Tag Archives: Buchenwald

Chilean Chronicles, Part XXX: Speaking about Dr. King and Dr. Bass at St. George’s College

Leon Bass bookThings are starting to groove here in Santiago, and it feels deep down good.

For starters, Dunreith and I have found a favorite, reasonable restaurant, La Republiqueta, a funky joint on Ave. Lyon, right where we stayed when we first arrived. She goes for a quesadilla salad with all kinds of seeds, while I have a sandwich with three kinds of mushroom and cheese. Throw in a mate to feed her burgeoning passion for that drink, a seltzer water for me, and a tip, and we’re out of there for less than $25.

From there we’ve established a firm, if not unbreakable, nightly ritual of splitting a chocolate bar filled with marzipan and a glass of the latest red wine we’re sampling during the next episode of the original version of “Betty, La Fea,” the inspiration for the American series, “Ugly Betty.”

A project that I’ve been working on around the Chicago Boys, the group of young Chilean economists who trained under Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and applied his theories in Chile, is starting to bear some early fruit.

I’m having a terrific time with my students, who call me either “Profe” or “Jeff Kelly,” and am starting to connect with more colleagues at the university.

Dunreith is making great strides in Spanish, understanding just about everything and being able to speak more and more.

We’ve got our travel plans to Argentina and Brazil in October just about salted away.

I’ve started running again after a three-year hiatus, and my body is holding up well so far.

Dear friends Lisa Cook and Jim Peters will be flying here on Sunday morning for close to a 10-day visit.

And this morning I confirmed a speaking gig at St. George’s College, a private, English-language school, for next Wednesday, August 28.

Hugo Rojas, a law professor with whom I first connected in 2008 during my second attempt to land a Fulbright, connected me to his wife, a teacher at the school.

As justice-loving people the world over know, this year will mark 50 years since Dr. King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech.

Although he had delivered a similar version of the speech earlier in Detroit, King’s abandoning his notes and delivered an impassioned call for the nation to be true to its founding creed and that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners shall eat together at the table of brotherhood is a high point in American oratory and history.

Twenty years ago, dear friend Dennis Downey and I, along with our ladies at the time, attended the 30th anniversary March on Washington.

Fifty years ago, personal hero Leon Bass was in the crowd of 250,000 people, weeping as he heard Dr. King describe his prophetic vision for the nation.

I’ve had the great privilege of knowing Leon for close to 20 years throughout his ceaseless commitment to fighting bigotry by talking for organizations like Facing History and Ourselves and the Anti-Defamation League.

Over that time we’ve become close friends.

He attended the second wedding Dunreith and I held at Look Park, giving us a check for $100 and telling me to go see a friend called gourmet.

A couple of years ago, after more than a decade of pushing from me and other people who love him, Leon published his autobiography, Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of the Dream.

It’s a remarkable story that begins in 1925 and continues until today.

It’s a story of tradition and race and service and family and humility and seeking to find the courage to do the right thing.

Leon takes the reader through his childhood in Philadelphia, where he grew up with four brothers and one sister. His father, whom he revered, was a Pullman Porter. His mother ran a proverbial tight ship. As Leon’s told thousands of audiences, “If corporal punishment was child abuse, I was abused many times.” But he always makes it clear that he knew his parents loved him and wanted the best for him.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Leon volunteered to serve in the army, but was dismayed, and later furious, to find out that the country he had pledged to serve with his life, if necessary, was treating him as if he wasn’t good enough by making him stand at the back of the bus and eat at the back of restaurants.

He survived the Battle of the Bulge before having an experience that, as he described it, brought the blinders off and helped him understand that hatred was not limited to those who detested African-Americans.

This occurred in 1945, when he witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and saw what he called “the walking dead.”

Bass spent about four hours in the camp, and that time was enough to alter his life’s perspective, even if he didn’t speak publicly about it for decades.

He returned home from the war and became the first member of his family to go to college, generally, but not always, heeding his father’s words to not go running his mouth so that he could complete his education.

“Once you get that, no one can take that away from you,” his father said.

Bass eventually graduated, becoming a teacher.

In the mid-50s, after some initial reservations, he became a follower of Dr. King after learning about his endorsement of the discipline and philosophy of non-violence.

