Leon Bass was an African-American soldier in World War II who helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp. He later became an educator, civil rights activist and proponent of black-Jewish unity.
In an extensive interview by NPR, Leon provided a vivid oral history of his experiences as a black man in the South, and an American liberator of European Jews.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Leon graduated from high school in 1943 and volunteered for the army. He went to the induction center with some friends who happened to be white, and Leon was stunned when he was immediately separated from his pals. This is when Leon realized that the entire U.S. military was segregated.
He was angry that putting his life on the line to serve his country wasn’t enough for him to be considered equal to white soldiers. When he went to the Deep South for training, white locals often treated him with ill-disguised contempt.
“I wasn’t good enough in Macon, Georgia to get a drink of water at a public water fountain. And in Beaumont, Texas they still said I wasn’t good enough to eat a meal in a restaurant. And in Mississippi, I stood up for more than 100 miles looking at empty seats on a bus that I was not permitted to occupy because they said I wasn’t good enough. What a damnable experience to have when you’re 18 years of age and you volunteered to serve your country.”
Leon says he was “an angry, young black soldier” when he was shipped overseas to Germany. He was setting up camp in Vellmar when the lieutenant told Leon and two other soldiers to come with him. He said they were going to a concentration camp. Leon had no idea what that meant.
“I didn’t know anything about concentration camps. In all the training they had given me, no one ever mentioned concentration camps. But on this day in April, in 1945, I was going to have the shock of my life because I was going to walk through the gates of a concentration camp called Buchenwald. And you got to believe me when I tell you that I was not ready for that. I was totally unprepared for that kind of a situation. But you see, I can never, ever forget the day. It was that spring day in April when I walked through those gates and I saw in front of me what I call the walking dead.”
“I saw human beings, human beings that had been beaten and starved and tortured and denied everything - everything that would make life livable. There they stood in front of me. They were skin and bone. They had skeletal faces with deep-set eyes. Their heads had been clean-shaved, and they stood in these ragged, stripe-type pajamas. Some were naked. I could see sores on their bodies and I was told that came from malnutrition. One man held out his hands. His fingers had webbed together with scabs….”
Leon later recalled the impact of that moment. “I realized I was not the same anymore. Something had happened to me. I realized now that human suffering is not just relegated to me. Oh, no. The pain and suffering that I saw, both in the United States and in Nazi Germany, oh yeah, that pain and suffering touches all of us - the good and the bad. We all become damaged by the evil of racism and anti-Semitism, bigotry, prejudice.”
The experience changed Leon. “For the first time now I realized that I had something to fight for. I had to be aware how blessed I was to live in a country where the opportunity to change is possible.”
After the war, Leon graduated from college in Philadelphia - although he couldn’t live in the dorms because he was black. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Leon began to channel his anger at racial injustice into positive action. He became an educator.
Right after Dr. King was murdered, Leon became principal of a high school. He had to make order out of chaos, and get the angry black students to understand that violence is not the answer. He passed a classroom and heard a ruckus - the students were shouting, putting their feet on their desks and smoking cigarettes. He went inside to see what was going on, and saw a little old lady who was trying to talk to them.
Leon soon learned that she was a Holocaust survivor named Nina Kaleska who was trying to tell her story. She’d lost her entire family, multiple generations, and she was the only survivor. Leon was shocked at the students' rudeness towards the old woman. Leon and Nina talked for an hour that day, and when she heard his story about liberating Buchenwald, she said, “Young man, you have something to say. You should be telling people what you saw at that camp in Nazi Germany.”
Leon immediately took up the challenge, and began speaking to the students in his school about liberating Buchenwald. By sharing his experience, it felt more real to the students, and they were more ready to listen to testimony from survivors like Nina Kaleska.
His Holocaust education program was so successful in his school, that he started speaking at other educational institutions all over the country. He became a noted lecturer on the subject of racism and the Holocaust. Leon’s unique perspective as both a victim of oppression and a witness to oppression captivated audiences. Leon became a bridge between the black and Jewish community. By speaking to thousands of schoolchildren of all races about what he witnessed, Leon educated new generations about the Holocaust.
Leon appeared in a critically acclaimed documentary, “Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.” He died at age 90 in 2015.
For bearing witness to evil and educating generations of students, we honor Leon Bass as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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