POULSBO — When a young American soldier named Leon Bass walked into Nazi Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp, he witnessed atrocities that would affect him for the rest of his life.
Little did Bass know that one of the thousands of prisoners he would liberate, a boy named Robbie Waisman, would become one of his best friends later in life.
After reuniting nearly 30 years after the liberation of Buchenwald, Dr. Bass, an African American, and Waisman, a Polish Jew, found they had something in common: they both had experienced extreme prejudice — Waisman, in the Nazi Germany camps, and Bass, during the ‘50s and ‘60s fight for civil rights.
Today, they spread a message, one of love and hope, rather than the fear and hate they experienced, as they speak at venues around North America.
The two addressed students last Thursday at North Kitsap High School in lieu of another such man who had a similar message: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“My memories are not to weaken you but to strengthen you,” Waisman told the NK students. “Not to sadden you but empower you.”
Waisman recalled his entire experience of living under the Nazi regime in Poland — first the prejudice, then the systematic rounding-up of all those Hitler’s “master race” opposed. Waisman lost his mother, father, and three brothers at the hands of the Nazis.
“I honestly believe I would have given up had I known I would be the only one to survive,” he said.
Through many twists of fate, Waisman ended up at Buchenwald, after stating he was a political prisoner rather than a Jew.
“I was positive I wouldn’t survive,” he added.
But survive, he did — and Allied Forces began to move in on the camp. It was then that Bass and his company were given the order to go to Buchenwald.
“When I was liberated from Buchenwald I was 14 and a half going on 40,” Waisman said. “I felt and acted like an animal.”
The horrors of what the Allies saw when they entered Buchenwald resonated in Bass’ trembling voice as he told the story to students.
“When I opened those gates I saw in front of me what I now call the walking dead,” Bass recalled.
“I said to myself, ‘What is all of this?’ Who are all these people and what have they done that is so terrible that would cause anyone to treat them like this?” he said.
Before liberating the camp, Bass experienced the harsh realities of American segregation: a divided nation, one attempting to be “separate but equal,” but by no means equal at all.
“I said, ‘Leon, what are you doing in this place?’ What was I fighting for?” Bass told the students. “I felt my country was using me, abusing me, to preserve all the things I enjoy … and yet they were also saying, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
Bass’ experience liberating the camps forever changed his views and his outlook on life — but it also helped fuse together a purpose for him: to fight against all types of hatred and bigotry.
“In my judgement, the Nazis placed all of (the prisoners) there because the Nazis were saying they were not good enough,” said Bass. “That they could be terminated. Murdered.”
His eyes, he explained, were opened that day at Buchenwald.
“My tunnel vision — it disappeared,” said Bass. “I understood that human suffering was not delegated to just me — that pain and that suffering can touch all of us.”
And the shock of what he saw led Bass to take action.
“The (Nazis) had carried hate to the ultimate,” he said. “I knew this was wrong, that we had to change this … I had a responsibility to do something but I didn’t know what I could do.”
Upon returning to his hometown of Philadelphia, Pa. Bass decided it was time to get his education. Even though he wasn’t even allowed to live in a dorm on campus, Bass “swallowed his pride” and got his degree.
After teaching, Bass became a principal at Benjamin Franklin High School and participated in many of the ‘60s civil rights movements, including Dr. King’s famous march on Washington, where he listened first hand to the Reverend’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He also met King in Philadelphia.
“(King) was a little guy but when he began to speak I found out what a giant he really was,” Bass recalled.
After listening to a holocaust survivor talk at his school, Bass decided he, too, needed to speak out on his experiences. And on one such speaking trip in Vancouver, British Columbia in the early ‘70s, he was told there was someone who wanted to meet with him. There, Bass and Waisman were reunited and a unique friendship was born. They’ve been spreading their messages of love and hope ever since.
Given the silence of two rooms full of NK students, the message was received loud and clear in North Kitsap.
“It was so heart-wrenching to listen to,” said NKHS junior Jason Unger. “They haven’t let go of their experiences but have taken something positive away from them.
“I really want to go through my own life respecting people,” he added. “To have a greater respect for all human life.”