Massaquoi, Hans J. 1926–
Hans J. Massaquoi 1926–
Hans J. Massaquoi’s 1999 memoir, Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, recounts his difficult, sometimes desperate life as a child and teen during a murderous time in modern history. It is thought to be the sole biography of the Nazi era from a black viewpoint. The work earned positive reviews for Massaquoi’s style, for the longtime journalist used his memories to chronicle the Nazi era, which began in the 1930s when National Socialist Party leader Adolf Hitler took control of Germany and soon put in motion a plan to dominate Europe. That plan also included the elimination of all Jews, and other segments of the European populace-such as Romany and gays-were also targeted for death. Massaquoi’s account of life as a minority during this time, and his emergence relatively unscathed, was so gripping that film rights for Destined to Witness were soon sold.
Massaquoi was born prematurely in 1926 in the thriving, cosmopolitan port city of Hamburg. His grandfather had been a tribal king in Liberia, the West African nation created as a haven for freed American slaves in 1821. In the 1920s, the grandfather served as Liberia’s first consul general in Germany and as a royal member of the diplomatic corps lived in a lavish villa where German servants tended to the family. His son—Massaquoi’s father—enjoyed an extravagant, somewhat indolent lifestyle, and became involved with a German nurse named Bertha Baetz. The two did not marry, even when Baetz became pregnant with Massaquoi.
In 1930, political turmoil erupted in Liberia when it was revealed that the government had been involved in the slave trade. The regime dissolved, and Massaquoi’s grandfather was recalled to Monrovia, the capital. Massaquoi’s father decided to return as well, but Baetz refused to go, arguing that a doctor had deemed their four-year-old son’s health too weak to withstand the rigors of the African climate. She was left to support herself and the boy in Hamburg and returned to work as a nurse. Mother and son also moved out the villa and into a rough, working-class section of the city, where pitched street brawls between Communists and Nazis had begun to take place.
As a little boy at school, Massaquoi was often teased because of his skin color. Classmates shouted, “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger!” (“Negro, Negro, chimney sweep!”). Nevertheless, he made many friends. He believed that he was the sole black person in the city, though there were German children of African soldiers who served in the colonial regiments of France and Belgium that occupied the Rhineland after World War I. When Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in January of 1933, Massaquoi, like many other youngsters, was entranced by the uniformed, goose-stepping marchers and their promise of military might. In Destined to Witness, Massaquoi recalled the first time that Hitler’s motorcade came to Hamburg, and the thrill that he experienced watching the new “Führer” roll past.
At a Glance…
Born Hans Jurgen Massaquoi on January 19, 1926, in Hamburg, Germany; son of Al-Haj Massaquoi (a businessman) and Bertha Baetz (a nurse); married Joan DeBerry, October 20, 1956 (divorced, 1971); married Katherine; children: Steve, Hans. Education: University of Illinois, B.S., 1957; attended graduate school, Northwestern University, 1957-58. Military Service: U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division, 1951-53; served as paratrooper.
Career: Played saxophone in jazz clubs in Hamburg, mid-1940s; British Military Government, Hamburg, Germany, interpreter, 1945-48; National Association of Educational Broadcasters, Urbana, IL, editor, 1956-57; Jet magazine, Chicago, IL., associate editor, 1957-58; Ebony magazine, Chicago, associate editor, 1958-64, assistant managing editor, 1964-67, managing editor, 1967-.
Awards: Overseas Press Club of America citation, 1975, for coverage of Heads of Government Conference in Kingston, Jamaica.
Massaquoi’s mother was less optimistic about the Nazis. Massaquoi once asked his babysitter to sew a Nazi swastika patch onto his sweater, as some of his second-grade classmates wore. His mother discovered the insignia and removed it a day later, but not before a school picture was taken that day. The image became the photograph for the dust jacket of Destined to Witness. In it, Massaquoi recalls his fascination with the Hitler Youth organization, the Nazi version of the Boy Scouts whose covert aim was to prepare German males to fight for their country. “Of course, I wanted to join,” he told Contra Costa Times writer F. N. D’Alessio. “I was a kid and most of my friends were joining. They had cool uniforms and they did exciting things [like] camping, parades, playing drums.”
Massaquoi’s later career as a journalist lent his memoir added insight about the political climate of the Nazi era and its effect on ordinary citizens. As he said in another interview, this one with the British Independent newspaper, indoctrination at school and from the media played some role in the fervor that he and his peers felt. “Hitler was praised day after day as the saviour of Germany, who would bring new respect to our country that had been torn down by the Allies,” Massaquoi asserted. “We went for that and I was no exception. It had very little to do with ideology. Most of us didn’t know what National Socialism meant or what it stood for.”
