23 October 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, young guests,

On 14 October 1943, exactly seventy years ago to the day, some six hundred people were being held prisoner here in Camp Sobibor. There were men and women from all parts of occupied Europe.

The majority were Polish, but there were also prisoners from the Netherlands, from the Soviet Union and from Germany. They did not speak each other’s language, but they had one thing in common: they were all facing death.

The memory site at former death camp Sobibor

On Thursday 14 October, their sense of common purpose prevailed in one last desperate attempt to secure freedom. Several hundred prisoners managed to escape. This was one of the very few occasions during the Second World War that prisoners in an extermination camp launched a successful uprising.

I say successful, but alas freedom was extremely short-lived for most.
Only a few dozen escapees survived. Most were shot during their escape,
or killed by landmines.

Two prisoners who did make good their escape were 21-year-old Selma Wijnberg from the Netherlands and Chajm Engel, then aged 27, from Poland.
They met each other in Sobibor and had fallen in love. They fled together, miraculously surviving the minefields. They found refuge at a farmhouse, where they remained in hiding for nine long months.

Selma and Chajm married and eventually settled in the United States.
They returned to Europe on a number of occasions to testify against those accused of war crimes here at Sobibor. This story of two people falling in love in a place like this, is a monument by itself. A monument of hope. And a monument of human dignity.

Today, Selma is still alive and is still living in America. She knows why I am here today, and her thoughts are with us. I have been in contact with her and she asked me to say this:

“So few people know about what happened here; the great tragedy, the uprising and escape. It is unbelievable that my whole family is gone. After the revolt, they liquidated everything and planted trees to hide what was here. It was like a wind came and just blew everything away. All my loved ones are gone and that’s it, like the wind it was gone.”

We are here to remember the victims of Sobibor, all those who were dear to Selma and Chajm. And we remember all those who were dear to Jules Schelvis, one of the few other Sobibor survivors. I am privileged to tell you that Mr Schelvis is here with us today.

I am here also for another purpose: to cement the friendship between Poland and the Netherlands. I trust that our relationship will continue to be as meaningful as the marriage of Selma and Chajm.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, many of the victims were Dutch. They were brought here from Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands, herded onto trains which took many days to make the dreadful journey. They had absolutely no idea of their destination or of what awaited them here.

Their descendants, friends and many others have since come together to form the Dutch Sobibor Foundation. One of its members’ prime aims is to perpetuate the memory of their loved ones, ensuring that they – and the lessons of the past – are never forgotten. The Foundation is very active, for example by visiting schools to tell young people exactly what happened here at Sobibor.

Today, we are aware of the atrocities that took place here. But there is also much that we do not yet know. This is why experts have been exploring the site since 2001.

They have already found many artifacts and personal belongings of those who perished, such as spectacles, perfume bottles, dentures and jewellery. And they have found two identity tags, one of which was just shown to us.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Polish authorities, not least on behalf of the Dutch Sobibor Foundation. Your efforts have made it possible to commemorate the Dutch victims in an appropriate manner.

This site is now to be transformed and preserved as a permanent memorial. The Netherlands is pleased to be making an active contribution to this project, since the camp is an intrinsic part of our national history too. The new visitors’ centre will form a lasting tribute to everyone who perished here. We are gathered here today to show our respect for those people.

To do so in the company of actual survivors – and several hundred young people – is a very humbling experience. It makes me even more determined to ensure that the story of Sobibor is passed on to successive generations in my country, ‘lest we forget’.

My message to them is simple: Sobibor mag nooit vergeten worden!
Sobibor must never be forgotten.
Thank you.