One day, King came to Philadelphia, and Bass brought his class to hear him speak.

“He was a little guy,” Bass recalled, referring to King’s comparatively small stature. “But then he started speaking and I recognized him for the giant of a man that he was.”

King’s message to the students was direct. Not all of you may become doctors or lawyers, but whatever you do, you be the best at it. If you have to sweep the streets, so be it, Bass said later. You sweep the streets the way Michelangelo painted his paintings.

Bass was mesmerized, and, when the March on Washington came, he made his way down from Philadelphia to hear King offer his soaring rhetoric that endures to this day.

Bass later became a principal at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the toughest in the city, if not the entire nation. He served there for 14 years before retiring in 1982.

About a decade before that, while at the school, he came across a Holocaust survivor talking to a class in the school.

She had lost almost all of her family, but the students were not interested in hearing about her pain.

Bass intervened, and, for the first time since that day in Buchenwald a quarter century earlier, spoke publicly about what he had seen.

What’s she saying is true, he told the young men. I know because I was there.

After the class ended and the students filed out in silence, the survivor implored Bass to start speaking in public.

You’ve got something to say, she said.

He has done it since.

One of my favorite parts of working at Facing History was taking speakers like Leon around to talk with students.

Leon and I traveled with his wife Mary, who was starting to be in the grip of Alzheimer’s, to Springfield, where he spoke to the entire student body at Cathedral High School.

I took him to Dorchester High, where, in his mid-70s, he stood down a group of unruly students by telling them, “You want to talk, you can come up hear and talk,” and then staring hard at them.

And I had the pleasure of working with Leon to tell his story in 20 minutes at a Facing History dinner that honored his years of service to the organization and that included a tribute by Dr. Calvin Morris, my former boss at the Community Renewal Society and one of Leon’s former fifth grade students.

Indeed, Dunreith and I later traveled to Cleveland, where Leon was again honored by Dr. Morris. That time, I got to have lunch with a select group of former Philadelphians that included Leon, Dr. Morris and one of Dr. Morris’ former students who had been a substitute teacher at Benjamin Franklin the last year Leon was a principal there. (They jokingly told me they’d let me hang around as a token Bostonian.)

Dunreith and I called Leon last night.

He sounded a bit tired when he answered the phone, but perked up when he recognized my voice.

He had just buried Claude, his last remaining sibling, on Friday.

I’m the last rung on the totem pole, he told me.

Even though there was mercy in his brother’s passing as he had suffered for a number of years, sadness crept into Leon’s voice.

We talked about our families and his attendance at Obama’s second inauguration, an experience he treasured. Although he’s not doing as much travel as he used to, he’s still speaking up for justice and still working to build the world that Dr. King described so memorably a half-century ago.

I told him about the speaking opportunity next week at St. George’s.

I’ll tell the students about Dr. King, I said. But I’ll tell them about you, too.


Leon Bass’ video, The 36-Hour Day, Charlie Pierce’s Family Alzheimer’s Story.

Leon Bass speaks at an event. His wife had Alzheimer's Disease and died earlier this decade.
Leon Bass speaks at an event. His wife had Alzheimer’s Disease and died earlier this decade.

Dunreith and I spoke with Dr. Leon Bass the other night.

One of my heroes, he had sent us a video that interspersed him telling his life story with images of the topics he was discussing.

Born in Depression-era Philadelphia, he served during World War II in the segregated United States Army.  During his training he had to endure numerous humiliating experiences in the segregated South.

During the war, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and witnessed unspeakable horrors as a witness to the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Bass returned home and began a 34-year career as an educator, during which time he impacted the lives of thousands of individuals, including Community Renewal Society Executive Director and my boss Dr. Calvin Morris.

Dr. Bass participated in the March on Washington, became the first black principal at the Benjamin Franklin High School and eventually started speaking about his experiences before, during and after the war.

Shortly after returning home, Dr. Bass fell in love with, and married, his wife Mary.

A former schoolteacher, she bore, and together they raised, their son and daughter.  They traveled around the world.  They buried each other’s parents.

In short, they shared their lives during the more than half century they were married.

Unfortunately, toward the end of her life, Mary contracted Alzheimer’s disease.

Eventually, like so many others who are snared by a declining memory, she struggled to recognize her loved ones and to remember who she was.