Hitler led Germany into a disastrous war of aggression, which drew the United States and the Soviet Union into an alliance with Britain to fight it. Though Massaquoi’s mother lost her job because she had a black son, Massaquoi passed his teen years rather uneventfully despite the war. He even sneaked about with a German girlfriend and suffered relatively few racist incidents in a country where being a non-Aryan-that is, not descended from the government-decreed blond, blue-eyed Nordic ideal-put one’s life at risk. In addition to sending six million of Europe’s Jews to their deaths, Nazi Germany also planned to eliminate the Romany populace and enslave Eastern Europe’s Slavs as menial laborers. Occasionally, someone made an unkind comment to Massaquoi. A teacher at his school, who proudly wore his Nazi uniform daily, once took Massaquoi aside and told him: “Let me tell you something, man. Don’t feel so smug because after we have finished with the Jews, people like you will be next. That’s all I have to say. Heil Hitler!”
But Nazi Germany’s increasingly strict laws and its involvement in a war on two fronts made German daily life more difficult as the 1940s advanced. Food became scarcer, and Massaquoi boxed to earn extra money, though he was forbidden by law to take on Aryan opponents in the ring. He followed the careers of African-American sports heroes, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, and resolved to one day emigrate to America. Destined to Witness recounted the author’s shock of learning that one of his Jewish friends died, after the father gave his entire family a lethal dose of drugs to spare them deportation to the concentration camps in the East. Massaquoi was never deported himself, he theorized in the Independent interview, simply because he was more of a rarity than a threat. “Unlike Jews, blacks were so few in numbers that they were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis’ line-up for extermination,” Massaquoi said.
Destined to Witness won praise from critics for detailing the war’s terrors and hardships for ordinary Germans. Massaquoi writes of Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing campaign to destroy Hamburg in the summer of 1943 and of the food shortages that worsened as the war drew to a disastrous close. He also revealed the kindnesses of German neighbors and friends who helped him and his mother survive during these difficult months. At one point, Massaquoi even attempted to join Germany Army himself after recognizing that he was the only young man left in his neighborhood who did not wear a uniform. “This Lieutenant Colonel bawled me out saying how dare I even presume to ask,” Massaquoi recounted in the Independent interview. “So that did it for me. That was the real turning point. By then, I had got all the Nazi stuff out of my head, and it was the final insult.”
In his late teens by the final years of the war, Massaquoi became a fan of American swing music, which had been officially discouraged by Nazis as “black music.” When the war ended in May of 1945, Hamburg was occupied by British troops, and Massaquoi found his first job, working as an interpreter. “For the first time in years,” Massaquoi wrote in Destined to Witness, “I felt totally free of the paralysing fear that my pride had never permitted me to admit to anyone, least to myself, but that had stalked me relentlessly by day and by night….it was the fear of being humiliated. Of being made to feel that I was less a human being. Less a man than the people in whose midst I lived. Suddenly, the fear was lifted from me.”
Massaquoi spent the post-war months playing saxophone in Hamburg jazz clubs whose clientele were largely U.S. Merchant Marines, and he befriended African Americans among them, who, fascinated by his remarkable story, helped him out by passing along cartons of cigarettes, which Massaquoi then sold on the black market. He left Germany in 1948 for Liberia and lived with his father’s family for a time. Dissatisfied with the black-on-black racism he found there—Liberia’s descendants of the founding American slaves discriminated against the indigenous population—he applied for and obtained a student visa for the United States. He enrolled in an aviation mechanics school in Chicago, but when the Korean War erupted in 1951, Massaquoi received a draft notice, despite his alien status. Recognizing that military service would help him obtain full citizenship later, he volunteered and was posted to the elite 82nd Airborne Division. He never saw combat action but spent his tour of duty in the American South of the pre-civil rights era, which seemed dangerous enough to him. “Even at its worst, the American version of racism seemed much more endurable than the Nazism I had already experienced,” Massaquoi told D’Alessio in the Contra Costa Times. “In Germany, I was isolated. I was the only one.”
Massaquoi did become a citizen and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1957. During his college years, he worked for National Association of Educational Broadcasters in Urbana, Illinois, as editor for a year, and was hired by Jet magazine in Chicago as an associate editor. In 1957, he began at Ebony magazine, also located in Chicago, as an associate editor. He advanced to managing editor in 1967 and spent the rest of his career there. The magazine was a staple in African-American households and enjoyed a position of great esteem. As managing editor, Massaquoi met many of the world’s most prominent blacks leaders, from African heads of state to American civil rights heroes. He interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Elijah Muhammad, among many others, but later said that during his career he met only two other blacks who had lived in Nazi Germany. “There weren’t many to begin with, and most probably died in the [concentration] camps,” he told D’Alessio.
