Liberator, survivors to keynote Shoa colloquium
Three men who met at a time of ultimate horror will come together to celebrate justice and diversity on May 12, at the 29th Annual Colloquium of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.
The program will feature Dr. Leon Bass, an educator from Pennsylvania who was among the American soldiers who liberated Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II, and two survivors of those camps, Abe Chapnick of Howell and Robbie Waisman, who is coming from his home in Vancouver, Canada, for the event.
Bass, as an African-American sergeant in the segregated 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, encountered Chapnick and Waisman when he entered Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany on April 11, 1945.
The event, “65 Years of Bearing Witness: Our Commitment to Human Rights,” will feature their testimony, as well as 30 workshops on topics related to prejudice, genocide, human rights, and activism.
The program will not only address diversity and the impact of eyewitness testimony in education, but will celebrate these individuals who survived adversity and made a lifelong commitment to fight for justice.
The keynote presentation will begin at 9:30 a.m.; from 11 a.m. participants will have the opportunity to attend workshops.
Bass will speak about his life under the constraints of segregation — both as a civilian and a soldier — witnessing the horrors at Buchenwald, and the pivotal moment when he dedicated himself to becoming an educator, fighting prejudice, and serving as a spokesperson for human rights. As he has described the experience, it was liberation not only for the victims but also for the victors.
Chapnick and Waisman will describe their experiences, their bond, and their connections with Bass. Abe, then 13, and Robbie, then 12, met in a slave labor camp shortly after each discovered that their families had been murdered. They became “lager brothers” (camp brothers), and stayed together for the rest of the war. On that longed-for day in 1945, Bass was the first American soldier Robbie saw; it was also the first time he saw a black man.
In a phone call from his home in Vancouver, Waisman said, “I thought I was seeing a mirage. I went up and touched him, to see if he was real.”
The boys were sent together for “rehabilitation” to France. They were separated when Chapnick was sent to relatives in the United States, and Waisman was adopted by a family in Calgary, Canada, but they stayed in touch.
Waisman said, “We call each other on April 11, on our ‘birthday,’ the day we were reborn.”
Like Chapnick and Bass, he has turned the nightmare of his childhood into a force for good. “When we came out of the camps, they thought we were a bunch of psychopaths,” he said. “We were so full of rage and bitterness. But if we had stayed that way, it would have been a victory for Hitler.” Instead, he has worked — sometimes in partnership with survivors of other atrocities — to use the lessons of Holocaust to foster tolerance and decency.
Elie Wiesel and Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, were among those Buchenwald boys. “For a bunch of psychopaths they were ready to write off we haven’t done so badly,” Waisman said.
Dale Daniels, executive director of the Brookdale center, said the idea of bringing the three men together for the program came about by chance. “Abe Chapnick has been very involved with the center, and we have worked with Dr. Bass before, but it wasn’t until Robbie Waisman came on a visit and was speaking with us, that we put together the fact that this was the man he remembered from their liberation. It was thrilling for us.”
More information on the three men can be found in two films available at the center. Beyond the Fence features Bass, Chapnick, and Waisman and their experiences together. Chapnick and Waisman are featured in Boys of Buchenwald.
The colloquium is a half-day program attended by some 2,400 teachers, students, and members of the public. It is one of an array of programs and services offered by the center.
The center was founded in 1979 as a resource for educators and the general public. It has an extensive library, a teachers’ resource center, and a speakers’ bureau. Its services include the Catherine Woolf Student Leadership Conference, theatrical performances, teacher training programs, and the Luna Kaufman Writing and Art Contest for students from grades 5 to college. It also has programs for the general community, including annual scholarly lectures, film series, book discussions, and collaborative programs with other institutions.