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Local author pens true story of love, war, survival

Mary E. Hinds maryhinds@lebanondemocrat • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:01 PM

Sometimes a writer comes across a tale that speaks so strongly to them they are forced to share the story.

That was the case for Ann Markham Walsh of Wilson County when she heard the story of Saartje Wijnberg – renamed Selma when her family was attempting to hide from the invading Nazis in her native Netherlands – and Chaim Engel and their love story that was born in the fire of the Holocaust.

Wijnberg and Engel met when both were imprisoned at the Sobibor death camp in 1943 and began a journey that led them through the horrors of the Nazis to a new life in America. The story of their meeting is lovingly recalled in Walsh's book "Dancing Through Darkness."

In it, Walsh writes that one day at the camp, "the SS officers had planned no punishments or executions after roll call, so starving, exhausted prisoners were ordered to dance for the entertainment of the guards" Engel met his bride when the guards ordered him to dance with Saartje." Chaim told everyone as long as he lived that he fell in love the minute Saartje stepped into his arms. She says it took her much longer – "until the end of the dance."

The pair were part of that great escape from Sobibor, the largest escape of prisoners during the war, then hid in the forrest for 10 days to avoid searchers. The couple was forced to spend nine months hiding in a hay loft near Chelm, Poland. Against all odds, they survived until the end of the war and then made new lives for themselves.

From that difficult beginning, the pair stuck together through thick and thin, ultimately surviving to have children of their own. Walsh discovered their story from an unlikely source – an obituary page 1,000 miles away.

In 2003 Walsh was living in Atlanta when she read Engel's obituary, which detailed how he had helped engineer the escape of 300 prisoners from the Sobibor death camp during World War II.

The obituary set Walsh on the trail of Engel's story, which lead her to meet his widow and fellow survivor Winjberg. Once that connection was made, Walsh heard the harrowing, uplifting story of how they met, fell in love and survived during the ultimately unsuccessful Nazi assault on human dignity.  

"I wanted to find his family and I found them in Branford, Conn.," Walsh said. "I got in touch with his widow and we spoke over several weeks."

Walsh at first spoke to Saartje via telephone and then journeyed to Connecticut to meet her in person. The two made a connection. In fact, Walsh was able to help Saartje find her diary written during those trying days.

"It's a beautiful love story," Walsh said. "She told me the story of the escape had already been told, but I was interested in their story. We found her diary in her house and I had it translated by a state department translator."

Through four years of research and writing, Walsh was able - with the help of the couple's children, to put together their story. Walsh said she was surprised to learn what Saartje had learned when it came to talking to people, even her own children, about the Holocaust.

"She told me 'nobody wants to hear me tell it.,'" Walsh said, adding that even if it still makes people uncomfortable, "Theirs is a story that needs to be heard."

Saartje's diary is now in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and in 2010, Saartje was honored by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands as the last Dutch-born survivor of Sobibor.

"Dancing Through Darkness is the story between the years between the horrors of 1943 and the honors of 2010," Walsh said. "It is 90-year-old Selma's tribute to the love she and Chaim shared for over 60 years and her way of continuing to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves."

Dancing Through Darkness is available from Amazon, e-books, bookstores or by contacting Walsh at amwalsh.com.

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