Leon Bass faced racism growing up in Philadelphia, confronted it in the Army, and discovered its “ultimate” endpoint at a German concentration camp called Buchenwald.
Photos and Artifacts
Timed photo by William A. Scott with Leon Bass during basic training at Camp McCain, Grenada, Mississippi, spring of 1944, with the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion of the VIII Corps of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Credit: Courtesy of M. Alexis Scott.
Leon Bass in uniform as a young Tech Corporal, 183rd Combat Engineer Battalion. Credit: Courtesy of the family of Leon Bass.
A group of American troops walks along a street between rows of barracks in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp, late April or May 1945. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Col. Samuel A. Custer.
American troops, including Leon Bass (third soldier from left), from the Headquarters and Service Company of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, VIII Corps, Third Army, view corpses behind the crematorium during an inspection tour of the Buchenwald concentration camp, April 17, 1945. Credit: Photo by William Alexander Scott, III, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
Sometime in April 1945, a young African American GI, Leon Bass, entered the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp and saw piles of dead bodies and prisoners so weakened that large numbers of them would die in the days and weeks following the liberation. This encounter was seared into his memory, but it would be decades before he began to talk about what he had seen and what it meant to him. In the course of that long journey, he came to understand that the empathy he felt for those debilitated prisoners stemmed in part from his own struggle with Jim Crow—and from his growing awareness that racism and hatred knew no national boundaries and, unless checked, would continue to claim new victims. In a turbulent era of American history, when the country was wracked by the Vietnam War, student protest, and racial turmoil, and at a time of escalating tensions between blacks and Jews, Leon stepped forward to tell what he saw. In doing so, he helped personify what the French scholar Annette Wieviorka calls “the era of the witness.”
Leon was a soldier in a segregated army, a young man who had to struggle against unrelenting discrimination and humiliation. He was born in Philadelphia in 1925, one of six children. His parents, Henry and Nancy Bass, were poor sharecroppers from South Carolina, who like millions of other African Americans joined the great migration to the north in search of a better life. Henry had served in France in World War I and returned from Europe a changed man. As a pullman porter, Henry endured his share of humiliations in the Jim Crow era. But his dogged determination to fight for his dignity left a lasting impression on his son. (Indeed, few black leaders fought harder for civil rights in those difficult times than A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Henry’s hero.)
Growing up in the Depression was hard for everybody, especially for blacks, but Leon Bass was lucky to have parents who gave their children a loving home and to have gone to a public school that, though segregated, had caring teachers who taught young black pupils self-respect and pride. Role models like Mary McLeod Bethune came to assemblies to remind these young people not to lose hope. But certain anomalies could not escape Leon. When he went to the movies he had to sit in the balcony. While the Pledge of Allegiance talked about “liberty and justice for all,” he was old enough to know that this wasn’t exactly true.
Leon enlisted in the Army when he was 18, in 1943. World War II had spurred black America on to redouble its struggle for equal treatment. Threats by A. Philip Randolph and other black leaders to lead a march on Washington persuaded President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in war industries. William H. Hastie, dean of the Howard University School of Law, was appointed a civilian aide to the War Department to help assure equal treatment of blacks in the military. (Frustrated, he resigned in 1943.) Severe housing shortages in American cities, swollen by an influx of war workers, led to promises of black access to new housing projects.
But most of these promises were not kept. The war exacerbated rather than allayed American racism. Opposition from white workers and unions ensured that black workers mostly languished in menial jobs, unable to get the training needed to qualify them for skilled trades. Bloody race riots broke out in Detroit, New York, and other cities.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall were determined to maintain segregated armed forces, where blacks would serve in all-black units, officered by whites, that would perform service and labor rather than combat roles. In time, because of a growing manpower shortage, higher-than-expected casualties, and unrelenting pressure from black leaders (as well as from Eleanor Roosevelt), some of the barriers came down. Some black combat units were organized, like the Tuskegee Airmen, the 92nd Infantry Division, and a few armored units. During the Battle of the Bulge, many black soldiers were hastily transferred to combat units where they served with distinction. By the end of the war, a few blacks were promoted to higher rank, like Brigadier General Benjamin Davis.
