WWII Veteran Remembers War, Discovers Truth
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're continuing with our special Thanksgiving program - gratitude in three acts. We're speaking with people who've learned a thing or two about the subject. Now, Leon Bass.
Leon Bass was just 19 years old serving in the U.S. Army during World War II when he became a first-person witness to the atrocities of the Nazis. That experience helped set the course of his life. He became an educator and one who has tried to heal divisions between peoples of various of backgrounds. He joins us now in our studios, and I have to warn our listeners that some of the things we will be discussing may be disturbing to some of our listeners.
Welcome, Mr. Bass. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LEON BASS (Educator, World War II Veteran): My pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: Tell me about your decision to join the army.
Mr. BASS: Well, I was a young man of 18, and I had just come out of high school and I didn't know what I was going to do. The job I had was not to my liking. So I said, I'd better join the army. So I did what so many young men were doing. I volunteered.
MARTIN: What was it like being an African-American in the army at that time?
Mr. BASS: Well, I didn't realize that the decision I made was going to bring me face to face with institutional racism, and that happened on the day that I went down to the induction center in Philadelphia. I went down with some of my friends who happened to be white, and when we got to the door of that institution, there was a sergeant standing there. He took one look at me and he said, go this way, and he looked at my friends and he pointed the other way. That was done because in 1943 all of the Armed Forces, the entire military was segregated.
So my country practiced and promoted institutional racism, and by doing that my country was telling me I wasn't good enough, I wasn't good enough to serve my country with white soldiers. Well, I was one of 600 African-Americans. We were all sent down into the Deep South for training. We went down to places like Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas. And in all of these places, everyone of them, the people who lived there, the people that I'm going to protect and defend with my life, should that come necessary, they let me know everyday in so many different ways that they thought I wasn't good enough.
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 a hundred 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.
MARTIN: What was it like, though, to contrast those experiences to what you were fighting for? I mean, you were fighting to defend freedom and to defeat oppression.
Mr. BASS: It began to come to me slowly. I was just 19. I didn't have all the answers. But I really was an angry, young soldier because I was angry at my country because I felt my country was using me, abusing me, putting me out in harms way to fight and maybe die to preserve all those wonderful things that every American should enjoy. And yet my country was saying to me, Leon, you're not good enough to enjoy what you're fighting for. And that's what made me an angry, young black soldier.
Then, yes, we went into Germany, crossed the Rhine River, went up to a place called Neuerburg, and then we were told to go up into East Germany, to go a place called Vellmar(ph), and it was there that we were supposed to set up our camp. And we began to do that, but right away, the lieutenant, who was in the intelligence reconnaissance section for the battalion - and I was in that section. Well, he came over to me and two others. He said, come with me. We followed him. We got aboard the truck, and I said to him, sir, tell me, where are we going? And he responded by saying, we're going to a concentration camp. And that was news to me.
I didn't know anything about concentration camps. In all the training they had given me, no one ever mentioned concentration camp. 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 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 there 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 the scabs that come from the sores brought on by malnutrition.
I saw so much there. I saw where they lived in barracks. I went inside but I could go no further. The odor, the stench that comes from death and human waste was overpowering, so I stood there holding my breath. Now, I knew I had to leave, so I turned, but before I could step away, I looked down, and there on a bottom bunk was a man, an emaciated, skin-and-bone human being. On a bed of filthy straw and rags, he was trying to look up at me with that skeletal face and those deep-set eyes, but he was so weak. He had been starved for so long. It was a struggle for him to look up at me, but finally he did. He looked up at me. He said nothing. Nor did I.
MARTIN: What effect do you think this had on you throughout your life? And our subject today being gratitude, what do you think you learned as a result of seeing these things?
Mr. BASS: After I had seen all of this - the torture chambers, I saw the place where they did so many other inhuman things to people. I could no longer stay there. I felt I had seen enough. But I realized that I was not the same anymore. Something had happened to me. I realized now that human suffering is not relegated to just 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.
And that's what I saw, and that's what affected me. And 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. And so, I waited for my friends to come. We got back aboard the truck. We left that place in silence.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with educator Leon Bass. He's a public speaker, a former educator and a former member of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which provided support after the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
We've been talking about gratitude today because Thanksgiving is dedicated to giving thanks. And sometimes people say, how was it possible to give thanks, to be grateful in the midst of evil, in the midst of suffering? How is it possible?
Mr. BASS: It's possible. But I must let you know that whatever I have been able to become, in spite of all that was ugly that happened to me, I owe it to my two parents who were wonderful. I owe to it to those teachers at that black elementary school who touched my life and told me that I was worthy, I was something of value, that I could do and be if I just want to work at it. Those were blessings that I recall.
When you realize that you've been blessed, then you engage in a struggle, and you're strongly engaged in it because you want to do something for someone else in spite of the system that might have been telling you all along that you weren't good enough. And so I'm grateful for my parents.
MARTIN: One of the things that you've done with your life since that time is you've worked to bridge gaps of understanding between groups. And I just wanted to talk to you about that. I mean, as a person who's seen so much in your own life, how is that possible, particularly when people have not seen those things? For example, there was this very much publicized incident in 1994 when a group of black and Latino students from Oakland were watching "Schindler's List" and were actually observed laughing. And you were called in and asked to speak to those students. Could you talk about that? I mean, how do you build empathy with people who, like you, feel, you know, they haven't perhaps gotten their fair share of things and perhaps have not seen the things that you've seen?
