At a Holocaust education program, students at Benjamin Franklin High School (BFHS) learned about the life of Leon Bass, Ph.D., an African American soldier of the Second World War who witnessed the horrors of Buchenwald concentration camp. This program was sponsored by Fegelson-Young-Feinberg Post #697 of the Jewish War Veterans.
Bass was born in Philadelphia on January 23, 1925, and his father was a Pullman porter. In World War II, Bass was an Army soldier in the all-black 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion. He arrived at Buchenwald in April 1945, only one day after the camp had been liberated.
Brian Camper, climate and culture manager for BFHS, shared Bass’s description of the camp with the students: “Those who survived the camp reeked of burnt human flesh and torture chambers, and [were] still covered with blood.”
After being discharged as a sergeant, Bass returned to Philadelphia and graduated from West Chester University. He became a teacher at BFHS, and eventually became the school’s principal. He also earned a doctorate in education from Temple University. In his later years, he wrote the book Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir of the Price of a Dream.
Bass also spoke publicly about what he saw of the camps as a liberator. “Up until his death,” said Camper, “Dr. Bass continued to speak out,” regularly attending Holocaust memorial events honoring survivors and liberators. In addition, Bass was featured in the TV documentary film Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.
Delia Bass Dandridge, Bass’ daughter, also spoke about her father. She explained that he was inspired to speak out about what he had seen at Buchenwald after hearing a Holocaust survivor tell her story to the students while he was principal at BFHS. “He knew then,” said Dandridge, “that he had his own story to tell, and he went around the country for thirty-plus years doing just that.”
“My father had a great strength,” she said, “and a great sense of humor and humility. He grew up in a very difficult time in our country, but he had parents who constantly told him he was ‘good enough.’ He passed this message on to his children, his grandchildren, his students, and to all those who needed to hear it.”
Pennsylvania State Senator Larry Farnese spoke next, saying, “As a friend, neighbor, husband, and brother, Dr. Bass was a lot like many of us here today. As a leader and a difference maker, he was like very few others.”
Farnese also explained that when Bass helped to liberate Buchenwald, “he did so as a member of the ‘other Army,’ the segregated Army.”
In his tribute to Bass, Don Cave, an aide to State Senator Anthony Williams, mentioned the recent presidential debates:
Think about the climate today in America. Think about the craziness: you hear about divisiveness; you hear about racial overtones…. We’re all in this thing together, and when one 19-year-old man with a rifle went overseas to Germany, to fight for a country that didn’t give him rights, understand that. What kind of a man… would pick up a gun and go fight for rights he didn’t have? Yet [when] he saw the humanity in these other people who were going through these crazy evil situations, he saw himself in them.
You cannot sit still and wait while you see another race or another group of people being dismantled and destroyed, because, guess what, when they’re done with that group, they’re coming for you. That’s what we mean: We are all in this together.
Cave challenged the students, “Do you have the heart to be like Dr. Bass, and go outside of yourself?”
Ronit Treatman, past president of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, asked, “How likely do you think it is, for a little girl from Israel to get to meet the American soldier who liberated her grandfather?”
I’ll tell you, it’s not very likely, but it happened to me. My grandmother survived Auschwitz; my grandfather was one of the people that Dr. Bass liberated from Buchenwald, and I grew up with them. I grew up in that community of survivors.
One of the things Treatman came across living among Holocaust survivors was “how grateful they were to the soldiers who saved them,” she said:
I was growing up during the Cold War. My grandmother was liberated by Russian soldiers, and my grandfather was liberated by Americans, and they were grateful to both of them. I really appreciated the opportunity to tell [Bass] what he meant to us. We got a chance to talk, and it was so interesting; I didn’t know the American Army was segregated at that time.
Treatman respected Bass even more due to his service at the corps of engineers:
I also was a soldier; I served in the Israeli army, and I can tell you, that even in 1986, my friends who served as army engineers had a very dangerous job. They’re the guys who take apart land mines, and most of my friends who served [as engineers] were missing at least one finger. When Leon Bass told me that’s what he did, I looked at his hands, and all the fingers were there. He was very good.
One thing Bass and Treatman’s family shared “was the silence,” she said:
Growing up, we never talked about the war… Then, if you wanted to talk about it, you were walking on egg shells, because you knew if you asked the wrong thing, it would be very upsetting, and the next thing I knew was my grandmother [would] be swallowing Valium.
Bass became a pacifist after the war, Treatman said, “and I’m not sure I would be a pacifist, learning about what life was like here, and I come from a family of fighters. I don’t know what you may think the Holocaust survivors were like.” Members of Treatman’s family fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republic, and one of her grandfathers fought the British in pre-Independence Palestine.
Peter Nelson, director of the New York office of Facing History and Ourselves, a program dedicated to teaching about racism and discrimination, spoke of Bass’ experience in the Second World War:
He was told he wasn’t good enough to go into a restaurant with fellow soldiers, he wasn’t good enough to be in certain barracks, he wasn’t good enough to walk on the street, and the truth was, he wasn’t ‘good enough.’ He was great enough.
Mary Johnson, senior historian for Facing History and Ourselves, said that Bass “made the connection [between] what he had witnessed in Europe and what was happening in this country, with segregation, and the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. He always made that connection because so much of what transformed soldiers that were in Europe was finding out what happens if you allow that kind of discrimination and hatred to occur.”
Anthony Luker, representing Congressman Brendan F. Boyle, presented a congressional citation form to Delia Bass-Dandridge, honoring Bass for his service in the Army and for his Holocaust education work.
Danny Goldsmith, a survivor of the Holocaust, told the story, with pictures, of his family in Belgium during the Holocaust and World War II.
Event photos are courtesy of John O. Mason.