A Holocaust survivor and American soldier share their disparate yet remarkably similar stories.
Fourteen-year-old Perry Shulman was lying immobilized on April 11, 1945. He had contracted frostbite on his feet during the Death March from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Buchenwald, and a Russian prisoner, claiming to be a butcher back home, chopped off his toes with a butcher knife to prevent further infection. A young boy from Holland, lying next to him, had lost his entire foot.
Another prisoner came running into the room yelling, “I think we are free!”
Shulman hobbled to the window, where he saw tanks approaching and soldiers running with rifles, but it looked like chaos to him. The prisoners had hope, but no one knew what was happening.
“I went back and lay down, and I told my Dutch friend, ‘I think we are free,’” Shulman says. “The boy looked at me and smiled, and then he died.”
The next day, on April 12 — the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died — soldiers came walking through the gates of Buchenwald. Two men wove a basket with their fingers and carried Shulman to the roof so he could see.
“Everyone thought, ‘Oh, my God, the Germans are back; they are going to kill us,” Shulman says of the guards and officers who had fled the camp. But as the soldiers came closer, Shulman realized they were not German.
As a young boy in Klimontow, Poland, Shulman would sneak books — stories by Jack London and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, translated into Yiddish, were his favorites — past his mother, who would warn him that the Germans would kill him if they found a Jew reading.
“I knew from my books that in America there were people with brown skin,” Shulman says. “And I knew that the Germans would never accept a negres [French for black] into their force, so this must be the American army. When I saw him, I knew it was over. I knew I would be free.”
The Other Side
Leon Bass now calls the prisoners he saw “the walking dead.”
“I saw human beings who had been tortured, beaten, starved and denied everything that would make life worth living,” Bass says. “But they did live.”
The black soldier, whom Shulman had recognized as American, asked his Polish escort what these people had done that was so terrible that anyone would treat them this way.
“I really didn’t know the answer,” says Bass, who was 20 at the time.
A member of Gen. George Patton’s Intelligence Reconnaissance section, Bass, along with the rest of his battalion, had never heard of a concentration camp when a lieutenant told them they were going to visit one.
“When I entered the camp that day, I knew nothing,” he says. “I was a young, angry black soldier, fighting for my country, but suffering discrimination by it at the same time. As a soldier, I had seen death and dying, but the things I saw here were so horrible that I couldn’t really react to it. I was just shocked. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this.”
“I saw bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism. I had felt these in my own country. But here, I saw it all. I saw what can happen if we turn our backs,” he says.
Over the next few months, while the liberated prisoners awaited plans for the camp to be closed and for them to be moved out, Bass and the U.S. Army tried to make things as livable as possible for them. At the same time, under order of newly sworn-in President Dwight Eisenhower, the American army was determined that the neighboring German civilians would see what the Nazis had done, forcing them to march from town and escorting them through the camp.
Although many soldiers in Bass’ battalion saw Buchenwald, he never heard anyone speak about it afterward. Bass himself did not talk about it for 25 years, and his own parents died never knowing what their son had experienced.
“But what I witnessed there made me know I did have something to fight for,” Bass says. “On that day, my vision broadened. I now understood that human suffering was not relegated to just me. Pain and suffering is universal, and it can touch all of us.”
In 1985, Shulman and his wife, Passie, who live in West Bloomfield, flew to New York City to attend a reunion of Buchenwald survivors. Among the attendees was the Jewish chaplain who arranged for Shulman to be transported to a hospital in Paris — along with eight of Shulman’s friends because he wouldn’t go otherwise. An uncle in Detroit sponsored him to settle here, and he arrived at an orphanage a year to the month after liberation.
Also among the guests was Leon Bass and his wife, Mary. Bass and Shulman spoke briefly, as everyone did, had their photo snapped and moved on.
“I had no idea who he was, other than one of the hundreds of soldiers who had been in the area at that time,” Shulman recalls.
Last year, a friend sent a YouTube video to Shulman’s wife, Passie, thinking she might find it interesting because it talked about Buchenwald. She watched the video, becoming more excited as it went on, and called her husband in to watch with her. The video showed Dr. Leon Bass, a now-retired high school principal in Philadelphia, speaking about racism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
“As he was telling his story of his battalion liberating Buchenwald, it was as if it was the other side of Perry’s story,” Passie says. “It was a complete parallel.”
