Leon Bass served as a U.S. Army soldier in an all-black unit in 1945 and entered the gates of Buchenwald a day after its liberation.
Leon Bass, a retired Philadelphia high school principal whose education about the Holocaust would shape his life forever, died March 28.
The resident of Newtown, Pa., was 90.
As a U.S. Army soldier in an all-black unit in 1945, the Philly native entered the gates of Buchenwald a day after its liberation and saw man’s inhumanity to man firsthand.
He would put the horror of that moment behind him for years, carrying it inside as a shadow relegated to the recesses of his mind, a burden of memory, until the doors of the past opened wide when he hosted a speaker on the Holocaust at Benjamin Franklin High School in 1968, his first year there as school principal.
It was to be a turning point in his life as an educator and humanist.
“The students had their caps on their heads and their feet on the desks,” he said in an interview years later with the Jewish Exponent, talking about the ignominious reception they accorded Holocaust speaker Nina Kaleska.
“They weren’t listening to this woman, who was trying to share her pain. I stood up and spoke up. I said, ‘Listen, I was there. I saw it. It’s true.’ ”
The students shook off their ennui and paid attention: “Those young men listened in silence and then afterward they came up to look at the numbers on her arm.”
They left the classroom, chastened by history, silent in the face of the horror stories haunting their exit.
Bass heard his own words of admonition and, at that moment, started a campaign to add his voice to the refrain of “Never again!”
He was invited by Kaleska to speak out about his experiences and of the impact that Buchenwald had on his soul. He did just that, acknowledging in speechess and forums that he regretted not speaking up earlier.
“Leon spent much of his career teaching about the Holocaust, about how inhumane people can become,” recalled Burt Siegel, who became friends with Bass in the ’70s, when Siegel headed up the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia for whom Bass would go out giving speeches about his experiences.
What had stunned Bass at Buchenwald, said Siegel, was “what white people had done to white people. He was well familiar” as a black man with racism, “but was astonished” at how color played no role in the killing fields of the concentration camp.
Bass became a popular speaker and was recruited for administrative roles related to Holocaust education.
Among his posts, he was co-chairman of the Philadelphia Coordinating Council on the Holocaust in the early 1980s, about the same time he was named recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award presented by the local chapter of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers.
In 1985, he was a co-chairman of the 10th annual Teaching Conference on the Holocaust, held in Philadelphia, and, four years earlier, was a delegate to the International Liberators Conference in Washington, D.C.
Bass also was recipient of the Pearlman Award for Humanitarian Advancement presented by Jewish Women International.
Author of Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of a Dream, Bass also became something of a movie star; the graduate of Temple University, where he earned his doctorate, was featured in the documentary, Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.
Perhaps more than anything, Bass had only been “‘following orders,” observed Marcia Sachs Littell, professor emeritus, Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the war’s supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, had advised his troops that the day would come when the Holocaust atrocities would be denied.
Eisenhower, said Littell, “wisely required all in the area to bear witness.”
One such party was Bass. “As an educator and former American soldier, Leon Bass gave witness throughout his lifetime so the world would never forget,” Littell said. “His life was a blessing to all concerned with the dignity and integrity of all humanity.”
Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director and a Holocaust survivor himself, knew Bass well as a participant in ADL’s Gosfeld Family National Youth Leadership Missions, for which Bass would come to Washington, D.C., to address youngsters.
In a statement, Foxman took note of Bass’ “unique gifts as a storyteller; his ability to effectively connect the past and the present, the personal and the global; his tireless dedication to make a more just and equitable world; his ability to inspire action through the way he lived his life; and his living example of what it means to be a true hero.”
He is survived by a daughter, Delia Bass-Dandridge; a son, Leon, Jr.; four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.