Released: September 15, 2022
In 1943, amid the American Jim Crow era, a young Black American named Leon Bass enlists in the Army to fight Nazi Fascism. But once Leon enters WWII and becomes a witness to the Holocaust, he discovers something that will forever change his perspective on his home in the US, and on the world. Featuring Museum educator Lynn Williams.
Erin Harper: It’s 1943, and WWII is raging on. Right now, Nazi Germany controls much of Europe in their quest for domination. The US has joined the war to fight Nazism, and preserve democracy. So, motivated by patriotism, a young Black American named Leon Bass is about to enlist in the US Army. But once Leon enters WWII and becomes a witness to the Holocaust, he discovers something that will forever change his perspective on the world.
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.
Young Leon Bass grows up in the American North, in Philadelphia. And in the 1930s and 40s, a lot of the US is heavily segregated under Jim Crow laws— laws that deny equal rights to Black Americans. Leon’s parents were from the American South, which was a hotbed of violent racism.
Lynn Williams: His family moved from the South, from South Carolina, like lots of other families, to escape the dangerous conditions and poverty that existed in the Jim Crow South.
Erin Harper: That’s Lynn Williams, a longtime educator at the Museum.
Lynn Williams: So growing up in Philadelphia, Bass’ parents tried to keep him isolated from the hatred and the violence that they had known in South Carolina. They were hoping for greater opportunities and new life and to really put it in the heads of their children that anything is possible.
He went to an all-Black elementary school. It was a good school, and he thought that that really saved the day for him, but he does remember as he got older saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and as he grew, he learned that there was not really liberty and justice for all.
Erin Harper: And as a teenager, Leon becomes more and more aware of segregation in his own community.
Lynn Williams: He remembered going to the movies where he was directed to sit in the balcony, or even looking through a wire fence at an amusement park, knowing that he was not welcome to swim there. So society throughout his life was always saying loud and clear that he wasn't good enough. And what was happening in the South where the violence was much more prevalent, he couldn't stay sheltered from that either. He remembered reading about a lynching nearly every day.
Erin Harper: Lynching—racist murders, mainly of Black Americans by groups of white people, often in front of large crowds. Lynchings terrorized Black communities throughout the Jim Crow era, as white people tried to exert their perceived racial supremacy, control Black Americans, and enforce segregation. Thousands of Black Americans are reported lynched during this nearly 100-year period. So, Leon is reading newspaper headlines like: “Mob Lynches Two Men in Church Yard,” “Women Lynched,” and “Kentuckians Lynch Boy.”
And in 1943, Leon’s also reading headlines about the war. By this time, the US has entered WWII to fight Nazi Fascism. See, Germany was a democracy when the Nazis came to power, and the world saw Germany’s democracy collapse under Nazi Fascism. Americans even feared that the Nazis might cross the Atlantic and invade the US. So Americans begin to view Nazism both as a threat to their values, and to their safety. Leon sees this, and decides to enlist in the US Army.
Lynn Williams: He joined after high school like so many others, really determined to fight for his country and make a difference.
Erin Harper: Leon heads to the US Army induction center in Philadelphia, along with his friends, who, in this case, are white. And here, Leon has a direct encounter with racism. Here are his words, from an interview in 1988.
Leon Bass historical audio: And when I went down to the induction center, institutional racism smacked me right in the face because the Sergeant was there and he told me to go one way when I went through the door, and he told my white friends to go another way, because my country practiced, promulgated, promoted institutional racism. Erin Harper: Because, in 1943, like most American institutions, the US Army, too, is segregated. Black soldiers are assigned to separate units, and often hold lower ranks, among other discriminations. Shortly after enlisting, Leon packs his bag, and is sent to basic training in Georgia— in the American South.
Lynn Williams: Now this is his first time to the South, so if you're from Philadelphia, one of the Northern cities, this is truly a different experience. So he immediately understands that it's not only completely segregated, but that there are things that he just cannot do. He leaves the base and goes to get a drink of water and a white man immediately grabs him by the arm and pushes him toward the “Colored Only” water fountain. He's not used to anything like that.
He went to visit some other friends, and he had to sit in the back of the bus, traveling from Georgia to Mississippi once. And he found there were no seats. So he stood for 100 miles in his uniform on that bus trip. And the one time he said, “No, I'm going to sit, this is ridiculous.” The bus driver hollered for him to get up and move. He refused. And it was an older Black woman who came and said, “Baby, they're going to kill you for this. You've got to move.” And he realized that was true because he'd heard other such stories, and so he did stand up.
