Tony Bennett is best known for a 57-studio-albums-and19-Grammys-deep career, boasting hits such as "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," and his more recent collaborations with Lady Gaga. But before Bennett’s self-described "big break" happened at age 23, he had a whole other life in the military during WWII — during which he once accepted a brutal demotion for standing up for a nonwhite friend. And what’s more, he credits that choice with catalyzing a chain of events that ultimately led him to becoming a professional entertainer.

Oh, and he freed prisoners of a Jewish internment camp, too. In fact, there’s never been a better time to remember that Tony Bennett was a Nazi hunter who also stood up to bigotry, despite a threat to his own social standing. So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

Though Bennett had been singing for his family since childhood and at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Arts (since renamed High School of Art and Design), any nascent life plans were put on hold at age eighteen when Tony was drafted into the Army in 1944 toward the end of World War II. Attending six weeks of boot camp at Fort Robinson in Arkansas, the Cheek to Cheek singer wrote in his 2007 autobiography The Good Life that "the biggest shock was the level of bigotry I encountered as soon as I arrived."

Bennett was sent to overseas and assigned to the Seventh Army, 63rd Infantry Division, also known as the "Blood and Fire" Division. Moving through France and into Germany, Bennett served on the front lines. Among other accomplishments, his team "captured a bunch of SS troopers" and — as previously mentioned — his 255th Regiment eventually freed the prisoners of a concentration camp. The legendary crooner and literal Nazi fighter Bennett tells it in his own words:

It was thirty miles south of the notorious Dachau camp, on the opposite bank of the Lech River, which we were approaching. The river was treacherous and difficult to cross because there were still German soldiers protecting it, but we wouldn’t let anything stop us from freeing those prisoners. Many writers have recorded what it was like in the concentration camps much more eloquently than I ever could, so I won’t even try to describe it. Just let me say I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds. Once we took possession of the camp, we immediately got food and water to the survivors, but they had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe that we were there to help them and not to kill them.

The troops were also able to liberate 63rd Division soldiers who’d been captured and taken to Landberg, according to Bennett, who wrote, "After seeing such horrors with my very eyes, it angers me that some people insist there were no concentration camps."

But that wasn’t Bennett’s only wartime experience when it came to witnessing bigoted treatment and deciding to act, and — unlike his military-ordered mission at Landberg — it arose from Bennett’s own inability to stay silent about it.

As retold in a 2012 segment from The Rosie Show, Rosie O’Donnell asks Tony Bennett an incident in which he was demoted after sharply rebuking his commanding officer for saying racist things to Bennett’s friend, a black man from back in New York, while insisting he leave the segregated mess hall and take his meal in the kitchen. After Bennett chewed the sergeant out, the man cut up Bennett’s army stripes and "spat on them," and Bennett was then assigned to dig up soldiers' mass graves and prepare the bodies to ship home.

"I just considered bigotry the most significant…very ignorant, you know? It has to stop. ‘Cause we’re living in the greatest country, the only country with every religion, every nationality…and we should respect everybody’s backgrounds," Bennett told O’Donnell.

And as "horrible" as the fallout was, Jewish major eventually heard about the incident and made Bennett a librarian for a "great orchestra" that he came to perform with — officially cementing Bennett’s dream of becoming a famous musician. Bennett continued to support equal rights, marching alongside Harry Belafonte to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King in 1965. To give a sense of the climate in the south at that time, the woman who drove him to the airport post-march, Viola Liuzzo, was murdered by KKK members later that night while shuttling more marchers out of town.

Why is it so important to revisit Bennett’s pre-fame life right now? For one, because Bennett's belief that "we should respect everybody’s backgrounds" has become, disturbingly, a subject of debate in 2017 — and so many are still, somehow, still deciding whether they should do something as simple as speaking up.

Here's a few more reasons:

  • The U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Early Warning Signs of Fascism" sign has gone viral because of its perceived relevance to the country’s current political landscape.
  • Jewish actor Shia LaBeouf has been condemned by critics (online and in PopCrush’s own comments section) for forcefully reacting to one man who told him "Hitler did nothing wrong," and a second who attempted to recite the "Fourteen Words" slogan coined by white supremacist terrorist David Lane during Shia’s #HeWillNotDivideUs protest feed. LaBeouf has been called a "snowflake" for not passively accepting the anti-Semitic remarks.
  • Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is the former Executive Chairman of "alt-right" site Breitbart News, which published stories on his watch with titles including "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy" and "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew," and has been championed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
  • The White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement intentionally omitted any mention of Jewish people, a choice that Vox explains they defended with, "other victims also suffered and died in the Holocaust." The White House also allegedly shelved a draft by the State Department that did mention the 6 million Jewish people killed, according to Politico. Historian Deborah Lipstadt deemed the White House’s actions "softcore Holocaust denial" in The Atlantic.

And therein lies the period of odd dissonance we're living in/living out. We’ve applauded Oscars for Holocaust-focused films like Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful, taught The Diary of Anne Frank in schools and cheered on Indiana Jones as he fought Nazis, yet the U.S. has arrived at a place where the very idea of condemning overtly racist and anti-Semitic behavior is subject to timid debate. "Should we punch Nazis," outlets like Salon are thinkpiecing, if the 'Nazi' in question shirks the frowned-upon term while their behavior seems to indicate otherwise? And never mind physical force: This writer has seen firsthand how people verbally objecting to online abuse or racially-charged threats in their Twitter mentions are being told they’re overreacting, or worse, that they’re making it up.

Most people don’t want to picture themselves as those bad or even toxically-accommodating people in a movie, who help Nazis kill millions of people onscreen. They like to imagine they would have been the Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures, smashing the Whites Only sign outside of a bathroom, and not the Kirsten Dunst character who shrugged and said "this is just the way things are!" amid her efforts to avoid conflict and retain what little power she held onto as a white woman in the '60s. But one has to wonder what the "calm down, snowflake!" crowd would have done in 1933 when Hitler’s true plans and concentration camps began to unfurl, or when blatant racial injustice was the way of life during the American anti-segregation battle in the 1960s. That one’s for the historians and countless armchair pundits of social media to answer, but we know what Tony Bennett would do. Because he did it.

Express/Getty Images
Express/Getty Images

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