On February 17, 2021, The Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center held a Zoom presentation that illustrated the endeavors and triumphs of Dr. Leon Bass. As an African American World War II Veteran and liberator of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Dr. Bass experienced brutal racism in the United States Armed forces and witnessed the inhuman violence against the Jews.
Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez, a program assistant for the holocaust resource center, began research on Dr. Leon Bass’ life during his graduate career. “One of my professors told me to think outside the box and my research culminated into the experiences of black and Latino soldiers,” said Rodriguez.
Dr. Leon Bass’s story begins in South Carolina, where he was raised in an agonizing environment familiarly known as “separate but equal,” a term coined during the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. Despite struggling for food and clothing, Bass’s parents, Henry Cleveland Bass and Nancy Weston Bass, raised Leon and his four siblings to love the “unlovable.” Eventually, the Bass family moved to Philadelphia where Leon attended West Philadelphia High School.
“Leon’s parents shielded him from racism. Due to the era of Jim Crow laws and Henry Bass’s employment as a Pullman Porter, who were black men who were hired to serve passengers and maintain sleeping berths, isolated Leon from racism.” In Dr. Bass’s memoir he recalls that as child he didn’t feel that racism, but it was happening.
Dr. Leon Bass enlisted in the army at the age of 18. On a interview with NPR Dr. Leon Bass said, “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.” When Bass arrived at the door of the institution with his white friends, a sergeant separated the group. “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,” explained Bass.
Bass was sent to Camp Wheeler in Georgia for Basic Training. Afterward, Bass was assigned to the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which was commanded by white officers, and further trained in Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. In 1944, the unit sailed to England which Rodriguez described as a “whole different world.” Bass received invitations to dances and dinners during his time in England, whereas in the U.S he did not.
Thereafter, Leon Bass was assigned to the Third Army led by General George Patton. On April 11, 1945 part of the Third Army entered Buchenwald and found more than 21,000 Jews starved and emancipated in the camp. On April 12, 1945, Bass was ordered to Buchenwald to assist American efforts.
Bass was fighting for rights he could not experience in his home country. After he witnessed the gruesome conditions, Bass dedicated his life’s work as an advocate against racism and non-violence. Bass was discharged on January 23, 1946. After the war, Bass graduated West Chester University of Pennsylvania and received a doctorate in education at Temple University. For 14 years, he taught and served as principle at the Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia. He later taught history at George School in Newtown.
On Saturday, March 28, 2015 Dr. Leon Bass passed away at his home in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Delia Bass-Dandridge, daughter of Leon Bass, attended Holocaust Recourse Center’s meeting with admiration and appreciation. “His message of hope is something he’s always raised,” said Dandridge, “I’m very glad my father’s legacy is being continued. His message is loud and clear–you have to embrace everyone, be positive, be hopeful.”