Ultimately, Dr. Bass made the painful decision to move his wife to a facility near the community where they were living.  While there she received high-quality and compassionate care as well as daily visits from her husband.

In doing so, he heeded the advice given in Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins’ The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for Person with Alzheimer’s Disease, Related Dementing Illnesses, and Memory Loss in Later Life.

As the name suggests, one of the main points the book makes is that caring for people with dementia or other issues is a never ending task that, if not shared, can end the caregiver’s life years early than would otherwise have happened.

First published in 1981 and subsequently revised several times, this classic guide covers nearly every aspect imaginable for people dealing with loved ones who have memory issues.  Accessible and practical, the book covers everything from dealing with other family members to taking care of oneself to how to deal with issues of hygiene and how to provide environments that are not excessively disturbing for the person with memory loss.

Mrs. Bass died in the earlier part of this decade, and Dr. Bass is still soldiering on.

He’s had a knee replaced, cataracts removed from his eyes and a pacemaker implanted, but his spirits are still strong, he still sees family members regularly and travels across the country to speak to audiences about his life’s journey.

Writer Charlie Pierce tells a less happy, but at least as significant, tale in his book, Hard to Forget: A Family’s Alzheimer’s Story.

In 1985, Pierce’s father John went to place flowers on a family grave in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He was found three days later in Vermont.

This was the first undeniable sign that his father had some neurological loss-evidence that Pierce and other members of his family promptly denied.

The book tells the tale of how his family moved from denial to confronting his father’s decline, its impact on his family and the heated competition between researchers to make breakthroughs on this disease that robs its victims of their identity even as their body often remains intact.

Readers may know Pierce for his lighter fare as a regular guest on the public radio quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, his work for Esquire magazine or his sports writing, such as his biography, Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything.

While Pierce’s writing skill is familiar, the gravity of his subject matter is not.

He skillfully moves between a searching examination and then description of the rampant nature of Alzheimer’s within his family-most, if not all of his father’s siblings have the disease-the emotional toll dealing with it takes, and the questions he asks himself at 44 years old about his own neurological future.

Pierce’s wife Margaret Doris is the book’s heroine, supporting Pierce, working to care for his parents and urging all to look squarely at what they are facing.

The number of families dealing these issues has already increased, and will only continue to grow, according to news reports.

Those who do would do well to draw on these two valuable books and to consult these resources.

James Von Brunn, Resources about Holocaust Denial and White Supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

By now, I’m sure you have heard about the shocking murder of a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by 88-year-old white supremacist and Holocaust denier James Von Brunn.

It’s a hard time for white supremacists these days.  

Events like Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, his appointment of a diverse Cabinet, and his recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be the nation’s third woman and first Latina U.S. Supreme Court justice embody all of what the haters oppose.

A sense of losing a battle often triggers desperate acts.

Von Brunn’s attack apparently was triggered by Obama’s recent visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which he called the “ultimate rebuke” to deniers. 

Here are some resources that can help give context to some of the issues raised by Von Brunn’s alleged shooting: 

To begin, Von Brunn was a failed artist, according to news reports.  Peter Cohen’s Architecture of Doom is an astonishing film that shows that many of the top Nazis, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, were, too. 

I wrote last weekabout Deborah Lipstadt’s book and blog, as well as  a web site, all of which are intended to counter Holocaust denial.

The Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Povery Law Center and where my friend Casey Sanchez works, covers hate groups in America.  The Center more generally is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the issue.

Dear friend and full professor Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy is a nimbly written and thoughtfully argued description of the re-emergence of white supremacy after the Civil War and into the 20th century as told through the life of South Carolina politician “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.  

Kantrowitz and other historians who cover this ground are walking in the very wide road carved by groundbreaking historian and Arkansas native C. Vann Woodward, whose classic work The Strange Career of Jim Crow paved the way for other works like Kantrowitz’s to follow. 

For those people interested in the context that gave rise to the Holocaust Museum where the shooting occurred, I recommend Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.  Novick argues that the events of the Holocaust have gained importance in America more because of the organization of the Jewish community than because of any change in the genocide’s tragic nature.

James Young is one of the leading authorities of Holocaust memorials; his book, At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocast in Contemporary Art and Architecture should be required reading for those intrigued by that topic.  