Erin Harper: Leon endures this treatment for another year. Then, after training, Leon is assigned to an all-Black unit, the 183rd Combat Engineer Battalion. And in the fall of 1944, his unit is moved to England to await official orders to enter combat. So stationed in a small town outside of London, Leon starts to get to know people in the community. He befriends a white woman, and asks her on a date to see Shakespeare in London. And on this evening, he notices something very different.
Lynn Williams: He goes to see Hamlet with a woman, a white woman. People weren't staring at him and he can sit where he wants. And it was a very human experience that was in stark contrast to what he'd experienced in the United States. And it isn't that there isn’t segregation in the United Kingdom at that time. But there is a greater tolerance, for many different reasons.
Erin Harper: This allowed Leon to socialize, to interact. Ultimately he saw what was possible. He said of this moment, “I had a really wonderful experience. But it was short lived.” It’s now December of 1944. Leon's unit is moved into Belgium. By this time, the Allied troops had landed in France, on D-Day, and pushed Nazi forces all the way back to the German border. It’s become clear that Germany is losing the war. But in a last-ditch effort to regain control, the German army makes a move.
German troops force their way through Allied lines and create a bulge along the Western front in Belgium. Leon doesn’t know it but he’s found himself in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. His unit of engineers are called on to build a bridge so American troops can bring aid to other Allied forces. They do so successfully. But then, in the aftermath of the battle, although he is trained for combat, Leon cannot imagine what he’s about to see.
Lynn Williams: It's the Battle of the Bulge where he first has an encounter first with death as a result of war.
Leon Bass historical audio: I saw the bodies of people that I knew. And I remember another time I saw someone I didn't know. He happened to be white. He's about my age and he was on the ground and his eyes were wide open, they were blue, he had blonde hair, his hands were frozen above him, his body, because the weather was so cold, he had been alongside the road for a while. And I looked down into those eyes and I realized that I could end up just like that.
And that's when I began to question my wisdom for having joined the Army, and I wanted to know why I was there. What the heck am I doing here when I can't get a drink of water? When I can't ride on a bus? When I can't eat in a restaurant? And here I am, putting my life on the line, fighting for rights and privileges that I am denied.
Erin Harper: This idea of risking his life fighting for freedom abroad, while he did not have rights and liberties at home— it hits Leon hard. And it’s not only Leon. This idea had become a common sentiment among Black Americans across the US. Named the “Double V Campaign”— it was about Black Americans fighting for victory abroad over fascism, and victory at home over racism.
Lynn Williams: There was a pretty big raging debate about why would we go to fight abroad as Black Americans when there is not equality in the United States? So the Double V Campaign is, we'll fight for victory abroad, but we expect, you know, equality to be better when we get home. We want to show really and demonstrate that, you know, not only our patriotism, but our abilities and commitment to this country. And it, I think, was a hope for every soldier that truly this would be a change, this would cause a change not only in Germany and in Europe, but in the United States.
Erin Harper: But for Leon, the fight for equality back home would have to wait. Because in front of him, the war is raging on in Europe. Leon has to focus, and keep moving. And it’s important to note that by now, in early 1945, while American media had been reporting on the Nazi persecution of Jews for years— much of the world does not yet understand the extent of Nazi hatred and destruction. And Leon, once again, has no idea what he is about to witness.
As the German army retreats, Allied forces cross over into Germany. And in April 1945, US troops in central Germany come upon a large camp, surrounded by electrified barbed-wire fences, and watchtowers. They’ve never seen anything like it. They think it’s some kind of prison compound. And Leon would soon see for himself.
Just days later, then-Army-General Dwight D. Eisenhower calls for journalists and nearby American soldiers to witness what had just been discovered. So, on the morning of April 17, 1945, Leon’s unit rolls up in a truck outside the compound. Leon gets out of the truck and walks towards the gates. Then he sees, emerging from the many barracks— emaciated human beings. They’re surviving prisoners of the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp. More than 20,000 of them. And this is the moment when Leon discovers what had really been going on under the Nazi regime. Here’s Leon.
Leon Bass historical audio: I walked through the gates. And I saw walking dead people… And just looking at these people who are skin and bone and dressed in those pajama-type uniforms, their heads clean-shaved, and filled with sores due to malnutrition. … And it was very difficult for me to comprehend what was going on. I just looked at this in amazement and I said to myself, you know, my god, who are these people? What have they done?