But these improvements were slow in coming, and Leon’s experience in the Jim Crow army was typical. He served in the segregated 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which was commanded by white officers. “There was no love lost,” Leon recalled, between the black soldiers and their white officers. Though he was in uniform, , he had to remain standing on long bus rides just like other black passengers, while seats in the white section of the bus were left unfilled. He watched as German POWs were allowed to sit at the same lunch counters that denied him service. Although his unit did yeoman service, especially in building vital bridges during the Battle of the Bulge, Leon became increasingly bitter. The irony of life in a Jim Crow army that professed to be fighting for freedom and equality did not escape the young soldier. While race relations were somewhat better on the front line, in the rear areas brawls between whites and blacks were common.
Nothing that Leon had encountered before or had heard prepared him for what he saw when he got to Buchenwald. Unlike Treblinka or Sobibor, Buchenwald had not been a death camp—nor, for that matter, a camp for Jews. It was set up in 1937 to incarcerate political enemies of the Reich, including communists, who, by 1943, had succeeded in establishing a well-organized underground, which played a major role in running the camp and prepared for an eventual armed uprising. Over time the camp received many Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sinti and Roma, Soviet POWs, and some Jews, especially after Kristallnacht. Medical experiments were conducted there.
As the Third Reich was collapsing in 1945, the hasty evacuation of camps farther east and murderous “death marches” flooded camps like Buchenwald with thousands of new prisoners, many of whom succumbed to disease and hunger. The number of prisoners increased from 8-10,000 to 48,000 by April 6, 1945. While the SS moved 28,000 prisoners out of Buchenwald as the Americans approached, there were still many prisoners in the camp on April 11, when the first U.S. tanks appeared. That day the communist underground seized control of Buchenwald. Some SS guards and kapos who had stayed behind were lynched by the prisoners. In all, over 56,000 prisoners died in Buchenwald, with more than 1,200 dying after the liberation.
Was Leon Bass a “liberator” or a “witness”? According to the U.S. military, the “liberator” designation applies solely to “those units that arrived within 48 hours of the initial Allied penetration of the camp.” In 1992, Leon was featured in the documentary Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, which became the source of much controversy and rancor when many of its claims were discovered to be inaccurate. But while it is indeed hard to know exactly when the 183rd Combat Engineers arrived, Leon’s presence at Buchenwald is not in dispute. There are pictures of him at the camp. And as Kenneth Stern points out in his report on the Liberators controversy:
It must be recalled that no one—including the inmates—was running a stopwatch and those who challenge whether the 183rd was a “liberating unit” miss the point. The unit was there when it counted, in the first few days, helping helpless souls—true liberators in the second, less technical, but equally humane meaning of the term.
This young man of 20 saw the walking skeletons, the evidence of medical experiments, the crematoria. He saw surviving inmates beat someone to death. But he did not speak of the experience, and he would not talk about it for another 20 years.
Even though Leon encountered hurtful racism when he came home, he returned to a country that was nevertheless slowly changing for the better. President Truman integrated the armed forces. The GI Bill gave veterans, black and white, the chance to get a higher education and buy a home. Leon finished West Chester State Teachers College and found his calling as a teacher, first in an elementary school, then in a high school. Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus, the Montgomery bus boycott, the stirring leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his call for nonviolence reassured Leon that the black children he was teaching might yet grow up in a better country than he himself had been born into and had fought for.
In the 1960s Leon faced the greatest challenge of his professional career. He became the principal of a struggling, mostly black inner-city high school in Philadelphia. It was there that Leon had another encounter than would change his life. A Jewish woman survivor, who had been invited to address a class, was telling students about her experiences in Auschwitz, but they ignored her. After all, Leon recalled, these students had their own pain. Leon told the students to listen to the woman. He had been there, he said, and every word she said was true. They looked at the tattoo on her arm. They asked questions. They began to talk to her. They left the room in silence. And as the survivor said goodbye to Leon, she asked him to tell others what he saw.
That day a lot changed for Leon. Hearing that woman talk “pushed a button.” It was time, he realized, to stop suppressing painful memories. “You can’t sanitize history,” either by soft-pedaling the reality of slavery or suppressing the memory of the Holocaust. These were not “black” problems or “white” problems. They were human problems that had to be remembered and that had to be confronted. Until his death in 2015, that is exactly what Dr. Leon Bass set out to do.
Additional readings and information
Abzug, Robert. Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of the Camps. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Bass, Leon. Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of the Dream. Lawrenceville, NJ: Open Door Publications, 2011.
Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Buchanan, A. Russell. Black Americans in World War II. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Books, 1977.
Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. Troubling the Waters: Black Jewish Relations in the American Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Wieviorka, Annette; translated from the French by Jared Stark. The Era of the Witness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.