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“I Saw The Walking Dead”: A Black Sergeant Remembers Buchenwald

by Leon Bass/Pam Sporn

The American soldiers who liberated the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp had powerful reactions to what they saw, often shaped by their own backgrounds. Leon Bass was a nineteen-year-old African-American sergeant serving in a segregated army unit when he encountered the “walking dead” of Buchenwald. Like many others, he tried to repress his memories of the horrors that he saw there and “never talked about it all.” But in the 1960s, while involved in the Civil Rights movement and teaching, he met a Holocaust survivor and felt moved to declare to his students that “I was there, I saw.” In this interview with Pam Sporn and her students, he linked the oppression of the Jews and other Nazi victims with the segregation and discrimination faced by African Americans.

Listen to Audio:

Leon Bass: Nobody ever talked about the things we did in the Battle of the Bulge. No one talked about the 761st Tank Battalion, which was black, who fought all the way through Europe with General Patton.

When I went into the armed forces, I discovered something. I found out that institutional racism was part of our country’s system. You see, when I went down to the induction center that day, they separated me. They sent me one way and they sent all my white friends another way, because all of the armed forces were segregated in 1943. And so they finally made me a part of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, and we had our training in places like Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana on war games. And then I ended up outside of Little Rock, Arkansas.

In every one of these places, as a soldier, I found out that the people that I had sworn to protect and defend were looking at me as though I was not good enough to enjoy what all Americans are supposed to enjoy. That was the kind of experience that I had all through my training while I was here in the United States.

Interviewer: Would you say that blacks was treated equally in the war, or unequally?

Bass: I think that pretty much stands for itself. When you have two separate armies, you’re sending a message saying that you’re not good enough; you are inferior. But we made them aware that that was not so, because we demonstrated that we was equal to, and sometimes even surpassed, some of the other soldiers, because we had to keep in mind continually what goal we were seeking, and that goal was to fight to get rid of the racism that created the hostilities in Europe, and to remember that we had to focus on the hostilities and the racism back here at home. So we had a double duty, so it took a good soldier to do that.

The day that I walked through the concentration camp gates of Buchenwald, and I saw what I saw, I can never say that I’m callous about human life. It made me know that human life is sacred, because when I walked through those gates in the spring of April of 1945, I was totally unprepared for what I saw. And I saw what I can refer to now as the walking dead.

I saw human beings there that had been beaten and starved and tortured and so mistreated that they were nothing but human skeletons. They were skin and bone and they had those skeletal faces with the deep-set eyes, and their heads had been clean-shaved. And they were standing there holding on to one another, and they were so thin. They had sores on their bodies that were brought on by malnutrition. And that man held out his hands, and his fingers had webbed together with the scabs that come from malnutrition. And I ? I just said to myself, “My God, what is this? This is some kind of insanity! Who are the people? What did they do that was so wrong?” And that’s when I found out that they were Jews and gypsies, some were Jehovah Witnesses, they were trade unionists, they were Communists, they were homosexuals. He went on and told us. There were so many different groups placed in that camp by the Nazis. And what did the Nazis use as a yardstick as to who would be chosen to go there? They said those people who were not good enough, those people who were inferior, they could be segregated.

So, you see what I mean? Segregation, racism, can lead to the ultimate, to what I saw at Buchenwald.

Source: Interview done by Pam Sporn and students for the documentary,Blacks and Jews: Are They Really Sworn Enemies?, produced by the Educational Video Center.