The Holocaust was never discussed in my family until I was in third grade. Then I found out that my grandfather was freed from Buchenwald by the Americans. Who were these Americans? No one could tell me. Seventy years after the Second World War ended, I had the privilege of meeting Leon Bass, one of the first American soldiers to enter the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was one of my grandfather’s liberators.
I found Leon Bass by coincidence. My dear friend, Susan Schwartz, who teaches at the Jack M Barrack Hebrew Academy, invited Dr. Bass to speak to the students. My son David missed the presentation because he was away, spending a semester in Israel at the Alexander Muss School. This program included a visit to Poland, and the Auschwitz concentration camp. I knew that meeting his great-grandfather’s liberator would be a very powerful experience for him after visiting Auschwitz. When David returned, I arranged for my family to meet Leon Bass.
Both of my grandparents on my maternal side were Holocaust survivors. My grandfather, Yosef Flaum, spent the war in Buchenwald, and my grandmother, Dvora, was sent to the Lodz Ghetto, and then several camps including Auschwitz. I am not sure which camp she was liberated from. The last place that I can verify her presence is called Flossenburg. During the height of the Cold War, we knew that my grandmother was grateful to the Russians, and my grandfather to the Americans, for they had liberated them each respectively.
It was difficult to talk to them about their experiences during the war. You never knew when a question you asked could trigger nightmares and trauma. The only positive conversation I ever had with my grandmother was about her liberation. She didn’t say much. I can still remember sensing how grateful she felt to the people who had rescued her from the Nazis. When she told me about it, I stood by her side and felt the warmth radiating out of her, like the glowing embers of a fire, enveloping me and making me feel as safe as she had felt then.
I have tried to reconstruct Yosef’s life from the oral history of my family and whatever documents I could obtain. According to my mother, Yosef Flaum was born in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland in 1918. His trade was carpentry. His prisoner ID card from Buchenwald indicates that he was married before the war. His first wife was killed in the Holocaust. Even my mother didn’t know about that. Were there any children from this first marriage? No one knows. All the relatives who could inform us have passed away by now. He worked as a slave laborer at Buchenwald. Toward the end of the war, he was subjected to radiation experiments. No one thought that he would be able to have children. When my mother and aunt were born after the war, the doctors called them “miracle babies.”
On April 11, 1945 the administrators of Buchenwald fled the approaching Allied troops and the prisoners of Buchenwald overthrew their guards. They knew the Americans were coming. At 3:15 PM, the troops of the American Third Army arrived at the camp.
The United States army was still segregated during the Second World War. The 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion was an African American unit. On April 12, Leon Bass, a sergeant in this battalion, arrived to bear witness to the atrocities of Buchenwald. He was one of the first American soldiers to be seen by the prisoners.
Leon Bass described the day he was told to go to a concentration camp. He had never heard of a concentration camp, and didn’t know what had been going on in them. He related seeing the sign that said “Buchenwald,” as he approached the camp. When he arrived, he was instructed to step into one of the “inmate dormitories.” As soon as he stepped into the room, the stench of dead and dying bodies hit him, and it was hard for him to breathe.
He told me that one starving prisoner struggled to look up at him and make eye contact. “I just looked at him, and I could not say a word to him,” he told me. “I left the room without saying anything.” I could tell that Leon Bass had felt very badly about this for the past seventy years. I told him that even if he had spoken, these were mostly Polish Jewish prisoners. They did not speak English, and he did not speak Polish. I told him that seeing an American soldier had meant everything to these prisoners. It signified that their ordeal was going to be over. A burden seemed to be lifted from Leon Bass’s heart when he heard this.
When Leon Bass volunteered to serve his country, he was treated like a second-class citizen. By the time his unit arrived in Europe, he didn’t really know what he was fighting for. Witnessing what the Nazis had done to the Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, and disabled people at Buchenwald, gave Sergeant Bass a new perspective. He realized that there was a lot of discrimination in the world, and that sometimes it produced worse consequences than what he had personally experienced. When he returned to civilian life, he embraced the views of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leon Bass adopted Quakerism, and has been sharing a message of peaceful relations between people ever since.
When the history of World War II began to be recorded, there was an effort to deprive the black American soldiers of the credit for their service. Some white American soldiers tried to deny that the black unit had helped liberate Buchenwald. The survivors always remembered them. They testified that the black soldiers had been there. Some of the Jews referred to these liberators as their “black angels.” Leon Bass was the last of the American soldiers to be recognized as a “liberator” of Buchenwald.
I grew up surrounded by survivors, and the children of survivors. Hearing the perspective of a soldier who had rescued them was a new undertaking for me. I never thought about what a transformative experience witnessing the camps was for the liberators. This was especially true for Leon Bass. He has spoken widely of his experiences during the war, he wrote a memoir about the war, and he was in an academy award nominated documentary. Connecting with the descendants of the people he liberated was as rare for him as encountering one of the liberators was for me. He met two of Yosef Flaum’s great grandchildren. If it weren’t for him, Yosef’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren may not be here today.