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Diary of Saartje Wijnberg

Wijnberg, Saartje Diary 1943
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

People's experiences during the Holocaust often depended on their gender. Pregnancy was one way that women's experiences were unique. Becoming pregnant amid such difficult conditions introduced complex challenges that could cause a sense of profound isolation or hopelessness. The featured diary by Saartje Wijnberg (later known as Selma Engel) gives an intimate glimpse into how difficult this could be. 

Wijnberg was a Dutch Jewish woman who was deported to Sobibór in spring 1943 when she was 21 years old. German forces had begun deporting Jews from the Netherlands almost a year earlier, in July 1942. By the end of the war, more than 100,000 Dutch Jews had been deported to Auschwitz and Sobibór via the transit camps in Westerbork and Vught. Only about 5,000 of those deported survived the war.1

Because Sobibór was a killing center created for the purposes of Operation Reinhard, very few people who were sent there were able to survive. Saartje was one of them. In October 1943, rumors spread that the killing center would be destroyed, or "liquidated."2 The prisoners working in the camp organized an uprising. Out of the 600 people imprisoned in the camp at that time, less than a hundred managed to survive the war. Saartje Wijnberg and her future husband Chaim Engel were among them.

The document featured here is a combination of notes that Saartje took in the camp and writings composed after her escape in the fall of 1943. During this period, Saartje and Chaim were living in a hideout provided by a non-Jewish Polish citizen.3 Saartje discovered that she had become pregnant in summer 1944, and her diary entries from this time provide an intimate portrait of her experience as a pregnant woman in hiding—as well as the differences between her experience and Chaim's.4

For Saartje, the timing of her pregnancy was bittersweet. She wished her child could be born in her native Holland "in good health." She also described her exhaustion and the pain in her feet. Despite being surrounded by others, Saartje described  a strong sense of loneliness: "Chaim has to work tonight and I am always alone. Why do I have to suffer so much?" Although she was living with the father of her child, these entries describe an anxiety that seems to be Saartje's alone. Her diary reveals how Saartje’s feelings about her pregnancy shaped her experience of survival.5

For a history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands, see Peter Romijn, ed., The Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, 1940-1945: New Perspectives (Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA, 2012); and Jacob Presser, Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry, trans. Arnold Pomerans (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988). For a history of the camp at Sobibór, see Jules Schelvis, Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp, ed. Bob Moore and trans. Karin Dixon (New York: Berg, 2007).

The term "liquidation" implies that all remaining prisoners in the camp would be murdered. It examplifies the Nazi use of euphemisms to refer to genocidal work. See this bibliography for more information on Nazi language and terminology.

After being liberated by the Red Army in 1944, Saartje and Chaim eventually immigrated to Israel and then to the United States in 1957.

To learn more about how gender affected experiences during the Holocaust, see John K. Roth, "Equality, Neutrality, Particularity: Perspectives on Women and the Holocaust" in Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldenberg, eds., Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis and the Holocaust (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2003), 5-22.


Leah Wolfson, Jewish Responses to Persecution, Vol. V, 1944-1946 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 93.

This could refer to "in Vertretung," a German bureaucratic phrase meaning "on behalf of," that is, "following orders."

Adam Nowak was a Polish farmer who sheltered Wijnberg and her husband for nine months after they escaped from Sobibór.

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9 April 1943

We arrived at this camp at 2 o'clock this afternoon. Much screaming by Ukrainians with mean faces and with sticks in hand. There is an old woman walking in front of me who gets beaten. All of a sudden we hear "packs to be thrown down!" So we threw down our backpacks, walking on we see 2 Krauts who ask us "are you married?" We say no. "Then stand there." We stood there with about 20 girls picked from a transport of 3,000 people. We were taken away from there. We arrive at a small barrack and are again asked for our names and told where we are to sleep.

In the afternoon we went to work and had to sort people's backpacks. We did not know what was going on in Sobibór. We thought of the great food in the packs and clothing and everything your heart desires, chocolate, cigarettes, the most beautiful clothing, 4 to 5 pairs of natural silk stockings that you'll get to wear at work someday. Till the evening when I spoke with Mauritz Zukendelaar and also Mau Troostwijk from Zwolle who told me that all the people that I came along with and those that followed were gassed, murdered, and burned. They then pointed to a large fire burning in Camp 3 where all 10,000 Jews had been burned. It is not to be believed.