People seeking an overview of the Holocaust could do a lot worse than reading journalist William Shirer’s tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s  The Holocaust:  A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.  

Of course, Facing History and Ourselves, where Dunreith works and where I am a consultant, does terrific work around prejudice reduction with students all over the world.  While the organization has expanded from its original look at the Holocaust as its primary ‘case study,’ it still has a tremendous collection of print and video resources on the topic.  

Elements of Time, a collection of survivor testimony, is one of my favorites, while readers of Elie Wiesel’s Night should check out The Challenge of Memory, a video that accompanies the book and has complementary testimony for numerous points in the book.

Facing History’s resource book, Holocaust and Human Behavior, also has plenty of useful information, even as it’s more of a menu than a straight historical narrative.

Unfortunately, education and memory has not yet been a completely successful antidote to haters like Von Brunn and others of his ilk.  Still, actions like his only underscore the importance of continuing to inform people about past atrocities and continue to strive for a world in which events that seemingly were impossible, like the election of a black president, eventually become ordinary.

Obama’s visit to Buchenwald, Deborah Lipstadt’s exposure of Holocaust denial


Emory University Deborah Lipstadt after her victory over Holocaust denier David Irving in a British court.  Lipstadt's book about Holocaust denial is important reading on the subject.

Emory University Deborah Lipstadt after her victory over Holocaust denier David Irving in a British court. Lipstadt's book about Holocaust denial is important reading on the subject.



I carry the history of the Holocaust in my name. 

My Hebrew name is Yosef,  I am named for Joseph Lowenstein, or “Papa Joseph,” my paternal great-grandfather and the patriarch of that side of the family.

In 2004, I visited Mr. and Mrs. G. in the Essen-Steele area where our family had lived for generations.  

Mr. G’s father owned a print shop and had been Papa Joseph’s patient for many years. In addition to showing me a notebook full of correspondence between our families for more than 60 years, starting with a death notice his father had created for my great-grandmother, John’s wife Maike read a letter her father-in-law had written that described Papa Joseph’s desperate efforts to leave Germany after the war had begun.

Shunned by many of the people who he had cared for for decades, Papa Joseph carried around an English dictionary as part of his efforts to learn the language to help him adjust to life in America, should he get out.

He never did.

Instead, he was deported first to Theresienstadt, and, from there, to the Auschwitz death camp. There, he and more than 1 million other people, were murdered by the Nazi regime and the workers who carried out the killing. 

President Obama’s recent visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where dear friend and personal hero Leon Bass witnessed liberation in April 1945, had personal resonance.  

In between his stops in Cairo, Egypt and Normandy, France, Obama called the camp the “ultimate rebuke” to those who would deny the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, there are many who would do so.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University has written a powerful book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, created a blog and been featured on a web site that seeks to expose and counter Holocaust denial.  

In the book, Lipstadt breaks down the range of tactics that deniers use.  While some are open and avowed anti-Semites, others take more sophisticated and thereby disturbing tactics.  This second group starts from the seemingly reasonable premise that war is a terrible experience for all people before starting to nibble around the edges of the numbers, the gas chambers, survivors’ memory, the role of disease, the absence of written commands from Hitler ordering the genocide, and so on.  

The cumulative effect is to say that the death of about 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews did not occur.

Venerable historian Richard Hovannisian has written about how the similar tactics employed by deniers of the Armenian genocide-an event that to this day is still denied by the Turkish government-and the Holocaust. 

In her work, Lipstadt writes about other major deniers like Ernst Zundel, Robert Faurisson, and Arthur Butz, an engineering professor at Northwestern University.

Within this part of the book, she has an interesting section about Noam Chomsky, who had a back-and-forth position about Faurisson’s right to speak at certain forums and air his views that is captured in part in the documentary film, Manufacturing Consent.   A current denier site, Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, cloaks itself in the mantle of what in America is called the First Amendment.  

 She also explains the shift in tactics by the deniers, who have created “revisionist” pseudo-scholarly journals in which they peddle their hate.  

Lipstadt has always refused to appear on the same stage as Holocaust deniers because she says to do so would confer legitimacy to their lies and imply that there is an argument when, in fact, there is none.

She has paid a price for her scholarship.

