As Allied troops advanced across Europe toward Germany in the spring of 1945, they encountered Nazi concentration camps and liberated thousands of prisoners. In the camps, combat-hardened soldiers witnessed firsthand the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazi regime and its genocidal policies.
They found piles of unburied corpses and barracks filled with dead and dying prisoners. The small percentage of inmates who survived often required immediate assistance after months and years of maltreatment, starvation, and forced labor at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
On April 4, 1945, the US Army’s 89th Infantry Division overran Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp complex.1 Ohrdruf was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by US troops in Germany. A week later, on April 12, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Omar Bradley visited Ohrdruf to see, firsthand, evidence of Nazi atrocities against concentration camp prisoners. Eisenhower urged others to see the camps directly, lest the stories of Nazi brutality be forgotten or dismissed as "merely propaganda." In the following weeks, official tours were arranged for members of Congress and the publishers of major American newspapers.
Leon Bass was just 19 years old, serving in the US Army, when he became a first-person witness to the staggering reality of these atrocities. As a member of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, Bass provided support after the Allied troops liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. With the exception of the white officers, the 183rd was made up entirely of African American soldiers.
Bass had joined the armed forces right out of high school.2 "I didn't realize that the decision I made was going to bring me face to face with institutional racism," Bass remembered.
I went down [to the recruitment center] 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....my country was telling me I wasn't good enough, I wasn't good enough to serve my country with white soldiers....And in Beaumont, Texas3 they still said I wasn't good enough to eat a meal in a restaurant....What a damnable experience to have when you're 18 years of age and you volunteered to serve your country.4
Bass's experience in Buchenwald—which he describes in the accompanying video segment—was a pivotal moment in his life. He became an educator focused on healing the divisions between peoples of various of backgrounds. As Dr. Bass would state later in his lectures on the Holocaust, "I came into that camp an angry black soldier. Angry at my country and justifiably so. Angry because they were treating me as though I was not good enough. But [that day] I came to the realization that human suffering could touch us all... Buchenwald was the face of evil... It was racism."