Henryk Mandelbaum (born December 15, 1922, in Olkusz, Poland, died June 17, 2008 in Bytom) was a survivor of the Holocaust. He was one of the prisoners in the Sonderkommando KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp who had to work in the crematorium. Only 110 out of 2000 prisoners survived the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz-Birkenau, of whom only a few are still alive. Mandelbaum committed himself to remembering the Holocaust.
Henryk Mandelbaum was imprisoned as a Polish Jew at the age of 21 years. He fled from the Sosnowiec Ghetto and was reimprisoned on April 22, 1944, in Birkenau.
Unlike most of the other prisoners, Mandelbaum was not murdered immediately after arrival because he was designated to forced labor in the crematorium. He had to carry the corpses of the people who were gassed with Zyklon B, check body orifices for valuables and break out dental gold. In 1944, the capacity of the crematoria was too small to burn all the corpses of prisoners killed. Mandelbaum and others had to dig two huge pits then and burn the dead bodies in them. To improve the process they had to pour back the body fat which was collected in small holes in the pit over the top of the pile. He witnessed the killing of an estimated 300,000 Hungarian Jews over the course of just two months.
Mandelbaum participated in the rebellion of inmates on October 7, 1944, which was put down quickly by the SS. Afterwards, 451 of the inmates were shot or hanged. This was the third rebellion in a camp after Treblinka (August 2, 1943) and Sobibor (October 14, 1943).
On a death march in January 1945 he was able to flee. He escaped wearing civilian clothes and hid on a farm for three weeks. After the liberation of Auschwitz he reported himself to the Wahrheitsfindungskommission as an eyewitness.
His parents were among the more than 1.1 million people to have perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz between 1940-45.
Mandelbaum continued to live in Poland and still carried the number 181,970 on his left underarm. He often travelled to the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz and to Germany to speak about his experiences. Mandelbaum said especially young people should learn what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945: “Man muss das doch alles wissen, man muss doch wissen, wie lange sind die Leute gewesen in die Gaskammer. Man muss wissen, wie lange sie haben gebrennt in die Ofen” (“One has to know it all, has to know, how long the people have been in the gas chamber. One has to know how long they have burned in the ovens”).
He died on June17, 2008 in the Polish city of Bytom following heart surgery at the age of 85.
Sources: Wikipedia; “Auschwitz survivor Henryk Mandelbaum dies at 85,” AFP (June 17, 2008). Photo: Andrzej Grygiel/Associated Press.