Remembering as a Call to Act in Solidarity
My grandmother, Selma Engel passed away six months ago, she and my grandfather are both survivors of the Nazi death camp Sobibor. In honor of her passing, I was invited by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, CT to be the guest speaker for the Holocaust Remembrance Day. For me, and many of my generation “Never Again” does not just mean for us as Jews, but is a legacy and call to end oppression, genocide and hate crimes against all peoples. I was honored to have this opportunity to speak to the hundreds of people gathered, and grateful for this article in the New Haven Independent.
Below is the speech I made which includes a retelling of my grandparents survival story, how this story has impacted my life, as well as the lessons I have learned that motivate my commitment to social justice work in solidarity with all persecuted peoples. My goal with this speech was to share this story and call to action in a way that I felt would be heard by the audience gathered, from the responses I heard, I think it landed well.
Yom Hashoah Speech for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven
In Remembrance of Chaim and Selma Engel - Survivors of the Nazi Death Camp Sobibor
Written and presented by their granddaughter Tagan Engel
May 5, 2019
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. I am honored to be given this opportunity. As we come together to commemorate the Holocaust, a remembering of the genocide, and the failed attempt to remove Jews from the Earth, I cannot begin without also acknowledging that the land we stand on right now, and think of as ours, is the land of other peoples who were also the victims of genocide. This is the home and land of the Quinnipiac people. As we remember the harm that was done to us, and the lands from which we were removed, let us also remember the harm that was done to the Quinnipiac and the land from which they were removed.
I also need to ask a favor of you as my elders, as my community. Today marks the first time that a 3rd generation, grandchild of survivors, stands before our New Haven Area community as the guest speaker for Yom HaShoah. I take this responsibility very seriously. I have spent my life listening and learning from my grandparents, Selma and Chaim Engel, survivors of the the Nazi Death Camp Sobibor. Now that they have both passed, my grandmother only 6 months ago, my grandfather 16 years ago, I have realized that it is now my turn to stand up and speak. It is not an easy thing to carry on this responsibility, to share their powerful story, to share its impact on me and how I understand our next generation’s work of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish notion of repairing the world. Because of the significance of all of this I would like to ask for your support and blessing in this moment, and want to invite you all to say the Shehecheyanu, the blessing for first times with me.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
[[ REMEMBERING ]]
In 1984, when I was 11, the book, “Escape from Sobibor” was published, and a few years later the TV movie of the story aired on ABC. Suddenly, the story of a successful uprising in a Nazi death camp, and my grandparents’ part in it became very well known. My grandmother Selma, then known as Saartje Wynberg, was only 17 when the war started. In 1942 she was captured out of hiding and deported, ending up in Sobibor, a Nazi death camp in far eastern Poland by 1943.
Shortly after arriving at Sobibor, Ukrainian guards forced some of the Jews to dance together for the entertainment of the Nazis. My grandmother, Saartje, was forced to dance with my grandfather, Chaim Engel, a Polish Jew from Lodz. He was a few years older and had already been in the camp for 6 months when she arrived. Somehow he had managed to stay alive. It was while being forced to dance together that the two of them began to fall in love, even in the midst of this most horrific and unlikely of places.
Chaim worked sorting the clothes of the Jews who had been gassed to death. In one of these piles, he found a photo of himself, his father and brother at his mother’s grave in the large Jewish cemetery in Poland. The photo was in the pocket of his father’s coat, and he knew in that moment that his father and brother had both been murdered. He managed to keep the photograph through years of hardship, and today it hangs on the wall in my home.
As happened in many Nazi camps, a small group of Jews were planning a revolt. Many months after my grandmother arrived at Sobibor, a group of Russian soldiers were captured and imprisoned there too. They were able to provide strategic planning and support to this uprising. The plan was that a Jew in each of the work cabins would bribe the Nazi guards by telling them that they would make them a special item, a new knife, a piece of jewelry, leather boots, etc. They arranged to have each of the guards pick up their item at the same time in each of the separate cabins. When the guards arrived, a prisoner would be waiting there to kill them. This would allow the prisoners to run for freedom with fewer guards left alive to stop them.
Just before this plan was to go into effect, one of the people backed out fearing he would not have the courage to kill a guard. My grandfather Chaim was asked to replace him, and he did. Chaim was not an aggressive or violent person, but he was someone who would do what was needed, no matter how hard. As he told the story years later, at the moment he killed this guard with a knife he said “for my father, and my brother and for all the Jewish people”.
