, in a drunken state or sober, beating prisoners without any provocation until they were disabled or died. Selma remembers that one day Frenzel ‘had all the sick Jews who worked in the barracks line up and taken to Lager III. We heard shots and we heard that Frenzel had ordered them to be killed.’

Selma also fell seriously ill. In the winter of 1943 she contracted typhus and was in the barracks with a high 40 degree fever. Her Polish boyfriend Chaim Engel, whom she had met in the sorting barracks, told her on October 14th about plans for an uprising and a mass escape from the camp. Only a few prisoners knew about this: apart from the Polish and Russian prisoners who devised the plans only Selma and her friend Ursula Stern. The uprising and escape did not go completely as planned. The operation called for as many SS as possible to be lured into the barracks or offices where they were to be killed. Then there would be a normal roll call. To mislead the Ukrainian guards, the Soviet prisoners of war were to appear in the roll call area dressed in German uniforms. They would lead, this was the plan, the prisoners to the gate, supposedly to work outside the camp.

"huns were beaten to death and thrown under a blanket"
The prisoners had indeed managed to kill a number of SS. ‘Everywhere the Huns were called in, beaten to death and thrown under a blanket,’ says Selma. But chaos ensued during roll call. Suspicious because roll call was early, the prisoners, who knew nothing about an escape plan, saw none of the familiar SS and therefore did not line up in the usual way. One Ukrainian guard who came running tried to restore order. Someone yelled: ‘The war is over, man!’ and in the ensuing chaos the guard was killed by the prisoners. Selma en Chaim met kind

A short time later the SS staff sprang into action and there was a gunfight with the armed prisoners. The sentries also emptied their guns into the fleeing crowd. A group of women ran back to the barracks in a panic, while Selma together with Chaim ran to the main gate and managed to escape the camp unharmed. ‘Many died because of the mines,’ according to Selma, ‘since they didn’t know where they were exactly.’ All prisoners who had stayed behind in the camp or who had panicked and run into a barracks during the shooting, were shot shortly after the uprising.

After their escape from the camp, Selma and Chaim joined the Polish partisans. Later they went into hiding on a farm. After being liberated by the Red Army in June 1944 near Chelm, she stayed in Poland for another six months with her partner, where she gave birth to a son. Via Lublin, Czernowitz, Odessa, Marseille and Tilburg, they arrived in Zwolle in early June 1945. Their little baby had died at sea due to lack of food. Selma Wijnberg is the only prisoner born in the Netherlands who survived the Sobibor uprising and came home in one piece. After living in Zwolle for some time, she and her husband emigrated to the United States.

Watch the NOS-documentory
"Selma, de vrouw die Sobibor overleefde"
[Selma, the woman who survived Sobibor]


Read the story Selma Wijnberg
told the USHMM on 16 July 1990



Read more on Chaim Engel

Back to "Dutch survivors"

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