In 1996, she was sued by David Irving, one of the major deniers, for libel in a British court.  Three courts found for Lipstadt, but the struggle continues, both because of the vast reservoir of information on the Internet-a Google search of her name and the book’s title instantly produced a denier’s “review” of the book that called it “vile”-and because of powerful leaders like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly has denied the Holocaust.  

Obama called out Ahmadinejad by name at Buchenwald, making it clear that he stands on the side of truth.  

Still, the struggle continues, especially as survivors continue to age and die, leaving us to pass on the reality about what happened to the next generation. 

1. Have you seen any denial web sites?  What tactics do they use?

2. How do you best counter a lie about history?

3. Why are so many people silent when Ahmadinejad issues these odious statements?

Social Studies Methods Class: Elie Wiesel’s Night

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Disgraced and now imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff has captured plenty of headlines recently. 

The tentacles of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi Scheme have reached throughout the country and have wreaked financial havoc on thousands of families and non-profit organizations.  In many ways, the consequences of his decption have yet to be fully felt, since they came at a time when the economy was already seriously battered.

Madoff’s actions have caused particular anguish in the Jewish community. He is Jewish and used his membership in the community to exploit his religious brothers and sisters.  Some have expressed concerns that his actions will play into long-held stereotypes about Jews as financiers and lead to a rise in antisemitism, while others have struggled to understand the extent and cause of his duplicity.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is one of Madoff’s many victims.  He has called Madoff’s crimes unforgivable. 

Themes of memory, forgiveness, belief and humanity also run throughout Night, Wiesel’s slender and classic memoir that provides an authoritative account of Holocaust survival.

Night opens in Sighet, Transylvania in 1941.  A 12-year-old  Kaballah student, Wiesel and other residents of the community are warned of their impending doom by Moshe the Beadle.  However, the townspeople find Moshe’s predictions incredible, instead concluding that he has lost his mind.

A couple of years later, his predictions turn out to be true.

Wiesel, his family and the rest of the community are forcibly removed from their homes and taken by train to the Auschwitz death camp.  His words about that first night have often been quoted, but bear repetition for their stark power:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

The repetition and insistence of permanence and memory, the allusions to the Ten Commandments, the combination of images and their consequences all give this excerpt its considerable impact.

Night has many such moments.  He talks about how eight words uttered at the camp’s selection-men to the left, women to the right-means that he and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. 

He never sees them again. 

This is only the beginning for Wiesel and his father, though. 

Night details the appells, or hours long roll calls, which begin early in the morning, the paltry rations which slowly starve and reduce the men’s existence to animal instincts of survival, the collective punishment visited on those who try to rebel and other aspects of unspeakable cruelty they endured.

Wiesel’s father does not handle the physical strain well.  Shortly before the book ends, he dies, but not before Wiesel has come to resent and even have feelings of hatred toward him for his inability to weather the abuse.  Other sons respond similarly, with some even abandoning their fathers on the death march. 

The book ends with Wiesel’s liberation at the Buchenwald camp in 1945.  He looks in a mirror for the first time since before his ordeal and ends the book with the following:

I wanted to see myself in the mirror … I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.

Wiesel describes himself in both first and third person, showing again the permanent impact of his experiences, their lethal and dehumanizing consequences, and his struggle to understand his personhood and meaning in the face of the atrocity he has endured.

Night is part of a trilogy-the other two books are Dawn and Day-and is probably the most well known of Wiesel’s many books. 

Originally written in French, the work was pared down extensively from its original version of more than 800 pages.  Facing History and Ourselves has created a study guide and a video, Challenge of Memory, that has clips that accompany specific scenes in the book, which has sparked ongoing discussion about whether it is a memoir or a novel.

In addition to being a prolific writer, speaker and thinker, Wiesel also created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  The foundation had  $15.2 million under management by Madoff’s investment firm, and has lost nearly everything.  His life savings have also been wiped out.

And so, now 80, Wiesel faces another challenge. 

While, of course, the financial hardship and betrayal he is grappling with is in no way comparable to his survival more than 60 years ago, what is clear is that Wiesel will meet its with his customary steely resolve and frankness.  He spoken recently about the outpouring of donations from people who learned about the foundation’s plight.  

For those people looking to understand the unspeakable horror Wiesel  and many others endured during World War II, Night is a powerful choice.