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Timed photo by William A. Credit: Courtesy of M. Alexis Scott. Credit: Courtesy of the family of Leon Bass. A group of American troops walks along a street Casual lady Leon rows of barracks in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp, late April or May Samuel A. Sometime in Aprila young African American GI, Leon Bass, entered the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp and saw piles of dead bodies and prisoners so weakened that large s 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. 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 inone of six children. 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. Growing Casual lady Leon 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. Leon enlisted in the Army when he was 18, in 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 Executive Order 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 reed in 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 Rooseveltsome of the barriers came down. Some black combat units were organized, like the Tuskegee Airmen, the 92 nd 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. He served in the segregated rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which was commanded by 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 Casual lady Leon 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 to incarcerate political enemies of the Reich, including communists, who, byhad succeeded in establishing Casual lady Leon well-organized underground, which played a major role in running the camp and prepared for an eventual armed uprising.
Medical experiments were conducted there. The of prisoners increased fromto 48, by April 6, While the SS moved 28, prisoners out of Buchenwald as the Americans approached, there were still many prisoners in the camp on April 11, when Casual lady Leon first U. 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, prisoners died in Buchenwald, with more than 1, dying after the liberation. According to the U.
There are pictures of him at the camp. And as Kenneth Stern points out in his report on the Liberators controversy:. 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. Martin Luther King Jr. In the s 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. They were human problems that had to be remembered and that had to be confronted. Until his death inthat is exactly what Dr. Leon Bass set out to do. Abzug, Robert. Bass, Leon.
Blum, John Morton. Buchanan, A. Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. Wieviorka, Annette; translated from the French by Jared Stark. The Era of the Witness. Leon Bass : My parents insulated us from the kind of pain they had experienced.
They never talked about it to us, about the hardships. I guess they figured we would know about it soon enough. Leon Bass was born in Philadelphia on January 23, —the fourth of six children. His parents were born in South Carolina in the s, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era. They settled in Philadelphia with the hope of making a better life for themselves and their children. In Aprilhe and four others from his unit arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany—just one day after it was liberated.Casual lady Leon
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