Groups this week mourned the loss of Dr. Leon Bass, a true American hero who turned his personal and life-altering experience as a soldier during World War II into an opportunity to educate and inspire action in others.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement remembering Dr. Bass, who lived outside Philadelphia, died on March 28 at the age of 90. He was perhaps best known to ADL for his inspiring speeches to groups of students who traveled to Washington, D.C. for ADL’s Grosfeld Family National Youth Leadership Mission, which includes a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to help students learn the consequences of unchecked hatred, prejudice and bigotry.
As a young soldier in an all-black unit, Bass was deployed to Europe. As the war began to draw to a close, Bass found himself stationed near Nuremberg, Germany, where he was one day asked to accompany his commanding officer on a mission to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He was among the first Americans to enter the camps, and his accounts of what he saw there would haunt him until his final days. He chronicled his experiences in a recently published autobiography, Good Enough.
Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor, issued the following statement:
Leon Bass grew up in a country divided by racial prejudice. He often shared with young people how his experiences consistently told him that he “wasn’t good enough” – not good enough to eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains or sit next to his white neighbors in the local movie theater. Despite this, when the U.S. joined the allies in World War II, Dr. Bass felt a duty to serve his country and enlisted in the U.S. Army. His experience there would bring him face to face with institutionalized racism, mirroring the prejudice he had experienced throughout his life. Along with other enlisted men of color, Dr. Bass was placed in a separate totally black unit, along with the unspoken message that, despite their patriotism and their willingness to give their lives for their country, they were still not good enough to eat, sleep and serve alongside the traditional mostly white Army.
He was among the first Americans to enter the camps at Buchenwald, and his accounts of what he saw there would haunt him until his final days. Dr. Bass was overwhelmed by the destructive power and consequences of hate that he witnessed in the victims and remaining survivors.
Dr. Bass returned home, pursuing undergraduate and graduate studies, and earning his Doctorate in Education. He became an influential school administrator and leader, and began sharing his story, which made powerful connections between the racism he personally experienced and the virulent anti-Semitism he witnessed inside the gates of Buchenwald. And his story inspired action in hundreds of thousands of young people across the country.
We at ADL count ourselves fortunate to have had a very long friendship and collaboration with Dr. Bass. His 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 are hallmarks of who Dr. Bass was and why we will greatly miss him.