Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany

Overview

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 ...

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Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black In Nazi Germany

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

New Orleans Times-Picayune
A cry against racism, a survivor's tale, a wartime adventure, a coming of age story, and a powerful tribute to a mother's love.
Chicago Sun Times
An incredible tale...Exceptional...It is reviving and heartening to learn of this intrepid black child and young man who through a combination of guts, smarts, and a really good mother, manages to waltz through the darkest abyss of the 20th century and come out whistling.
Washington Times D.C.
His story is truly a fascinating one, and in this absorbing memoir, he tells it with vividness and considerable verve. Written with clarity, directiveness, and sharply evocative detail, Mr. Massaquoi's book offers a unique perspective on a period of organized madness, destruction, turmoil that continues to demand our attention and evade our comprehension.
New York Times Book Review
Destined to Witness examines a roller coaster of racism from different cultures and continents. Massaquoi concludes that "true human decency is...simply a matter of the human heart.
Jet
Filled with courage, feeling, and intelligence...intriguing.
Miami Herald
Harrowing.
Washington Post Book World
Extraordinary...an entirely engaging story of accomplishment despite adversity.
Emerge
Riveting and unique...An indispensable addition to writing on the Holocaust era.
Ebony
Moving...an engaging story of a young man's journey through hate, self-enlightenment, intrigue and romance.
Kirkus Reviews
Massaquoi, of mixed African-German parentage, came of age in Nazi Germany; he depicts the trauma of his childhood, and his improbable survival of it, in a nuanced, startling memoir. As a small boy, Massaquoi was "fascinated and moved" by Hitler and seduced by Nazi busywork and organized pageantry. Thus he felt exceptionally betrayed upon realizing that there was no place for a "non-Aryan" such as himself in the Reich. Although his devoted mutti protected him fiercely (his father had returned to Liberia), he encountered virulent abuse at school and was dehumanized by the Nuremburg Laws, which essentially barred him from public life, whether from a playground or from the Hitlerjugend, which all his chums joined. Things became much worse during the war years, when, perversely, he repeatedly escaped the worst fate by a hairbreadth. This included nearly being discovered "race mixing" by the SS and surviving the protracted fire bombing that leveled his beloved Hamburg. Massaquoi's unique, pathos-filled childhood in extremis is rendered superlatively, as is his portrait of a prewar Germany giddily embarked on its own destruction; he keenly perceives both the nefarious ambiguity and the human tragedy inherent in this civic embrace of evil. Also, his depiction of postwar anguish, and his own emergence as a hipster black-marketer befriended by cynical, reefer-smoking black GIs among whom he was thrilled to "pass," is highly engaging. Less so, however, are the instances when his narrative turns "soft" or vaguely contemplative; the interesting tale of his eventual repatriation to Liberia to meet his volatile, powerful father is necessarily less profound than earlier chapters. Massaquoi laterimmigrated to the US; a journalist, he was managing editor of Ebony magazine. Although the bizarre singularity of the child Massaquoi's plight is central to the work, it is the journalist Massaquoi's close eye for the subtleties of personal and social behavior, as well as a rather daring digressive structural and prose style, that makes this unusual tale both substantiative and memorable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060959616
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Series: Harper Perennial Series
  • Edition description: 1st Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 210,275
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

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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Read an Excerpt

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.

Momolu Massaquoi

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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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2006

    Look at life in Germany during Nazi years

    This was a fascinating book. I could not put it down. I found what was most intresting was not so much that he was a black kid growing up in Germany, but his depiction of daily life in Germany at that time, and the perspective on the Nazi regime. Despite Hitler's message of hate, there were Germans who decided not to take the path of hate of fellow human beings. This book gives another historical perspective at the time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2009

    A remarkable human interest story.

    This story was important to me because I was in the US Army with Hans back in the 1950's. He was a fine gentleman and a good soldier who came back to the states and worked hard.

    His story is true and once you start reading it you cannot put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2007

    A must read

    This book is excellent. The author's experiences of living in Nazi Germany are very captivating. This book is a real page turner!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2006

    Fantastic Book!