When the prisoners lined up for roll call, Selma and Chaim, together with 300 other Jews and prisoners ran for their lives. Knocking down rows of barbed wire or escaping through the front gate, they ran through minefields and into the forest surrounding the camps. Only 50 or so people made it into the forest and later survived to tell the story. When Selma and Chaim stopped running in the woods they found other jews who had also escaped. To their surprise and shock, the guns of the escaped prisoners were then turned on them. Selma, a non-Polish speaking Dutch Jew was seen as a threat to their lives, and the others were not willing to risk her presence. My Oma and Opa left and headed out on their own.
Having known ahead of time about the escape, they wore many layers of clothes and had jewelry with them that they had taken from the sorting sheds to use as money for their survival. Selma approached a man on a wagon on the roadside and asked for his help. Maybe it was her beauty, or he was just compassionate, but he offered to help her and Chaim. He told them that he lived too close to the road to be safe, but his brother had a farm in a rural area outside of Chelm, and he could hide them there. Adam and Stefka Novak, hid my grandparents in the loft of their barn for nine months in exchange for the jewelry they’d taken from Sobibor. It was a very difficult nine months in hiding, with fleas and scabies, very little food, the fear of being evicted and captured, and having to deal with the question of how and if this suffering would ever end.
Selma kept a diary during this time. She wrote about her experiences at Sobibor, drew maps, and wrote about her new relationship with Chaim. They spoke Yiddish and learned each others native tongues. In that loft they became husband and wife in their own intimate way, and Selma became pregnant. Both of them were excited and terrified at what the future might hold. In 1944 the Russians liberated the area, and Selma and Chaim stood, out, free under the sky for the first time in 9 months. Soon they left Poland for Odessa, where they would testify for the first of what would be hundreds of times and tell the story of Sobibor and the mass genocide the Nazis perpetrated there.
They had a baby they named Samuel, after both of their fathers, but they called him Emilje - little angel. On a boat near Greece, as they were trying to get to Selma’s home in Holland, he died. Selma was told the baby got sick from her feeding him spoiled milk, which I never believed was true, but she lived with the guilt of his death on her heart for the rest of her life.
Selma and Chaim eventually arrived in Zwolle, Holland, and found that her brother, Bram, had survived while in hiding with his wife and now 4 children. They all lived together in the kosher family Inn, “the Hotel Wynberg” that they had had before the war. Soon afterwards my mother, Alida and her brother Fred were born. Because she was a woman and married a Pole, Selma’s Dutch citizenship was automatically revoked. For the years they were in Holland, they had to check in weekly at the police station. In Selma’s hometown, they found themselves again treated as less than citizens and sometimes as less than human. An experience sadly that so many undocumented people in our country experience today.
They were not happy in Holland, so in 1951 they emigrated to Israel. However, the constant presence of war became too much for Chaim, so in 1957, they left for America.
They were sponsored by a family in Connecticut, and settled here, where our family story continues. Arriving with little in their pockets, knowing hard work and perseverance, and having the benefit of white skin allowed them to assimilate more than some other immigrants, and to make money and find their way in this new society. However, life was not easy, and for my mother and her brother it was sometimes traumatic. They heard the horrors of the holocaust from their mother, and the harm it caused them was and is real. Later, after both of my grandparents had died, we found a letter written by Selma and Chaim addressed to their children. In it they wrote:
“We just want to tell you that we loved you very much. We maybe made some mistakes, but we did not do it knowingly. We lived an honest life, the same we know that you will be. We had a tough life and hope that we did not hurt you with our memories. Sometimes we could not hide it. Stay well and be happy.”
[[ ON REMEMBERING/RETELLING ]]
It is a powerful thing to remember and re-tell our stories of genocide and slavery. We have just recently completed a week of remembering the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt for Passover and now we focus on the remembering of the devastation that occurred during the Holocaust in World War II. There are many reasons that we make time to remember. It is a Jewish tradition for which I am grateful.
For me, remembering happens in many ways, and so much more than once a year. It might be a glance at an old photo on my wall, my great uncle Martijn Wijnberg smiling with pride at the yellow Jewish star sewn on his coat, having no idea it would lead to his death at Auschwitz. It may be in the moments when things feel good, stable and secure, but my first thought is, “it could all disappear, the rug could get pulled out from under us at any moment”, that’s when I see how this trauma and history show up in me.
For my grandparents, my Oma and Opa, Selma and Chaim Engel, the remembering, and the speaking about the Holocaust was a responsibility and a duty. They told their story of imprisonment, survival and liberation over and over and over, to any who would listen. They reported what they witnessed, spoke the horrors, and shared the names of their family members who were murdered. They testified at Nuremberg to convict the Nazi leadership. For 30 years, after the publishing of “Escape from Sobibor”, they traveled around the state of Connecticut telling their story in schools and community centers, answering questions, and replying to letters. All to retell, to remember, to ensure this horror never happened again.