Mr. BASS: Well, I came home from the service hoping that things were going to be better, and I went to college, and it was right in this - north in Pennsylvania. And I registered, but then I found out I couldn't live in the dormitory because I wasn't good enough. I was black. And that added to my turmoil. I couldn't go to a movie without having to sit in the balcony, which I refused to do, and I sat on the main floor. I was confronting all of these evils but I didn't become evil. I could only attribute it to what my parents did for me long before the Dr. King came on the scene.
But when I was teaching school and trying to get youngsters to learn not to fight to solve their problems, his clarion voice came out of the Deep South and told me I could make a difference. I didn't have to be ugly to try to change things. And so I listened to the man. At the same time, Malcolm X was speaking. He was talking about, hey, don't bother anybody, but if they put their hands on you, send them to the cemetery. Now I had these two forces impacting on my life. I had to decide which way I was going to go.
But I'm very grateful this Thanksgiving Day that I went away of Dr. Martin Luther King. I went to Washington, D.C. when he said, I have a dream. I never forget that day. I stood there crying because he made me know that the struggle was worthwhile, and I knew - I knew that I had to try to do whatever I could do. And so my forte was teaching, and so I continued to teach young people. And I didn't connect all that I experienced in my life until much later, maybe 25 years before I dealt with the issue of Buchenwald.
I was made principal of a high school in Philadelphia, Ronald Black High School, all male. Dr. King had just died, and I was assigned to that school, and I had to try to make order come out of the chaos. I tried to get these angry young men to understand that we could do things together, we can bring about change without being so angry that we become violent. And I was struggling, how can I do this here? And I pass the classroom and I heard the noise and I looked in - there were some of these angry young men, their feet on the furniture, their hats on, they were smoking cigarettes. But they were being rude to the person that was trying to talk to them so I stepped into the room. And I looked, and there was this lady.
She wasn't the teacher. She was a visitor. She was a survivor. She had survived one of the worst concentration camps in Europe, and she came out of a place called Auschwitz. And she lost all of her family, everyone - grandmother, grandfather, mother, father. So when it was all over only she came out alive. Her name is Nina Kaleska(ph). She still lives in Philadelphia somewhere today. She was the only one to come out alive.
She turned to me after the young men walked out of the classroom in silence. She turned to me and talked to me for an hour. And in that time she said to me, young man, you have something to say. You should be telling people what you saw at that camp in Nazi, Germany. You know, that was 1972, I believe, and I've been talking ever since. It's my mission. I feel that I must give back because I had somebody who sacrificed so much. They marched. They set in. They did everything. Many of them died, including our leader. So I know I had something to struggle for.
MARTIN: What do you say today to those who, despite all of the change that we've seen in the U.S. and around the world, who are still angry? Is there anything that you can say to them, particularly on this Thanksgiving Day, when they may feel that they are not experiencing their fair share of life's blessings? Is there anything you can say or want to say?
Mr. BASS: I try hard - I try to tell them that we owe so much to so many. You really have to look at all of the graves that are overseas on both sides of the war. Nobody wins the war. Everybody loses, and I've learned that. So war is not the answer for me anymore. And I'm going to say to the young people, if you think you're going to solve your problem with violence, you're not going to win. You're going to be a loser. You have so much to give. We all do. We just have to find out what it is that we have within us that we can cultivate it by going to school, being on time, listen to your teachers, listen to each other, disagree agreeably.
You learn how to do that, and it's not easily done. Everybody out there is not in love with you. But if you dare - if you dare to be a Daniel, if you dare to confront evil, it might be painful. Some of your friends will turn their back on you. They'll ostracize you. They won't invite you to the parties. No, you won't play bridge with them anymore. You might be in trouble on your job if you dare to speak up for women and say that they have a right to earn the same money that men do.
But that's difficult, difficult to do. But I ask them to answer this question: Is the price too high? Is the price too high to stand up for what you believe is right? Now I don't think it is, but I can only speak for me. You see, everybody must speak for him or herself. But you must be willing to give.
MARTIN: Leon Bass, on this Thanksgiving Day, what are you grateful for?
Mr. BASS: Oh, gosh, there's so many things. Just the fact that I woke up this morning, that's a blessing. That I've been able to live 84 years, making it, still getting around, that I had those wonderful people called Mom and Dad who made me understand that I was special. The blessing that I have is that my wife passed after Alzheimers. I have two wonderful children. One's a lawyer in California, has two children, my two grandsons, 28 and 25. I have a daughter in New Jersey. She's a vice president of a bank, and she has two children, 16 and 8.
I've been blessed this Thanksgiving Day, and I can say they not only have learned and have good careers, they're good human beings, and that's the basic thing that I look for. Not only in my children; I look for it in everybody else. And so I try hard to say, I'm blessed but I want you to feel the same way.
MARTIN: Leon Bass is an educator, a public speaker, a former member of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which provideed support after the Allied troops liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. Leon Bass, I thank you so much for speaking with us, and Happy Thanksgiving to you.
Mr. BASS: The same to you, my friend.
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