    This is a remarkable book! It kept me interested and helped me to gain a new perspective on Nazi Germany through the eyes of a non- aryan who wasn't jewish. It is a coming of age story and the author does a great job of depicting what life was like in Nazi Germany. It examines racism in a place other than America which I think most people are oblivious to. All in all Destined to Witness is a great book and I recommend it to everyone!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2000

    A negro in Hamburg?

    I couldn't put this book down - I also grew up in Nazi Germany as a Mischling. However, I was a juedischer Mischling and so had a lot of friends with the same problem. The author not only didn't have anybody in the same situation but was recognizable as a black child. I had never seen a negro until the US Army came to Berlin, much less a negro child. That neither he nor his courageous mother became bitter is amazing. The background of being excluded, the bombs falling, the hunger after the war etc. brought back my own years in Germany, but his is a very special and unusual biography. Although I am a few years his senior, I can so well identify with his childhood and the war and post-war years. I recommend this book to all my friends....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2000

    The Most Facinating Book I've Ever Read!!

    This book was excelent. I could hardly put it down. Although it is long, it keeps you interested and the story of Hanz's life is better than any other autobiography I have ever read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2000

    Interesting Reading

    The book is an interesting look at Nazi Germany from the eyes of a representative of a class of non-Aryan that had probably never been considered previously. But, I found the title to be a bit misleading as it is more the author's memoirs of coming of age, than it is a detailed story of survival by an 'enemy' of one of the most racist and brutal political parties in recorded history. All in all a good read, but not exactly what I was hoping for.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2012

    This is a rare story about a black child that was raised in Nazi

    This is a rare story about a black child that was raised in Nazi Germany. His grandfather Momolu Massaquoi was a tribal king of the Vai tribe in Liberia and his son Al-Haj Massaquoi was a prince in training. They were having a meeting with President Friedrich Ebert a representative of Germany ' s first postwar government. Then his grandfather was chosen to go to Germany to further discuss better diplimatic relationship with Germany. Then they had a party one day at the villa and Momolu ' s son Al-Haj was also at the party in Germany and he made out with Bertha a German nurse and had a baby with her. Bertha named her son Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi. So Hans was born on January 19, 1926 in Hamburg, Germany. That is the story of how he came to be raised in Nazi Germany. At first he didn 't have any friends because the other children were always calling him Negro Negro Chimney sweeper. Then as the book goes on he starts to gain friends like Klaus who stood up for him on one occasion. My first favorite part of the book was when he went to the Hagenbecks Zoo to see the Africans on Display which upset his mother to see people on display in a zoo. My second favorite part was when in Liberia somebody burnt a tent down and they were using something called juju to find out who did it. They would find out who did it by lighting a saber on fire and then they would touch it to the persons skin if they were unharmed by the saber that meant the person was innocent. But if they were harmed by the blade that meant they were guilty. Then he went to Liberia to meet his father. Then eventually went to America on a student visa and ended up serving in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Korean War. Then he participated in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s where he met different historical figures like Jesse Owens, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, the reverend Jesse Jackson, and Malcolm X just to name a few. Then eventually he became the editor or of a black news magazine titled Ebony.

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  • Posted March 30, 2011

    great story

    What an amazing life!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2000

    Informative and interesting

    It is great to gain another prespective of Nazi Germany and who were also affected by the politics of Adolph Hilter after WWI. The book brought a full picture of what was occuring socially for black people who lived in Nazi Germany as well as in Europe and their connection to Africa and the United States. His experience with racism on the other side of the globe as a black child paralleled to the racism exercised in America that many people know nothing about. He has connected historical events that very often go uncounted for to the larger more well studied parts of history and makes these lesser known accounts just as important.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2000

    SURVIVING NAZI GERMANY AS A MINORITY

    EXCELLENT READING,CANNOT NOT PUT IT DOWN. THE AUTHOR PAINTS AN INTERESTING PICTURE OF WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE IN NAZI GERMANY BEING A MINORITY AND SURVIVE.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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