Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany

By Supriya Savkoor
Photo: Mohsin4376
True story: Hans Massaquoi—the son of a German mother and an African fathercame of age in Germany in the era when Adolph Hitler’s popularity surged, right through World War II (and the ethnic cleansing of “non-Aryans”), and beyond. It's unbelievable that he survived, but he also never saw the inside of any of the concentration camps or gas chambers in which millions of European Jews perished. He, like most of his compatriots, didn’t even know of the existence of these death chambers until after the war.

I was stunned when I first heard about Massaquoi’s truly unique life. It was on the radio during one of my morning commutes back in January and, sadly, the story was actually part of his obituary. He'd died that day, at the ripe old age of 87. His passing marks the end of an era, and yet what a legacy he leaves behind. A full, rich, exceptional life—one I’m surprised that I, and perhaps you as well, had not heard about until now.

As soon as I heard about him, I looked Massaquoi up on the Internet. Turns out he’d written his autobiography in 1999 (and still we hadn’t heard of him?). I convinced my local library to order a copy, though it didn’t take much convincing. Soon, I found myself spellbound as I flew through the book.

Hans's grandfather, Momolo Massaquoi,
had been king of his Vai tribe in Liberia.
Amidst political infighting, he abdicated,
but continued to play an influential role
in Liberian politics and society.
(Photo: Mohsin4376)
Massaquoi was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926. His parents met when his grandfather, a member of African royalty, served as the consul general of Liberia in Germany, bringing over part of his large family. At the time, Hans's father, Al-Haj Massaquoi, was studying in Dublin, occasionally visiting his own father in Hamburg as well as wooing Bertha Baetz. Eventually, Bertha gave birth to Hans, or Hans-Jürgen, as he was named. When Hans was still a toddler, Al-Haj, reportedly quite the ladies’ man (whom Bertha could never get to the altar), left Germany.

Massaquoi’s upbringing in Germany was anything but easy. His loving, devoted mother took up a job as a nurse to support them both, but she was dismissed when Massaquoi was still a child (and, as he found out many years later, because of his race). He grew up way too accustomed to the constant racial taunts from other children—the most common one, which followed him everywhere for years, was Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger (Negro, Negro, chimney sweep)!—as well as the institutionalized racism in Nazi Germany at school and, later, at work. He became accustomed to stares and hearing that he was ugly, often from total strangers. Massaquoi’s stories about the savage cruelty he endured from teachers amd principals, with no recourse, as well as not being allowed to legally date or attend university (despite his ambition, thirst for learning, and impeccable academic record) is at times difficult to read. He learned to hate the way he looked as well as suppress his angst, even with his mother, whom he adored but did not want to hurt.

Still, in his innocence and naivete, the young Massaquoi proudly wore the swastika on his school uniform. He desperately longed to join the Hitler Youth movement along with his classmates and neighborhood friends. He was turned down for being a non-Aryan, of course, but he felt shame rather than anger at not garnering that very overt symbol of acceptance. He had also learned to revere the Führer, love his country, and fear and hate the Jews, right up until adolescence when he realized he was considered one of the "enemy.”

One of the most astounding stories comes early in his autobiography, when a school-age Massaquoi and his mother visit a new “zoo” in Hamburg. To their utter shock, one of the exhibits displays African people, tribals who had been captured, caged, and displayed like dangerous, wild animals. Massaquoi describes not only his shock and his mother’s outrage, but also their utter discomfort when the crowd, both inside and outside the cage, all begin staring at Massaquoi, filling him with bitter shame and contributing to the low self-esteem he continues to feel throughout his early life in Germany.
Later, when Allied bombs rain down on Hamburg during the war years, he and his mother make nightly runs to their nearest bomb shelter, as does everyone else in the city. One of the country’s largest industrial cities, Hamburg was considered crucial to supplying the German military with weapons and other essentials. Eventually, more than 40,000 of its citizens die from these war-time bombings, and Massaquoi constantly wonders how he, of all people, manages to survive.

After the war, Massaquoi works a few grueling years as a factory machinist, then as a jazz musician (at a time when jazz was considered the music of undesirable non-Aryans and thus banned), and finally as a black market smuggler. Obtaining a Liberian passport, he is finally able to leave Germany in the early 1950s. He makes the long journey by ship to Liberia, where he’s reunited with his long-estranged father and begins a new life. 

No spoilers here; you’ll have to read the book to find out about his interesting reunion with Al-Haj as well as the many other members of Hans’s royal family, including a brother he hadn’t known existed and a grandmother who summons him to Lagos, Nigeria. His adventures in Africa are fascinating, including his perceptions about race, ethnicity, family, and his place among it all. His adventures around Liberia range from rubbing elbows with the country’s elite, living for a time in squalor, and visiting rural tribal areas. (Regarding the latter, monkey stew, anyone?)

Somewhere along the way, Massaquoi, along with many young German men he knew, decides he wants to make his way to the United States, where he envisions a promising new life in the land of the free. When he finally arrives in the late 1950s, living on a third continent and the most diverse country of all, he’s stunned to discover not only segregation but another form of institutionalized racism, the hypocritical kind. Again, reunions with his German friends and family, American immigrants like him, prove surprising.

(Photo: Mohsin4376)
Because the numerous pictures in the book make no secret of it, it’s no spoiler to tell you that despite all the hurdles he has to cross, Massaquoi eventually achieves the American dream. He becomes the editor of African-American magazine, Ebony, marries, buys a house in a Chicago suburb, raises two high-achieving kids (one a doctor, another a lawyer), and regularly travels all over the world, interviewing the likes of world leaders and celebrities. (Photos in the book include one of Massaquoi pretend sparring with boxing champ Muhammad Ali and another in which he and his good friend, author Alex Haley, are poring over important-looking papers.) 

Though Massaquoi had always assumed he'd been the only black German during the Nazi era, he later learns there had been at least a few others, all of whom had perished in the concentration camps. On his return to Germany in 1966, two decades after he'd left, he's surprised to discover the country had been rebuilt as though it had never been through the war, was thriving, and had seemingly become as diverse as the United States. There was even a large subculture of mixed-race Germans, the result of American soldiers based in Germany after the war. He also pieces together the fate of friends, family, and nemeses in Germany and Africa from across the years. 

Massaquoi’s book, Destined to Witness, is not particularly prosaic, but it’s spellbinding nonetheless. If you can, get your hands on a copy. And RIP, Hans. You were a truly remarkable man.


  1. Fascinating piece, Supriya. I had never heard of this man. Thanks for sharing his story.

  2. This is fascinating. I had never heard of him either. I will definitely hunt down a copy of his autobiography.

  3. Wow! What a great story! You might be interested to know that Pushkin (the Father of Russian poetry) was part African American...and there is also a book that I just ordered up from the library called "The Black Russian" about an American son of slaves who ends up in Russia as one of the richest business owners in Moscow (until the 1917 Revolution, of course.) Fascinating stuff, thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks, ladies, for your comments. I too still can't get over this little-known story. So fascinating on so many levels. And Kelly, I can't believe I'd never heard this tidbit about Pushkin! You're going to have tell us more about that soon.

  5. Great story Supriya. I'm going to look for his book too.

  6. Thank you, Supriya, I have read this book quite a while ago, it is very popular in Germany and has also been made into quite a successful (German) film under that title. My description of Destined to Witness is already a little older and not as elaborate as yours, still, you might want to have a look.

    Marianne from Let's Read

  7. Thanks, Marianne, and I just learned something new. Any way we can get our hands on that film here, with subtitles? Is it worth seeing? Now that I think of it, I believe Massaquoi included pics in the updated autobiography in which he poses with the young actress playing his mother.

    I read your lovely piece as well, and while it is definitey shorter than mine, as I commented there, you got right at the heart of what makes this book so fascinating. Despite Massaquoi being deemed as one of society's
    "undesirables," he gives a close glimpse into what day-to-day life was like for ordinary Germans and what hardships they had to endure. It's one of the first times I'd read about how citizens living in Hitler's regime felt and thought. I found it startling, for example, that even when young Massaquoi had become jaded with local Nazi leaders, he felt bad that they were misrepresenting Hitler somehow, not able to conceive or believe that these values and beliefs could stem from their great leader himself. Startling and heartbreaking as well.
    Thanks so much for reminding me of this.

  8. You're welcome, Supriya,

    I have just tried to google for the film but couldn't find it with subtitles, but will enquire further. Here is an IMDb link to film, German title Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger. Veronika Ferres, who plays his mother, is a very popular actress in Germany, and Ralph Giardano, the Jewish boy who takes him to the hidden place of his family, is a renowned author.

    As I said on my page, it was lovely "talking" to you.


  9. Thank you, Marianne! Can't wait to check it out.

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  11. Never heard of this story. Thank you so much, Supriya !