Growing up, I listened to the stories they told. I sat at their kitchen table in Branford, CT drinking tea, and eating butterkook. I heard little details my Oma shared about hiding in the barn, the family that was lost, and the many times they started their lives over in another town, another country. I witnessed them speaking in schools, my Opa with his set of index cards reading the same details carefully, and my Oma, speaking from her heart recalling the memories in a way that would give her nightmares for days to come.
[[ ON REMEMBERING to LEARN MORE ]]
One simple reason we remember each year is just so that we never forget and never let this history repeat itself. In the never forgetting, we often want to learn more, to stay connected to our ancestors, to know more of ourselves and our history.
Being a descendent of Holocaust survivors meant that though I had many stories, I had little living family or connection to Judaism as a religion. Growing up in New Haven, I was also exposed to the realities of racial and economic oppression of so many peoples in my community and globally. I witnessed people fighting for the liberation of others, and this deeply impacted my commitment to doing social justice work in the world.
After I graduated from college, a great longing grew in me to connect with the family, the history, and heritage lost in the brutality of the Holocaust. I wanted to know the rituals of my people, see the land my mother grew up on, and meet family I knew only in name. I realized it was time to look into my own history and retrace my grandparents journey to freedom. I slept on couches and saved up money to travel to meet family in Israel, to follow my grandparents’ path to Sobibor, into hiding, and to Holland. I made this journey alone in a total of 5 months.
I stood in the forest at Sobibor and cried for the life lost there. I sat on trains through Poland, while ashes from the burning of farm fields blew into the windows, the images of burning flesh all too present in my mind. In a tiny village, I met Stefka, the woman who hid my grandparents, and thanked her profusely for saving my family. In Israel, I felt a profound sense of belonging and connection to my culture and religion that I had never previously felt. I also felt extreme pain at the suffering and oppression of Palestinians that I witnessed. Within just a few months, there were three bus bombings, all within earshot. I felt the explosions and was caught in the masses of people running. In the aftermath, I saw body parts being picked out of trees for burial. I stood on the earth in Ramallah and saw American-style suburban McMansions with chain link fences reaching far overhead. In the distance I saw Palestinian people living behind Israeli constructed barricades. I worked, cooking side by side in kitchens in Jerusalem with Palestinians who couldn’t move freely around their own homeland to see their family and to live their lives. I studied at Yeshiva and learned for the first time, the prevalence of social justice practice held within my own Jewish culture and religion.
All of these experiences had profound impacts on me and my understanding of my heritage and history.
[[ REMEMBERING to HEAL]]
We also remember and tell the stories, because sometimes, in the telling we can find ways to heal from the trauma of the genocide. By telling and re-telling the story, we can move out of the pain and isolation to be held by and connected to community. Sometimes just sharing the burden of our story can lighten its hold on us.
Over the past decade, I have witnessed some very powerful experiences of reparations and healing from the genocide of the Holocaust. In 2010 I traveled with my Oma and sister to the Netherlands for a knighting ceremony and apology from the Queen. While my Oma in her own blunt way dismissed this apology as too little too late, the experience of traveling to Holland, and being honored with a documentary and book about her story, as well as visits to her hometown, all hosted by the government was very meaningful and healing for her. For years, she had received a small check from both the German and Dutch governments, actual financial reparations, but this was her first experience of some emotional healing with her home country. It was a powerful and important to accompany her on that journey. Eating whipped cream and chocolates with her in Amsterdam, standing in a field of tulips, walking through the cobbled streets of her hometown, and listening to her speak dutch non-stop, were a homecoming I hadn’t realized both she and my sister and I needed. In some ways it was also the beginning of me, learning to navigate the world of remembering and retelling both her and my grandfather’s stories.
In 2017, my family and I were invited to Holland yet again, though this time my Oma could not travel with us. We went to witness the demolition of the Hotel Wynberg my family had owned in Zwolle, due to its disrepair. There was a very meaningful ceremony where we were given pieces of the bricks from the hotel that had paint on them from the original sign. We led a silent march with the Mayor through the town, and there were three minutes of stillness and silence to remember those who died during the war. Everything stopped, cars, trains, buses, all were silent. The town also created a museum instillation on the second floor of the town’s synagogue documenting my grandmother’s story, along with other information about the former Jews of Zwolle. It gave me a sense of what reparations can look like.
