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Joe Engel 1927-2022

Obituary             Donate in Joe's Memory             Links about Joe

 

Joe Engel, Holocaust survivor and community leader, died on November 26, 2022. Joe was born on October 9, 1927, in Zakroczym, Poland to Moishe and Esther Engel. 

Joe dedicated his life to talking to students and other groups about the atrocities of the Nazis. He spoke to countless organizations relaying what he saw with his own eyes, making sure that the six million Jews, including 1.5 million innocent children, killed by the Nazis during WWII are never forgotten. Joe selflessly traveled throughout South Carolina to tell his story to tens of thousands of students in the hopes of educating a new generation of leaders to prevent a future Holocaust. 

If not telling his story at a school, Joe could often be found sitting on a bench at The Battery waiting for a tourist to ask him about the “Holocaust Survivor” sign he wore around his neck. He was delighted to meet people from all corners of the world who would stop and talk to him about the horrors of the Holocaust.
 
The City of Charleston and the State of South Carolina have honored Joe numerous times. The more memorable events were when Governor Mark Sanford conferred the prestigious Order of the Palmetto upon Joe in 2004 and the more than twenty “Joe Engel Day(s)” proclaimed by Charleston Mayors Riley and Tecklenberg. In 2016, the City of Charleston honored Joe by naming a street “The Joe Engel Street”.  The South Carolina General Assembly, in Columbia, declared May 1, 2019, as “Joe Engel Day”. Joe recently released a full feature documentary about his life entitled, To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story. 

The following is a snapshot of Joe’s story. For more in depth information, Google JOE ENGEL. 

Joe’s small town of Zakroczym was occupied and destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. Joe’s family which included his mother and father, his eight brother and sisters, their spouses, and offspring, left Zakrocyzm shortly after and settled in the Jewish ghetto in Pionsk.  Conditions there were equally abysmal. Throughout his stay in Pionsk, Germans would make daily selections to be transferred to so called “labor camps” where Jews were killed daily by mass shootings, gasoline bombings, and later by lethal gas. The elderly, infirmed, and parents with young children were chosen first. Joe was among the last people to leave Pionsk in 1942 and was transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau at the age of fourteen. Prisoners were packed in sealed freight cars and suffered from severe overcrowding. They endured intense heat during the summer and freezing temperatures during the winter. Aside from a bucket, there was no sanitary facility. Lacking food and water and proper ventilation, many deportees died during Joe's four-day train ride.  

Upon arrival, Joe survived selection by the infamous Dr. Mengele. Once the prisoners exited the trains, Mengele would motion whether the prisoner was to step to the right or to the left. This simple motion meant life or death, as one line went immediately to the gas chambers and the other were saved for slave labor. Of the 2,000 arrivals that day, only 300 were chosen to live.  

Joe was taken to the Birkenau camp in Poland. Every morning, the prisoners were given a slice of bread and margarine. For lunch, they were given warm water and at dinner another slice of bread. Joe and his fellow prisoners were forced to live off 60 calories a day, the bare minimum to keep a human alive.  

Thinking nothing could be worse than the situation he was in, Joe took a risk and volunteered to be moved to the neighboring camp, Auschwitz, not knowing what was expected of him there. Joe’s risk paid off as he was enrolled in their brick laying school, which played a big factor in Joe’s survival. Rather than doing outdoor manual labor all day, Joe went to school in a building, sparing him the agony of the bitter Polish winter and disease ravaged camp for a short while. Joe was surrounded by the smell of flesh burning in the gas chambers. He watched as his fellow prisoners died from beatings, starvation, disease, and gassing.
 
On January 14, 1945, with Allied forces closing in, the Nazis ordered prisoners to march thirty-five miles to a depot for transport to a different concentration camp. Around 15,000 prisoners died during the “Death March” due to the extreme cold, heavy snow, or their inability to march any further.   Joe survived the march and was once again put in a cattle car headed for German occupied territory. This time, however, the cattle car did not have a roof and once night fell, Joe decided to jump from the car. Joe landed on a large snowbank where he buried himself. He could hear the train stop, the Nazis searching and the bullets flying by. Finally, the Nazis gave up their search and the train moved on. Joe wandered alone, not knowing where he was going or what he was going to do. Kind villagers smuggled food to Joe and helped him locate the Polish Resistance who were hiding in nearby woods. Joe joined the Resistance and fought with them until the end of the war. Of the more than one hundred people in Joe’s family, only Joe and three of his siblings survived. 

On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allied forces. Joe was placed in a DP camp (Displaced Persons) where he worked with a refugee agency, which helped Jewish prisoners reunite with their families. Joe recalled having an aunt living in Charleston, SC. After four years of forms, affidavits and testimonies, Joe arrived in Charleston on March 13, 1949. His aunt, Bessie Engel and his two first cousins, Louis and Herbie Engel, were there to meet him at the Charleston train station.

Joe opened Glamour Cleaners at 526 King Street in 1955 and operated his dry-cleaning business until 1994.   

Joe was predeceased in death by his parents and his eight siblings. Joe said his greatest regret was “losing his parents, youth and education”. Despite all that Joe went through, he always had a smile for everyone and loved to joke that despite his lack of education, he was in fact a CPA: "Cleaning, Pressing and Alterations.”

Joe is survived by his nieces; Esther Goldberg, Ellen Engel and Sheila Goldberg (Mitchell) and nephews; Marvin Engel and Eric Engel (Adrienne), and their children. As well as beloved local family, Mike Engel (Debbie), Debbie Engel (Newt Klements) and Carla Engel-Cook (Steve) and their children. Joe had an extensive out of town family as well.  

Joe was loved and cherished by the entire Engel/Bebergal Charleston family. Our family and the City of Charleston were truly blessed by the arrival of Joe Engel. 

Funeral services will be held Monday, November 28 at 11:00AM at Synagogue Emanu-El Cemetery, Sycamore Drive, Charleston SC.  It will also be livestreamed here.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Joe's name may be made to Synagogue Emanu-El Joe Engel Holocaust Fund, 5 Windsor Drive, Charleston, SC 29407 (below), Charleston Jewish Family Service at 176 Croghan Spur Road, Suite 103, Charleston, SC 29407  or to the Charleston Jewish Federation, 176 Croghan Spur Road, Suite 100, Charleston, SC 29407. 



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Links about Joe

"Joe Engel and Irene Engel Zryb" at The Holocaust Quilt.
Oral history interview with Joe from College of Charleston's Jewish Heritage Collection (1997)
Oral history interview with Joe from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (1991)
"Mapping Joe Engel Street" from Mapping Jewish Charleston, Pearlstine/Lipov Center
"Joe Engel's Oral History" at Yiddish Book Center (2021) (in Yiddish)

Rent "To Auschwitz and Back":
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Mon, February 6 2023 15 Shevat 5783