He also recognized his face as the one he had met at the reunion almost 30 years ago. He pulled out his scrapbook, and there was a photo of him with his arms around Mary Bass on one side, and Leon Bass on the other. Shulman called his son, Greg.
“My dad said he wanted to get in contact with Leon Bass,” says Greg Shulman, who lives in Farmington Hills. “So I put into play the ultimate game of Jewish geography.”
He discovered that Bass lectured around the country about his experiences and contacted a synagogue in Ohio where Bass had spoken. He contacted the Anti-Defamation League, which often invited Bass to speak.
And he called the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; someone told Greg that Bass had written a book, Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of a Dream. The museum put him in touch with Bass’ publisher, who put Greg in touch with Bass’ daughter, who contacted her father — who was thrilled.
This summer, on July 27 — the Shulman’s 56th wedding anniversary — Greg told his parents they would be driving to Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend to meet Leon Bass.
“I just looked at him,” Shulman says. “I was so very touched.”
“When we met, we both started crying,” Shulman says. “It was as if we knew each other so well.” And he finally spoke the words he’d thought for 70 years.
“I told him, ‘If it was not for you, I would not be here.’”
The men told each other about their lives before the war and leading up to Germany. They pored over photo albums, papers and articles. After many years of silence, both men had ultimately realized it was their responsibility to speak out and tell their stories, and both had lectured extensively across the country.
They discussed the many traits and experiences they had in common, the ideologies that served as a source for courage in the face of prejudice, Bass as an African-American, and Shulman as a Jew. And they talked, like old friends, about the lives they had created for themselves after the war.
“The only reason I had to survive was to eventually be a witness,” says Shulman, now 85. “And then, to live a life worth living.”
With the help of the Detroit-area United Jewish Appeal, Shulman found a profession as a jeweler and raised a family — his own life worth living. Between his sons Marc and Greg, and daughter Renea, Shulman has six grandchildren.
“Those children are my soul,” Shulman says.
Bass also created a life “that showed I am good enough,” he says. A life of morals, respect, love, children, four grandchildren and, recently, a great-granddaughter. And later this month, at age 89, he will be traveling to Washington, again at the invitation of the ADL, to speak.
“My mother always told me, ‘You have to love the unlovable,’” Bass recalls. “After the war, for many years, I tried. Oh, it was so hard.”
Then he heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak about his dream on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
“He was a little guy,” Bass says, ‘but when he spoke, he became a giant. And I realized again that my mom was right. It was a daily struggle, but change starts with yourself. Mr. Shulman and I both have learned that we can’t make change with hate.”
Perry Shulman is very cautious when telling his story. He is careful not to divulge too many details because they must be precise. He has so many thousands of memories, every day still, and it’s important to him that they mesh. His experience has been documented in lectures, newspaper articles and hours of footage by the Shoah Foundation.
Life, says Shulman, is a series of moments. Each moment, there are a million opportunities for our lives to change, for good or bad.
“There were a million times over that I could have died, that others died doing the same things I was or standing right next to me,” Shulman says. “A second later, an inch further. Everything could have been different for me.”
He marvels at this and will never understand why his moments brought him survival, while others’ did not. When he was 12, just before deportation to his first camp, Shulman appealed, miraculously, to the humanity of an Oberlieutenant, who shoved him into a shop away from the soldiers. When a Nazi came in and found Shulman, he raised his machine gun at the boy. But the Oberlieutenant, named Dormeyer, walked up behind him and knocked the firearm down. A moment later, Shulman would have been shot.
While at Buchenwald, Shulman came face-to-face with Ilse Koch, known as the Witch of Buchenwald and collector of lampshades made from prisoners’ skin. Shulman stared at her, not knowing who she was. On that day, she stared back at him and then just turned away.
After Buchenwald was liberated, the American soldiers opened the German warehouse and the ravenous prisoners who had the strength devoured the raw bacon and ham they found — many contracted dysentery and died. Shulman would have, too, had he been able to walk to the warehouse.
And if he had not disobeyed his mother and not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in secret, he would not have known there were black people in America, and he would have retracted from the approaching Leon Bass, the American soldier who was coming to save his life.
By Lynne Konstantin | Contributing Writer