On October 14, 2018, I traveled alone to Sobibor in Poland to represent my family at the 75th anniversary of the uprising and escape. A new memorial and museum is under construction on this very isolated site, which until recently held only a single statue and a pile of ashes. There was an elaborate ceremony with ambassadors from five countries and many survivors and relatives there. What was most profound about this experience was the vast expanse of land that was once the burial ground for hundreds of thousands of bodies. It is now marked off at its edges and is covered with large white stones. It’s an open sea of white surrounded by forest and it took my breath away when I stood at its edge. I felt the weight of the loss beneath the earth, and the rocks that would ensure that no longer would people walk over the dead without a second thought.
On this trip I had another profound experience. I met a group of Germans from an organization called Bildungswerk that is dedicated to documenting and remembering the Holocaust. Many of the people in this group are descendants of Nazis. To make amends for the horrors of their families and national history they have dedicated their time to leading trips for Germans to visit concentration camps and towns. Standing at the site of atrocities, they share facts and personal narratives about each place as a way to communicate the weight of the crimes that took place there. At the end of each day the group sits in a circle and processes what they’ve witnessed. The group then connects this learning to contemporary anti-bias/anti-racism issues with recent immigrants and other peoples in Germany.
Experiencing the rememberings in these ways, both in Holland and in Poland was very healing and profound for me. During this last trip the thing that struck me more than anything was how much attention and meaningful memorializing has gone into remembering the genocide of the Jewish people and the Holocaust. We teach it in our schools, we have stumble stones across Europe, we have many memorials and days to help us remember. It also impacted me, the stark contrast with how little meaningful remembering and learning is done in our country for African American and Native American peoples who have been impacted by genocide on this land.
[[ ON REMEMBERING to ACT ]]
Knowing the history of the Holocaust and my grandparent’s story so intimately has deeply informed my understanding of social justice work and Tikkun Olam. While I grew up witnessing the pain from the Holocaust in my family and in so many Jewish communities, I also grew up witnessing the suffering of many other peoples which deeply affected how I see this important work of repairing the world.
When I remember specifics things about the Holocaust, the ghettos, the transports, the concentration camps, and dehumanization, while not exactly the same, it also makes me remember genocides and massive suffering of other peoples: Genocide in Rwanda, and Sudan, and of Native Americans here, the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and Asylum seekers fleeing for their lives at our southern border being treated like criminals and caged like animals. I also remember the Holocaust when shootings happen in schools, in churches, in mosques and in synagogues. I remember the Holocaust when my black and brown brothers and sisters are suffering from state violence and the institutional legacy of slavery.
I find some important inspiration in a statement by Rabbi Nacham of Breslav says: “The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is not to be immobilized by fear.” The recent rise in hate crimes including anti-semitic violence is real and can make us feel scared, and for good reason. The recent synagogue shootings can so quickly raise this fear in us. The harm however, can come when fear makes us unable to act, and keeps us from thinking clearly.
Fear can lead us to forget that our well being is directly tied to the well being of others. Tikkun Olam is about repairing the world, not only the Jewish community, even when it is hard. If we do not walk with courage, and embrace others, then we risk perpetuating oppression and justifying it because of our own suffering and fear. This we must not do.
I call upon us as a people to ask ourselves: How can we walk with humility? How does our fear keep us from seeing ways that we might be hurting others intentionally or unintentionally? How does our fear prevent us from having hard conversations with those we care about? What is the legacy we want to pass on?
Delving into these questions has inspired me to look very critically at the world around me and motivated me to ACT. My Tikkun Olam in action looks like: demonstrating in the streets in response to police shootings of Black people. It looks like documenting stories of marginalized peoples and issues so that their voices can be heard. My Tikkun Olam in action looks like undoing racism work with other white people and Jews. It looks like organizing for democracy and against tyranny in the united states and abroad. It looks like advocating for policy changes to raise the minimum wage and create equity in funding for public education. My Tikkun Olam in action looks like having challenging conversations about how we can do more than food drives and help in soup kitchens, and actually bring about the systemic changes needed to end poverty. We must not forget to be inspired by our remembering and let it motivate us to act in solidarity with others.
When I think about my Oma and Opa, I often feel a sense of disbelief and pride at the story of their survival. Their resilience was incredible and their remembering a gift to our people’s ongoing survival story.
I hope that just as their story has motivated me to act justly in my life, that it also inspires you to see how our liberation as Jews is tied directly to the liberation of all people.
I thank you so much for the opportunity to speak today. I hope that you receive my telling and reflections with the good intentions that I am delivering them with.