Erin Harper: Unlike, for example, the Auschwitz-Birkenau or Belzec camps, which were Nazi killing centers — the Buchenwald concentration camp was used by the Nazis for forced labor, and medical experimentation. Both practices often led to death. So Leon is witnessing people who are dying of starvation, disease, abuse, and physical exhaustion. Looking around, Leon sees the bodies of people who have died— piled up on top of each other. Still he doesn’t understand — who are these prisoners?
Then, a Polish prisoner who speaks English starts talking to Leon and the other American soldiers. Leon remembers the prisoner explaining what he understood about Buchenwald— that there were many different groups of people who had been persecuted and imprisoned there by the Nazis. Although it’s important to note that, at this moment, neither Leon, nor the American soldiers, nor the Polish prisoner— knew the entire picture. We now understand that many of the prisoners at Buchenwald, were the Nazis political opponents, and prisoners of war. Some were Jehovah's Witnesses, gay men, and others. Many of these people were imprisoned in Buchenwald either because they opposed the Nazi regime, or because their behavior did not fit the Nazis’ idea of social norms. But that’s not all. Many of the Nazis’ other prisoners — at other Nazi concentration camps, or killing centers — are Jewish people, Polish people, and members of the Roma and Sinti ethnic communities. And these are all groups of people whom the Nazis classified as “races.”
See, Adolf Hitler believed in the false theory that the world is divided into distinct races that are not equally strong and valuable. He believed that his own so-called German “Aryan master race” was superior— and that, in order to remain racially pure, the Nazis had to protect Germans from alleged inferior races. So, the Nazis were murdering and imprisoning these groups of people - Jews, Poles, Roma and Sinti — because the Nazis deemed them to be racially inferior.
So, although Leon's understanding is not complete at this very moment in Buchenwald, this is when he begins to realize that a driving force of Nazism, is racism. And right before Leon’s eyes, is an extreme of what this racism had become.
Leon Bass historical audio: That's what boggles the mind … such as a program to remove from the world a whole group of people … that they didn't think were worthy. I couldn't put a handle on that. But I saw, what I saw, in the camp, the place where they tortured people. And I saw the bodies all around.
Lynn Williams: It was, I think, unbelievable, unimaginable for him as he describes what he sees. And I’m sure it gave him the true understanding of what this ideology and the intent of Nazi aggression was. And it also clarified for him what he was fighting for. This is also the consequences when things go terribly wrong, when something like Jim Crow or Nazi ideology are allowed to thrive.
Erin Harper: Leon walks away, sick to his stomach. He and the other soldiers get back in their truck. They ride away in silence, and perhaps in shock. A few more weeks go by. It’s now May of 1945. WWII in Europe has just ended. And soon the world would come to find that driven by their hatred, the Nazis had murdered more than six million Jews, and millions of others.
In the summer of 1946, Leon’s unit is disbanded. And now, he’s suddenly faced with moving on, getting back to his own life— without talking about, or fully processing what he had witnessed. But coming home to Philadelphia in a pressed green uniform, Leon wonders if anything might have changed— in the North or in the South? Has his country grown, or come to understand, like he had? But it’s not long until Leon realizes the US, in many ways, was just the same as when he left. Institutional racism, discrimination, and segregation are going on, much as they had. He discovers this personally, when he goes to college in Pennsylvania.
Lynn Williams: He comes home in 1946. There’s a GI bill that gets soldiers, that gets former GIs, housing benefits and tuition. But it wasn't as accessible to Black soldiers, they learned that very quickly. He goes to college anxious to live in dorm life. He was as excited as any freshman, but he learned very quickly that he would not be living on campus, that housing was strictly segregated. But his parents encouraged him to go. He’s the first person in his family to go to college, and they really pushed him to push through these hardships and disappointments and continue his education.
Erin Harper: During his time in college, Leon goes out for coffee with some friends, who are white. The men all sit at the counter. The waitress brings coffee to each of his friends— but nothing for Leon. One of Leon’s friends stands up and leads the group out. He said if they wouldn’t serve Leon— they would all get their coffee somewhere else. So, even after serving in the war, and putting his life on the line, Leon was still facing racism at home.
