RAHWAY — On Nov. 30, students from Rahway High School and other area schools spent “A Morning with Leon Bass” at Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center.
Bass, serving as a 19-year-old soldier with Patton’s Third Army in a segregated unit, was one of the first liberators of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He spoke on what he experienced in the army as an African-American, what he saw at Buchenwald, and how it changed his life.
Bass, now an 85-year-old retired principal from Philadelphia, captivated the audience with recollections of life in Jim Crow America and the pain created by his experience as a witness at Buchenwald, which he hid for many years. Upon his return to the United States, he never talked about this experience, even to his parents, until a Holocaust survivor came to the school where he was principal. Students were not being respectful. He walked in and told students how important it was to listen to this story. He said, “I was there; you need to hear this.”
After that day, he began to tell of his experiences and the irony that as a member of a “colored” unit in the United States Army, he could not drink out of “white” fountains, yet was defending our country. Bass began to sense the theme that everyone thought he was not good enough to serve with white soldiers. Likewise for the prisoners at Buchenwald, the world had seen them as not good enough to live. Yet, what crime had they committed? Bass talked about the results of horrible atrocities, many too graphic to describe here, that he had observed at the camp.
While at the lecture, Rahway students also were privileged to get to know a Holocaust survivor, Don Berkman, who wrote a book called “Two Voices: A Mother and Son, Holocaust Survivors,” the story of hiding with his mother for two years in the forests of Lithuania. Berkman graciously shared the story with the students of how his mother saved his life as they lived on potatoes, grass and roots.
Holocaust educator Debra Natoli, a Rahway English teacher, was excited with the opportunity to share this educational experience with her students, because she had heard Bass this past summer while attending a month-long Holocaust education trip. Students and teachers attending the November program came away with new empathy for the survivors, victims and witnesses.
Don Berkman tells Rahway students the story of surviving the Holocaust by hiding for two years in the Lithuanian woods with his mother.
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