THE HOLOCAUST MUSEUM'S FIB
Aug 10, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 46 • By MARK SCHULTE
THE HOLOCAUST MUSEUM in Washington, D.C., is perpetuating a falsehood; and, worst of all, it knows it.
The museum has had a rocky year. First, it issued an invitation to Yasser Arafat, creating an international scandal. Then it appointed as director of its scholarly center a man who had compared Israel to Nazi Germany. (The man later withdrew from the position, following widespread outrage.)
But the misuse of the museum did not begin in 1998. Soon after its creation by unanimous act of Congress in 1980, the Holocaust Council, which governs the museum, began to distort the truth about the liberation of the death camps. In 1981, the council organized an "international liberators conference" at the State Department. The 26-man American delegation included Secretary of the Army John Marsh, nine members of Congress, and Leon Bass, whom the Washington Post identified in a front-page story as a "high school principal from Philadelphia who liberated Buchenwald with an all-black unit." This was the first time the fiction about black soldiers' liberating Buchenwald was disseminated to a national and international audience.
Six years later, the Holocaust Council published speeches from the conference in a volume titled The Liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberators. In the foreword, Miles Lerman, now the council's chairman, stated that all the combatants among the delegates had been "members of military units that first crashed the gates of Nazi concentration camps." But this was not so: Leon Bass and other "liberators" from the 183rd Combat Engineers Battalion were 190 miles behind the front lines when Buchenwald was overrun by Gen. Patton's Sixth Armored on April 11, 1945. (My late father fought with this division between November 1944 and May 1945.)
With the support of the museum, the black-liberators claim grew into a significant Holocaust distortion. In 1992, public television produced a documentary called Liberators Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II. The film, in which Leon Bass had a starring role, falsely claimed that the all-black 761st Tank and 183rd Combat Engineers battalions liberated not only Buchenwald, but Dachau, too.
Two days before the documentary's premiere, the Holocaust Museum, along with New York's Channel 13, sponsored a screening at Lincoln Center for hundreds of prominent black and Jewish Americans, including then-mayor David Dinkins and Harvey Meyerhoff, who was chairman of the Holocaust Council. An article in the museum's newsletter boasted that the museum had provided "many of the photographs and historical background" for the film.
But in February 1993, after vigorous protests from veterans of the divisions that genuinely liberated Buchenwald and Dachau, along with damaging articles by, among others, the late Eric Breindel of the New York Post, Channel 13 suspended broadcasts of Liberators and commissioned an investigation. The ensuing report, issued in September 1993, conceded that neither of the two all-black divisions had participated in the liberation of either camp.
While Channel 13 publicly repudiated the documentary -- a work of ethnic propaganda ("African-American soldiers from segregated units of the U.S. Army became the first troops to free Jews from Nazi concentration camps") -- the Holocaust Museum continues to propagate the film's claims. On the second floor of the museum's permanent exhibition, a 10-minute movie spreads the now-discredited fiction. Spliced into footage of Dachau's liberation on April 29, 1945, are several photographs of Buchenwald taken five days after that camp's liberation, when a small contingent from the 183rd Combat Engineers delivered water-purification equipment.
According to rules established in 1987 by the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the Holocaust Council, only units that reached a concentration camp within 48 hours of the initially arriving division are officially recognized as liberators. Two books issued with the imprimatur of the Holocaust Museum -- The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Liberation 1945 -- include a photograph of Bass and his fellow soldiers at Buchenwald. It is miscaptioned "April 11, 1945."
Last February, when museum director Walter Reich was made the scapegoat for the Arafat debacle and forced to resign, he warned Miles Lerman in a public letter that it was wrong to use the "museum and . . . the memory of the Holocaust in the context of political or diplomatic circumstances or negotiations." Reich had the right idea -- and his warning applies to more than misguided invitations.