Leon moves on, puts his heart in his studies, and achieves a doctorate degree in education. Dr. Bass teaches history, and serves as a principal. And in the 1950s, Leon hears the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and becomes inspired. Leon attends the March on Washington in 1963.
And although Leon may have been thinking about what he had seen in Buchenwald— all those years— he never spoke of it. He hadn’t even told his wife what he had seen in the war. But now, it’s 1968. Leon is serving as principal at a Philadelphia high school. And one day, a Jewish woman, who was a Holocaust survivor, comes to speak in one of the classrooms. Leon passes by, and notices the students aren’t listening to her.
Lynn Williams: And he looks at how unmoved, disbelieving, disinterested the students are, and he, then, for the first time, because of the strength of this survivor, the response of his students, he finds his voice.
Erin Harper: Then, Leon says to the students, “What she says is true. I was there.” The students get quiet.
Lynn Williams: As he legitimizes what this survivor, through his own experience as a witness, is recalling, he finds that it became a little more real for his students, many of whom were minority students. And they had to realize that it was real, not only from someone outside of their community, but for someone from their own community that experienced what he'd seen. And it becomes a mission of his, talking about this history because it would become one very important way that this could stop, or help people think differently about, racism.
Erin Harper: Nazi ideology and Jim Crow racism existed in different parts of the world. And although the two forces are different in many ways, Leon recognized and articulated what he saw as the root of each of them. Here’s Leon.
Leon Bass historical audio: Racism is at the root of all of this. … It's not a Black problem. It's not a white problem. It's a human problem, and we've got to face it… and we have to because we see the ultimate of racism, which was what I saw at Buchenwald.
It was an ugly side of our history and ugly things, we want to push under the rug. We don't want to deal with it. And I'm saying to people today, you must face it. You can't laundry and sanitize our history. You must take history with its beauty and you must take it with its degradation. You got to deal with it, for us to be whole human beings and to make a difference.
Lynn Williams: Dr. Bass was unique and very special not only because he was a Black American, because his perspective, therefore, and experience in this country was unique to the challenges in the United States, but because he was able to see so far beyond that, to understand at its core what, really, silence and apathy and all of the responses that allowed the Holocaust to happen. And just how dangerous that is for everyone, and how important it is for each of us to find his voice.
Erin Harper: Leon went on to share his message widely. He taught and inspired students around the country, and connected with Holocaust survivors internationally— including a Jewish man who was a prisoner at Buchenwald, and remembered seeing Leon in the camp. Leon also spoke at the Museum many times. His voice endures in his autobiography called “Good Enough: One Man's Memoir on the Price of a Dream.” Dr. Leon Bass passed away in 2015 at the age of 90.
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. You can hear Dr. Leon Bass’ entire oral history online at ushmm.org/12YearsPodcast. Joining us was Lynn Williams, a longtime educator at the Museum.
Our story is informed by the work of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education; the Indianapolis Recorder newspaper, NAACP’s The Crisis Magazine, and the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University. Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from Crown Family Philanthropies and from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation.
Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. And if you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app, and tell a friend about us. Thanks for listening.
Mark Huddle, Roi Ottley's World War II: The Lost Diary of an African American Journalist, University Press of Kansas, 2011
Other Oral Histories
Leon Bass, “Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of a Dream,” Facing History and Ourselves
Leon Bass, “I Saw The Walking Dead: A Black Sergeant Remembers Buchenwald,” interviewed by: Pam Sporn. History Matters, George Mason University.
Leon Bass, “Perspectives of an Eyewitness: a lecture by Leon Bass,” Internet Archive: UMass Hillel’s Holocaust Memorial Week, 6/20/1905
Federal records: “Units Entitled to Battle Credits,” War Department, December 7, 1945. Date Accessed: December 8, 2021
Flynn, George Q. “Selective Service and American Blacks During World War II.” The Journal of Negro History 69, no. 1 (1984): 14–25
Greg Meylan, “Egon’s Story: The Family champagne factory is confiscated,” September 5, 2012, Auckland Museum
James G. Thompson, “Should I Struggle to Live ‘Half-American?’” Letter to the Editor, The Pittsburgh Courier, January 31, 1942. Date Accessed: December 13, 2021
“Lynching in America,” Table One, Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (3d Ed., 2017)
Pleasant, Keri. “Honoring Black History World War II Service to the Nation,” U.S. Army. February 27, 2020
“Race Relations Act 1965,” UK Parliament, Date Accessed: December 8, 2021
“The 1940s,” Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation