In his autobiography, Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, Hans J. Massaquoi gives us a detailed, first-hand account of growing up amidst daunting adversity.
Massaquoi was born in 1926 in Hamburg, Germany to a German nurse and an African diplomat’s son. He grew up an ordinary German boy, speaking Platt (Low German), wearing knickers, and, apart from the occasional taunt or curious stare, engaging in the same daily routines as his friends and schoolmates. He felt privileged to grow up in Germany, especially in Hamburg, “blessed with the most beautiful, the most exciting, and the most desirable hometown on the face of the earth.”
At first, Hitler’s arrival on Germany’s political scene was an exciting experience for the little boy everyone called Hans-Juergen. He admired the polished ranks of the SA and envied his friends who joined the Hitler Youth movement. In school, he and the other children were taught to revere the “Fuehrer.” Hans-Juergen was so enthralled that he asked his Tante (Aunt) Moeller to sew a swastika on his knit sweater.
Gradually, things turned for the worse. Massaquoi recounts how a sign suddenly barred him, an Afro-German child, from entering the playground. He was shocked and surprised to learn that one of his friends, Klaus, was Jewish and that he had to avoid any contact with him. (Klaus and his family committed suicide during the Kristallnacht riots of 1938.) His mother lost her job; Rassenschande was the reason. In school, Hans-Juergen routinely endured snide remarks and a barrage of the derogatory words, including Neger (Negro) and Mischling (mixed breed). As a “non-Aryan” Hans-Juergen was also barred from continuing high school and had to opt for vocational school instead.
This “all-out psychological warfare” took its toll. He started to loathe his African hair and blamed himself for his appearance. Still, he persevered, aided by the unfailing guidance and optimism of his mother and the support of a few friends and teachers. Reading became his survival tool, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens his new heroes. He attended dance school and came to represent the antithesis of a Hitler Youth -- a so-called “swingboy.” Due to his racial background, he was deemed unfit for military service, and Massaquoi and his mother were evacuated from Hamburg to the countryside after surviving some two hundred air attacks. There, Massaquoi witnessed prisoner convoys passing through the village on the way to the concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau.
His survival is a story of surprising contradictions: the NSDAP member who rescued him from an assault by Hitler Youths; the colleague who first criticized the Nazis and then accused Massaquoi of high treason. Growing up, he never knew who was friend or foe, and he survived day-to-day. Finally, in 1948 he left Germany for Liberia and later immigrated to the United States. Today, he lives in New Orleans, a retired managing editor of Ebony magazine.
Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany includes a prologue by the author and numerous photographs.
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