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Seeds of prejudice and hate were planted early in the public schools of pre-Hitler Germany.
“Antisemitism certainly didn’t begin with Hitler. But he was the catalyst that set in motion what many people already felt,” Jack Bass recalls.
These evil seeds took root and grew in young minds, corrupting and distorting social tolerance. It was common for Jewish children to suffer humiliation at the hands of teachers and students in the classroom. Children learned to inflict painful words and deeds upon their Jewish classmates. As adults, these children became the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Jack was eight years old when he was required by his teacher to recite a demeaning passage from the poem “The Tree Which Wanted to Change Its Leaves” by Friedrich Ruckert. Each time this poem was read, Jack was called forward to tell the story of a bearded Jew who stole the golden leaves from a beautiful tree in the forest.
“When I recited those lines, the other children looked at me with disdain. I felt they were thinking, ‘Those dirty Jews. They spoil everything that is good and beautiful.’ “
Jack survived the Holocaust and in the ensuing decades has witnessed a positive change in social tolerance. Today, he is among a group of survivors who speak to school groups through a program of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center. Their goal is to provide effective education in public and private schools concerning the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights as well as to fortify young people with historical knowledge that will lead them to help prevent the recurrence of such evil.
The Tree Which Wanted to Change Its Leaves
by Friedrich Ruckert
A tree stood in the forest in any kind of weather
It only had needles instead of leaves
And it would have liked to do better
Nobody touches me and it might sound bold
I would like leaves of real gold
At night the little tree fell asleep
Dreaming of golden leaves it would reap
And the morning came and in the wood
He was the only one with golden leaves he stood
But when evening came a Jew
Went through the forest
With a big sack and a long beard
Towards the golden leaves he neared
Sticks them all in his sack and rushes away
Leaving the nuded tree to pray
If I would only wish once more
Please give me the needles I had before
The tree fell asleep and when dawn arrives
His needles were back he had all his life
See for yourself, but stay away
His needles could hurt you for the rest of the day
This shortened version was translated by Survivor Jack Bass.
“Stop! High Voltage!”
Unfortunately, this warning was not enough to prevent prisoners from committing suicide on the electric fence surrounding the concentration camp.
Jack Bass recalls that the thought of suicide was entertained by almost everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born from the helplessness of the harsh environment, the hunger, the disease, the fear of the unknown.
“Many people ended it all because the suffering was too great,” he says. “They chose what we called ‘running to the fence.’ They would fling themselves on the fence and die immediately as the electricity ran through their bodies. They would hang there until the current was turned off the next day. In yet one more act of cruelty by the Nazis, their bodies would remain on the ground for days.
“After a while, I became numb to that painful sight of death … at least during the day. But during my nightly walk to the outhouse, I had to turn away. The nights were always cold and foggy. The gloom that settled over me was intensified by a lifeless form stuck to the electric fence.”
“On May 8, 1945, the American GI’s took over the Mühldorf camp in Germany and sent me to a makeshift hospital in Ampfing, Germany.
“I waited to be taken to the large Red Cross van, but I noticed through the window that the van was too full to carry all of us, and I watched it pull away. After all I had been through, I was left behind. I cried.
“Thankfully, the van returned for me the next day and took me from that horrible place to my freedom.
“I was 21 years old.”
Visit Jack Bass at home and you’ll think you just entered a music library. Classical music plays softly in the background; ivory busts of Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, and Paderevski sit quietly on the bookcase; and almost 1,000 pieces of music fill every nook and cranny.
“I was listening to Brahms’ music when I was three years old,” he says. “I love music. It’s so powerful that I can’t imagine a single day without it.”
The Germans also recognized the power of music. At each of the extermination camps, the Nazis created orchestras of prisoner-musicians. Auschwitz, for example, had six orchestras, one of which contained more than 100 musicians.
“The musicians’ job was to motivate their fellow prisoners by playing as they marched to and from work each day,” he recalls. “I remember hearing The Merry Widow as I marched to my job of building an airport.”
Sadly, many musicians were also forced to play and watch helplessly as their friends and families were led to the gas chambers. It’s no surprise that the suicide rate among musicians was higher than that of most other camp workers.
However, for many victims of Nazi brutality, music was an important way of preserving and asserting their humanity. Brundibar, a children’s opera, was written by a Jewish Czech composer, Hans Krása, and librettist, Adolf Hoffmeister, in the ghettos of Prague. It remains today as a musical icon of the Holocaust.
Jack is pictured with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
Spend 15 minutes with Jack Bass and you’ll be entertained by Truman Capote, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan.
“I inherited my sense of humor from my grandfather. Of course, it disappeared when I was at Auschwitz. I became numb there … no anger, no pain, no feeling at all. It was difficult to focus on anything. I was just trying to live another hour.”
Through the years, that sense of humor has been reborn. Impersonations of movie stars and politicians are near perfect. Conversations are filled with wit and laughter.
When asked how he feels about doubters of the Holocaust, he quips, “If the Holocaust didn’t happen, I went through one heck of a weight loss program for nothing!”