Chaim Engel, 87, a Sobibor Escapee, Dies


Chaim Engel, who helped carry out a group escape from a Nazi death camp, driven by the need to kill for revenge and hoping to save himself and his future wife, died on July 4 in New Haven. He was 87.

Mr. Engel had a stroke after a car accident and then developed pneumonia, said his daughter, Alida Engel. He lived in Branford, Conn.

During World War II, Mr. Engel was a prisoner at Sobibor, a secret death camp in eastern Poland, where 250,000 people, chiefly Jews, were murdered. On Oct. 14, 1943, 300 prisoners escaped in an uprising that involved killing guards and camp officers. Only 50 of those who escaped survived until the end of the war, but all had faced near certain death as prisoners.

The Sobibor uprising, one of the biggest escapes from a Nazi camp, and the August 1943 escape at Treblinka, another death camp in Poland, are often cited to contradict claims that Jewish prisoners died without resistance.

At the last minute, Mr. Engel volunteered to fill in for a plotter who could not go through with his assignment of killing an SS sergeant. In Richard Raske's "Escape From Sobibor" (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), Mr. Engel recalled in an interview that as he stabbed the sergeant, he screamed the names of family members killed by Nazis.

Mr. Raske wrote: " `For my father!' Chaim shouted as he slashed. `For my brother! For all Jews!' "

In 1987, Mr. Raske's book was made into the television movie "Escape From Sobibor," starring Alan Arkin, with Mr. Engel playing a minor role. In 2001, Claude Lanzmann, director of the nine-hour Holocaust documentary "Shoah," made a film called "Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m." (The revolt began at 4 p.m.)

Chaim Engel was born on Jan. 10, 1916, in Brudzew, Poland; anti-Semitic violence there prompted the family to move to the industrial city of Lodz when he was 5. He served in the Polish Army and was captured by the Germans. They learned he was Jewish and sent him to Germany to do forced labor.

In March 1940, Jewish prisoners of war were sent to Poland, where the Nazis had three camps solely for extermination. Sobibor was the smallest, and the others were Belzec and Treblinka.

Partly because of his good health, Mr. Engel was assigned to sort through clothing of doomed prisoners; among them he found his brother's belongings. Once, when the Nazis executed every 10th man standing in a line, he was No. 9.

The woman Mr. Engel eventually married, Selma Wynberg, arrived at Sobibor in the spring of 1943 in a group of Dutch Jews. They met when guards forced prisoners to dance for their amusement, and he began looking out for her. A camp boss called them "bride and groom."

Mr. Engel, who knew few details of the escape plan, told plotters he would do anything. He had one goal, to leave the camp holding Selma's hand.

The guards were killed by ones and twos with axes and knives, after being lured into secluded spaces to be fitted for clothes or shoes made by prisoners.

The prisoners ran from the camp in a hail of bullets. Mr. Engel and Miss Wynberg hid in a Polish farmer's hayloft for nine months and found their way to Holland. Their daughter, who lives in New Haven, and their son, Ferdinand, a resident of Providence, were born there. In addition to his wife, Mr. Engel is also survived by four granddaughters.

The family moved to Israel and, in 1957, to the United States. Mr. Engel worked in a grocery store, then owned an Arnold's Bread distribution route and a greeting card store. He eventually became a jeweler in Old Saybrook, Conn.

In the book, Mr. Engel insisted that he was no hero, saying that a man can do a lot of things to save his life. He suggested that his most difficult memory was of not being able to answer when newly arrived Dutch Jews asked questions.

"I just did what I had to do," he said. "I'm not proud of it."

His wife, according to the book, was more than proud. She said, "He was the only man who took his girlfriend along."