Afro-Germans and the Holocaust – 4
“Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger”: A Childhood in Germany
Hans J. Massaquoi’s autobiography was originally written in English and first published in 1999 under the title “Destined to Witness”. The German title is also the name of a good movie with one of our best-known actresses as his mother, and it is much more telling. It is a racist children’s rhyme, a “Schornsteinfeger” being a chimney sweeper. As a boy Hans-Jürgen had to hear it quite often.
The book consists of more than a hundred small chapters with many lively stories and anecdotes in chronological order. Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was born in 1926. His father was a Liberian diplomat, politician, and businessman, whom the child and his German mother did not see very often. But Hans-Jürgen had a close and loving relationship with his grandfather who had once been an African king. His father and his grandfather went back to Liberia and left Hans-Jürgen and his mother behind, shortly before the Nazis came to power.
He says his situation was different from that of the Jews and that of his black brothers and sisters in the US in three major respects: As a black man in Germany he could neither flee nor hide. He also was not used to the survival techniques which blacks as a group had learned from their ancestors; he had to develop his own strategies. He did have his mother’s unconditional love and trust, but not the feeling of security and belonging which a community can give. And of course, Nazi racism was much more radical and institutionalized than racism in the US; it was official and everyone practicing it had the government’s support.
Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi survived the Nazis and the war with luck, his life or at least his liberty was in danger several times. Once he was taken for a shot-down American pilot by people in the street in destroyed Hamburg who were about to lynch him; he was saved by a German policeman. He also survived because not all Germans were Nazis or fellow travelers. Some, not enough to make a major difference, remained decent people in spite of the regime’s pressures. And since there were so few blacks in Germany, the Nazis often did not consider them really relevant or regarded them more as a nuisance.
Even Hans-Jürgen came under the influence of the Nazi propaganda for the young; he strongly wanted to join the Hitlerjugend. Later he tried to get into the Wehrmacht, seeing it as a protection against the SS and as a way to belong and to get accepted. Both rejected him. So when he was drawn into the “Volkssturm”, which drafted old men and boys for the “final battle” in 1945, he knew that Nazi-Germany had lost the war.
After the war, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi lived in Liberia for some time where he met his father again. It was a complicated relationship. In the early 1950s he went to the United States to realize his American dream. In spite of a series of heavy disillusionments, he stayed and became an active participant in the black struggle and a well-known international journalist. Beginning in the 1960s, he would visit Germany regularly. He was surprised that the country had come back on its feet again and that it was so different culturally and mentally. But he was also concerned about the Neo-Nazis. I have thought a lot about one of his closing sentences: If Nazism could come over Germany it could happen anywhere – a very sad compliment in many respects.
(The photo from the cover of the book shows Hans-Jürgen as a schoolboy carrying a button with the swastika.)
- Afro-Germans and the Holocaust
- Afro-Germans and the Holocaust – 3
- Afro-Germans and the Holocaust – 2