Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germanyby Hans J. Massaquoi
This is a story of the unexpected.In Destined to Witness, Hans Massaquoi has crafted a beautifully rendered memoir -- an astonishing true tale of how he came of age as a black child in Nazi Germany. The son of a prominent African and a German nurse, Hans remained behind with his mother when Hitler came to power, due to concerns about his fragile health,/em>
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This is a story of the unexpected.In Destined to Witness, Hans Massaquoi has crafted a beautifully rendered memoir -- an astonishing true tale of how he came of age as a black child in Nazi Germany. The son of a prominent African and a German nurse, Hans remained behind with his mother when Hitler came to power, due to concerns about his fragile health, after his father returned to Liberia. Like other German boys, Hans went to school; like other German boys, he swiftly fell under the Fuhrer's spell. So he was crushed to learn that, as a black child, he was ineligible for the Hitler Youth. His path to a secondary education and an eventual profession was blocked. He now lived in fear that, at any moment, he might hear the Gestapo banging on the door -- or Allied bombs falling on his home. Ironic,, moving, and deeply human, Massaquoi's account of this lonely struggle for survival brims with courage and intelligence.
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One beautiful summer morning in 1934, I arrived at school to hear our third-grade teacher, Herr Grimmelshauser, inform the class that Herr Wriede, our Schulleiter (principal), had ordered the entire student body and faculty to assemble in the schoolyard. There, dressed as he often was on special occasions in his brown Nazi uniform, Herr Wriede announced that "the biggest moment of [our] young lives" was imminent, that fate had chosen us to be among the lucky ones privileged to behold "our beloved fuhrer Adolf Hitler" with our own eyes. It was a privilege for which, he assured us, our yet-to-be-born children and children's children would one day envy us. At the time I was eight years old and it had not yet dawned on me that of the nearly six hundred boys assembled in the schoolyard, the only pupil Herr Wriede was not addressing was me.
Taking Wriede at his word, the entire school soon buzzed with anticipation of this rare, totally unexpected treat of a virtually school--free day. We had all been thoroughly indoctrinated in the Fuhrer's heroic rise to power and his superhuman efforts to free Germany from the enslavement endured since its defeat in World War I and to restore its old glory and preeminence. Already we had come to feel the Fuhrer's omnipresence. His likenesses appeared everywhere--throughout the school, in public buildings of the city, on posters and postage stamps, in newspapers and magazines. Even more vivid were his by now familiar voice on radio and his compelling appearances in the weekly newsreels at the neighborhood cinema. Now we would get a chance to see with our own eyes this legendary savior and benefactor of the Vaterland To most of thestudents, myself included, the thrills in score for us seemed beyond our ability to comprehend.
Buoyed by our enthusiasm and flanked by our teachers, we marched for nearly an hour to apoint along Alsterkrugchaus- see, a major thoroughfare leading to Hamburg's airport in suburban Fuhlsbuttel. The entire route from the airport to Hamburgs venerable Rathaus downtown, which the Fuhrer's fleet of cars was scheduled to travel, was lined with thousands of nearly hysterical people. They were kept from spilling into the street by stern brownshirts who, with clasped hands, formed an endless human chain. Seated along the curb behind the SS and SA troopers, we children endured an agonizing wait that dragged on for several hours. But just as our strained patience was reaching the breaking point, the roar of the crowds began to swell to a deafening crescendo. A nearby 55 marching band intoned the opening fanfares of the "Badenweiler Marsch," a Hitler favorite designated as the official signal of the Fuhrer's arrival. The moment everyone had been waiting for was here. Standing erect beside the driver of his black Mercedes convertible, his right arm outstretched in the familiar Nazi salute. the Fiihrer rolled past at a brisk walking pace, his eyes staring expressionlessly ahead.
The "biggest moment in our lives" for which Principal Wriede had prepared us had lasted only a few seconds, but to me they seemed like an eternity. There I was, a kinky-haired, brown-skinned eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blond and blue-eyed kids, filled with childlike patriotism, still shielded by blissful ignorance. Like everyone around me, I cheered the man whose every waking hour was dedicated to the destruction of "inferior non-Aryan people" like myself, the same man who only a few years later would lead his own nation to the greatest catastrophe in its long history and bring the world to the brink of destruction.
The story of how I became part of that fanatically cheering crowd did not begin on January 19, 1926, the day of my birth. Neither did it begin, as one might suspect,in Hamburg, the city of my birth. Instead, it began five years earlier, more than three thousand miles away in the West African capital city of Monrovia, Liberia, with the shrewd decision of a president to rid himself of a potential political rival, Momolu Massaquoi, my paternal grandfather-to-be.
Charles Dunbar King, the fourteenth president of Liberia, had for some time considered the rising popularity of the ambitious Massaquoi as potentially dangerous. The American-educated Massaquoi had been the hereditary ruler of the indigenous Vai nation, which straddled Liberia and the adjacent British colony of Sierra Leone. At age thirty after having been forced in a tribal dispute to abdicate the crown he had inherited upon the death of his parents, King Lahai and Queen Sandimannie, and that he had worn for ten years as Momolu IV, he had sought his fortune in Monrovian politics. He helped his cause immensely by divesting himself of five tribal wives and marrying a young beauty, Rachel Johnson, who--by a fortuitous coincidence--happened to be the politically and financially well-connected granddaughter of Hilary W.R. Johnson, the country's first Liberian-born president. The marriage proved gratifying not only to Massaquoi's boundless appreciation for feminine beauty, but to his ambitions, for it gave him something without which no one in Liberia could hope to succeed in politics--social acceptance by the country's "America-Liberian" ruling class. ("America-Liberian" was the name favored by the descendants of American slaves who had founded the republic in 1847 before setting up a rigid caste system designed to keep the indigenous population in a perpetual state of political and economic impotence.)
Aided by his political savvy, charm, and rugged good looks, Massaquoi quickly advanced with a number of appointments to important government posts, including Secretary of the Interior, charged with the responsibilities of bringing tribal chiefs and the Liberian government closer together, investigating tribal grievances, and settling intertribal disputes. With broad popular support from his adopted Americo-Liberian class as well as his tribal people in the hinterland, the aristocratic Massaquoi became a political power to reckon with. He also became the subject of whispers in high political circles that touted him as the next occupant of the Executive Mansion. Some of these whispers reached President King, who decided that it was high time to put an end to them. The question was how? Before long, he would have his answer.
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Hans J. Massaquoi emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s. He served in the U.S. Army and then became a journalist for Johnson Publishing, where he was managing editor of Ebony magazine. He was an active participant in the civil rights movement. The father of two sons, Hans lives with his wife, Katherine, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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