Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany-Hans J. Massaquoi
On January 19, 2013, Hans J. Massaquoi, the former editor of Ebony magazine and writer for Jet magazine, died at his home in Jacksonville, Florida at the age of 87. Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1926, the late Massaquoi is famously remembered for this critically acclaimed autobiography recounting his memories of his childhood in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi controlled Germany. The result of the union between a German mother and Liberian father, the young boy grows up in a tyrannical web of racial discrimination and systematic extermination of the members of society considered to be undesirable. This is his story and the memories he shares are vivid, shocking and ultimately tragic. Germany has come a long way since World War II. And although it still struggles with right-wing Neo-Nazi extremist groups, the days of the Third Reich are long gone. But as Massaquoi shows us, there was a time where hate and racial ideology ruled society and made life for any non-Aryan, a living nightmare composed of daily humiliation and suffering.
Massaquoi begins by tracing his heritage on both sides of his family before he enters the world in January, 1926. As a kid, he has German friends, classmates and relatives whom he greatly adores. But as Adolf Hitler becomes Reichskanzler in 1933 and the Nazi regime places Germany in a stranglehold, he finds himself labeled as an outcast and is faced with daily reminders of the prevailing myth of Aryan supremacy. His memories are sometimes heartbreaking and for most kids today, his experiences will seem surreal. But under the Third Reich, there was nothing surreal about it, it was his daily reality. His childhood is composed of a mix of characters,from fanatical Nazis, love interests, American G.I.s and others, some of who were stringent proponents of racial equality. And as the war rages, he continues to grow up without a present male figure but under the tutelage and wisdom of his mother who served as his protector and guide in the only ways she knew how.
Lon before the surrender of Berlin, many Germans knew the war would end in defeat and never-ending embarrassment and prosecution of those responsible for the war and the murder of millions of Jews. As the allies came closer to victory and nearly obliterated Germany with air raids, the Nazi infrastructure began to collapse and after Hitler’s demise and the liberation of Berlin, many Germans breathed a sigh of relief, including Hans and his mother. But his story doesn’t end there, in fact, it is there that is picks up even more speed and we follow him as he befriends American troops while boarding American ships and even becomes an unofficial entrepreneur as he hustles on the street.
Unsatisfied with life in post-war Germany, Hans makes his move, first to Liberia, where his father re-enters the story and finally, to the United States of America where he would live out the rest of his life. Serving in the military, majoring in journalism and becoming a husband and father, Massaquoi achieves what is considered to be the American dream. He made a return to Germany to see his homeland after 18 years and the emotions he goes through reinforce the notion that no matter where we go in life, our home will always be where we trace our beginnings. For many like Massaquoi, it’s bitter-sweet in that the very placed he called home, almost caused his extinction. This memoir pulls at our moral compass forcing us to confront our own prejudices and reminds us that less than 100 years ago, a brutal tyrant and a racist regime nearly conquered Europe and threatened the safety of the Western Hemisphere. And as Hans points out, there were so very few black people in Germany that they were disregarded on most occasions leaving them destined to witness.