Henryk Mandelbaum, a member of the Sonderkommando -- Jewish prisoners who were forced to empty the gas chambers at Auschwitz after fellow Jews were gassed and burned -- died Tuesday. He was 85.
Mandelbaum died at a hospital in the southern Polish city of Bytom several days after undergoing heart surgery, said Igor Bartosik, a historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum who has co-written an upcoming book on Mandelbaum.
Bartosik said he did not know the exact cause of death, and hospital officials refused to comment.
Mandelbaum was Poland's last surviving member of the Sonderkommando, in which he was forced by the Nazis to search the body cavities of fellow Jews for valuables and pull out gold teeth and fillings after they were executed. They then had to carry the bodies to crematories for burning and when the crematories were filled to capacity they dug huge pits to burn the bodies.
"I thought I was in hell. Fire and smoke were everywhere. I had to clean the gas chambers and put the bodies in the crematoria, or burn them outside when the extermination was in full swing and the crematoria were not enough," he told reporters some time ago.
Mandelbaum was forced to do the work from his arrival in Auschwitz, at age 21, on April 10, 1944, until January 1945, when the Nazis forced him and other fit inmates on a death march to flee the advancing Red Army. He was able to escape the march and hid at a farm for several weeks. The Soviets liberated the camp Jan. 27, 1945.
During his months in the camp, Mandelbaum -- inmate No. 181970 -- witnessed the death of some of the 400,000 Jews brought in transports from Hungary in the summer of 1944, and handled their dead bodies.
"He saw people going into the changing rooms, he saw people changing, he saw the moment of the gassing, the throwing of the Zyklon [B gas] into the gas chambers, he heard the screams," Bartosik told the Associated Press.
Mandelbaum was born Dec. 15, 1922, in the southern Polish town of Olkusz.
As the oldest of four children, he went to work cutting stone in a quarry to help support the family when his father's butcher's business became bankrupt. He developed physical strength that helped him pass an initial selection at Auschwitz, separating those capable of work from those who were sent immediately to the gas chambers.
Bartosik said Mandelbaum spent decades trying to teach younger generations about what happened during the Holocaust. He gave guided tours of Auschwitz and spoke frequently to groups about his experience.
Mandelbaum found himself in the spotlight in May 2006 when Pope Benedict XVI visited Auschwitz. In an emotionally charged event, the German-born pope prayed at the Wall of Death, where the Nazis executed thousands.
There he met with 32 camp survivors, most of them Catholics; he stopped to speak to each one, and kissed Mandelbaum -- the only Jewish survivor in the group -- on both cheeks.
Mandelbaum's parents, along with a brother and sister, were killed in the Holocaust. He is survived by his wife, a son, a sister and grandchildren, Bartosik said.