On 13 June 2021, co-curators Issy and Hannah had the honour of interviewing Dutch actress Ellis van Maarseveen, who played the role of Selma Wijnberg-Engel in Jack Gold's 1987 film, Escape from Sobibor. Having formerly published an interview with Hartmut Becker, who portrayed the sadistic SS deputy commander Gustav Wagner, as well as with Sara Sugarman, who played Naomi, we have been very keen to discuss this film with the cast of the production. Please click on the link below to watch the interview on our YouTube channel:
Prior to the Holocaust, the Wijnberg family were a well-integrated Jewish family living in the idyllic town of Zwolle, ran a modest kosher hotel in the town named Hotel Wijnberg. Selma was the only daughter, with three older brothers. After the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Engel went into hiding in Utrecht, before being caught and sent to Camp Vught, then Westerbork, before her final deportation to Sobibór in April 1943.
Engel was only twenty-one years old when she escaped Sobibór. All she had known was her safe and sheltered life in Zwolle, which had been violently interrupted. After arriving at Sobibór, which she had believed to be a work camp, she was spared for labour and worked in the sorting barracks of the victim’s belongings stolen by the Nazis after being murdered at Sobibór. Selma and her husband Chaim – who became known for his killing of an SS guard during the uprising – met and fell in love in Sobibór after they were forced to dance together for the pleasure of the guards. It is reasonable to suggest that their romantic relationship, which presents an idealistic love story that overcomes all evils, contributed to the heightened recognition of their narrative above the testimony of other Sobibór survivors in popular culture and in previous representations of Sobibór.
After the young couple made their escape, they fled into hiding on a Polish farm, paying the owners with stolen goods from the Jews killed at Sobibór. During hiding, Selma wrote a diary of her experiences, which is a remarkable testimony to both life in the camp, and after. After returning to the Netherlands, Engel and Chaim realised how much the situation had changed for Jews. Eventually, they immigrated to the United States, where she remained until the end of her life and where they raised their family. Engel’s hometown of Zwolle opened a small exhibition dedicated to her life in the synagogue, but the kosher hotel where she and her family lived before the war has since been demolished. Similarly, once Engel returned to the Netherlands after the war, she found that she and her husband, who was of Polish origin, were considered by the government to be “undesirable foreigners” who tried to expel them back to Poland. They then left for the USA shortly after. In 2010, Selma was knighted, and received an official apology on behalf of the Dutch government. She passed away aged 96 on 4 December 2018 and was buried next to her beloved husband Chaim.
Left to Right: Robert Gwilym (played Chaim Engel), Chaim Engel, and Ellis van Maarseveen. Thank you to Ellis for sharing this photograph with us.