Massaquoi’s unusual experiences brought him to the attention of writer Studs Terkel, who interviewed him for a 1984 book, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. After retiring from Ebony in 1997, Massaquoi decided to commit his experiences to paper. His manuscript was acquired by William Morrow and published to overwhelmingly positive reviews in 1999. Booklist’s Donna Seaman called it “a rare and arresting memoir,” while another critic for the same publication, Vanessa Bush, also praised it: “Massaquoi’s background and experiences provide incredible context to this personal story of overcoming racism.” Writing in Library Journal, Frederic Krome conceded that though there likely were blacks and other minorities who experienced the terrors of Nazi Germany, not all of them trod “the path [Massaquoi] did, and probably few could write about it with such force.” The author’s long career as a journalist lent his writing a distinct verve, other critics noted. “Often writers are criticized for whipping up a book that could have been pared down to an essay. No one will make this claim about Massaquoi,” remarked Denver Post writer Janet Singleton, who concluded that Massaquoi “writes like a journalist, never a novelist, so the book isn’t as smooth as some fiction. But going into exhaustive detail makes sense here.”
Surprisingly, the work even sold well in Germany. The translated edition was titled, after a degree of soul-searching on Massaquoi’s part, Neger, Neger, Schorn-steinfeger! After appearing on German bestseller lists in 2000, the book was even added to the curriculum of some schools. “I had expected some interest there, but this has surpassed all my expectations,” Massaquoi told D’Alessio in the Contra Costa Times interview. “I think the Germans want to get some closure about those years.” He also theorized in the Independent about why the work may have struck such a chord. “Germans are tired of being told that they were bad,” Massaquoi said. “Many of them were, of course, but my book shows them that there was a balance. I met Nazis who had a good side to them.” He began receiving mailbags of letters from Germans, many of them from people around his own age.
American actress and producer Whoopi Goldberg acquired the film rights to Destined to Witness in the spring of 2001. “I’m desperately walking this piece around right now, but to be honest with you, Hollywood is scared of it,” she told Jet. “All I can do is hope and pray someone steps up and lets me do it.” Massaquoi hoped that Denzel Washington might be cast in the film to play him as an adult. The retiree lived in New Orleans, where he continued to receive letters from readers. He agreed that his memoir was a unique perspective on a terrible period in history, but one whose true atrocities were spared him and his family. “I probably would have taken a much more severe view of the whole situation had my mother been dragged into a concentration camp, or if my sister had been killed, or I had spent any time in a concentration camp,” he concluded in the Independent interview. “I probably would not have been quite as magnanimous as I have become towards the Germans. I grew up and I learned-and this is one lesson I came away with—that not all Germans are bad,’ Destined to Witness was dedicated to Bertha Baetz, who followed her son to the United States and died in 1986.
Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, Morrow, 1999.
Booklist, October 1, 1999, p. 341; July 2000, p. 1995.
Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), August 27, 2000, p. C12.
Ebony, November 1999, p. 18.
Independent (London, England), July 8, 2001, p. 24.
Jet, December 6, 1999, p. 23; April 23, 2001, p. 64.
Library Journal, October 1, 1999, p. 104.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1999, p. 47.
More From encyclopedia.com
Heinrich Himmler , Himmler, Heinrich BORN: October 7, 1900 • Munich, Germany German administrator, military commander German military commander Heinrich Himmler became… Adolf Hitler , Hitler, Adolf Hitler, Adolf 1889-1945 As the leader of Germany’s Third Reich in the 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler developed a totalitarian fascist st… Reinhard Heydrich , Reinhard Heydrich Known as "The Hangman" and "The Blond Beast," Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was the chief lieutenant of the German secret police du… Vidkun Quisling , Vidkin Quisling Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945) served as the prime minister of Norway during the German occupation, from 1940 to 1945. He collaborated w… Albert Speer , Albert Speer Albert Speer Albert Speer (1905-1081) may have known of the atrocities committed in Germany during the Nazi era, but claimed he did not.… Appeasement , appeasement is generally used to describe the policy towards Nazi Germany pursued by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain between 1937 and 1939, and ha…
About this article
Massaquoi, Hans J. 1926–
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article
You Might Also Like
Massaquoi, Hans J. 1926–