When I just write about it doesn’t seem so terrible. It is done in a typical Kraut way, i.e. I.V.1

When you get here, women go to the right and men to the left. They say that you are going to bathe. So first the women. Those who already went to the baths dress themselves in one barrack beyond which you can make out one more barrack (there are actually 3 barracks, the bath is the last one where 30 young Jewish men stand. Those are men from our camp. There are also 3 camps. We sleep in camp 1. We work in camp 2. Camp 3 is where we are being murdered. That is the one you never leave. They can enter the first 2 camps but not into the third one. The 30 men who are standing there cut the hair off all the women [...] Bit by bit people learn that they are going to their death. Children of 4 or 5 know it. One often sees women and children being beaten by Kraut overseers. They carry a leather whip with which they beat people. I have felt it more than once myself [...] I can still see things go very fast when people arrive. They have to throw away the packs that they are carrying. And if they don’t do so, they are beaten. Many women carry their children in their arms and also carry many packages. Also saw one woman threw her backpack down but the child falls down with it. She cries out "Oh, God, my child, my child." She quickly tries to get the child back. As a Kraut sees her he says [illegible] and beats the woman on her face. With blood running down her face she goes on running and screaming, "my child," she is beaten again and again cries out, "my child," whereupon he says, "we will take care of the child." Later we sort the packs. How many times did we find a child among them? I cannot describe everything I experienced or heard and I therefore also hope that there will remain some people who come from such a camp who survive. Every kraut is responsible for this outrage, because they willingly listened to Hitler. I continue on about the women. So they no longer have any hair and they come into a barrack with many shower heads from which there does not flow any water but gas [...]


26 July 1944

Did not write more yesterday. Chaim did not want me to write outside. Today I can, we are really free, unbelievable, and I am writing outside. Is it really true? Yes, we keep saying to each other. We are human beings again and can speak to people. Chaim spoke to two Russians this morning, and thanked them for liberating us. We walked to the village, to see a doctor. I am pregnant, we are almost sure, my tummy is getting bigger; what else could it be? Th e doctor did not say it for sure; he could not do anything for me since he was only a student. We went to Adam’s brother-in-law.2 It hurts me to be treated like we are nothing. As soon as the front is through, we will go to the city to get paperwork for me. When we came back from our visit to the village, I could not walk anymore, it felt like my legs were filled with lead. God give me the strength and health to return to Holland and that Bram and his family are still alive and that we still have some good friends there that are willing to help us. I am so afraid that there is no more goodness in the world. Since we have been down from the loft, people were not very friendly. It probably feels that way because I cannot understand the people. Chaim is helping Adam inthe field, and I knit.

29 July 1944

We are walking and working the last few days. I did laundry yesterday, and for the first time everything is clean. Also big news, I am pregnant, if the baby could only be born in Holland and in good health, then we should receive this peace with joy. It should have been better to have a baby a little later. Chaim is helping in the field, he makes bundles from the wheat. We will go to Golm tomorrow, if everything is alright. Always something, they will not give us anything for the ring. If only God does not leave us and luck stays with us, we have 2 healthy hands to earn a living with. I cannot walk well yet, my feet are swollen, that hurts. For as long as we have beendown from the loft, we have not received one friendly word from Stefka. [. . .]

6 August 1944

We are already one week in Golm. We have tried to fi nd some money, and I also went to the doctor. I am very weak and cannot walk. My feet hurt so bad and are swollen and also my tummy is swollen and my pants are too small. I cannot turn very well. We have the help from a captain from the hospital. Maybe Chaim will work at the hospital and it would not be necessary to go away. We are staying in a house with Jews. We sleep on top of the bedding covered by our clothes. We are strong. I do not know where this is going. My feet hurt so badly. If I had money and a good doctor. We do not sleep well, we wake each other up. Is this living in peace? Is this what we longed for? God help us, we cannot continue like this.

13 August 1944

We are already in Chełm for 14 days. Chaim is working for the Red Cross. I am in the house with the Jews in a room full of straw and fleas. Life is very difficult, and it is almost not possible to continue. At night late everybody still speaks loud and when it starts getting light in the morning again, and I am so tired. I burned my leg and have a large wound. It hurts. Is this the peace we longed for, I cannot continue like this? I am so tired, do not feel like this is living anymore, I am crying all the time. I guess I will not give birth to a happy child. Chaim has to work tonight and I am always alone. Why do I have to suff er so much?

24 August 1944

We have no roof above our heads, we walk from corner to corner to find a place. We have no money, what to do. In two months, the baby will be born. I cannot do this anymore, we are going back to Adam. I would like to have some rest, is that too much. God, let me die. I have enough of this life.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 1999.A.0201
Date Created
April 9, 1943
Page(s) 5
Author / Creator
Saartje Wijnberg
Sobibór, Poland
Document Type Diary
How to Cite Museum Materials

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