NEW YORK (Jul. 9)
A Holocaust survivor who took part in the biggest escape from a Nazi extermination camp in World War II has died.
Chaim Engel died July 4 of heart failure following a stroke and pneumonia. He was 87.
On Oct. 14, 1943, Engel was one of 300 Jewish prisoners who tried to escape from the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland.
When a fellow prisoner decided at the last minute that he was too scared to kill one of the Nazi guards, Engel did it instead, according to his wife, Selma, who at the time was Engel’s girlfriend.
As S.S. guards opened fire on the fleeing Jews, Engel and his girlfriend escaped to nearby woods. They were two of just 30 prisoners who made it to freedom; the rest died in the attempt or were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.
Sobibor was shut down after the revolt.
Engel’s actions were recounted in greatest detail in Richard Rashke’s 1982 book “Escape from Sobibor,” which was made into a movie in 1987. Engel himself often downplayed his role.
“Chaim Engel was modest to the point of being embarrassed when people would describe his actions as heroic,” said his son-in-law, Gene Burger. “He felt he was driven to take part in the revolt by the desperate situation in which inmates found themselves. He spent the rest of his life being a gentle spirit to counterbalance the violence that he participated in to survive in 1943.”
Born in Brudzew, Poland, Engel met Selma Wynberg at the camp when they were forced to dance to entertain Nazi guards, according to Burger.
After their escape from Sobibor, the couple was hidden by a Polish peasant until Russian troops defeated the Nazis.
The couple married after the war and lived in Holland, Israel and finally the United States, where they settled in Westport, Conn., and later in Branford, Conn.
After trying his hand at various jobs, Engel became a jeweler.
“He was a hard-working businessman,” Selma Engel said. “We started all over again many times, but we always made it. He was always determined to get what he wanted.”
The Engels spoke about their Holocaust experience in classrooms and at memorial programs. Aside from such venues, however, Engel rarely talked about his role in the Sobibor uprising, Selma Engel said.
“He didn’t talk much about it, but he had it written down,” she said.
Engel’s testimony on the Web site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recalls the incident in vivid detail.
“I stabbed our overseer to death,” Engel said. “With each jab I cried, ‘This is for my father, for my mother, for all the Jews you killed.’ “
“He had no choice,” Selma Engel said. “This man had to be killed. He had to do what he did.”
Asked if she considered her husband a hero, Selma Engel said yes — not only for killing the guard, but because “he took me out, and he was the only man who took his girlfriend. I was proud that he was a hero to me, and also because of all of the things he did in life.”
Engel also is survived by his daughter, Alida; his son, Ferdinand; and four grandchildren.