Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany

Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany

by Hans Massaquoi

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A great deal of Holocaust survival stories revolve around disguise--many Jews were forced into impersonation by the desperateness of their plight. Imagine if a person, by the accident of birth, was deigned a target of Nazi hatred but hadn't an option of disguise. The son of a well-to-do African and a white German nurse, Hans lived a privileged toddler's life…  See more details below


A great deal of Holocaust survival stories revolve around disguise--many Jews were forced into impersonation by the desperateness of their plight. Imagine if a person, by the accident of birth, was deigned a target of Nazi hatred but hadn't an option of disguise. The son of a well-to-do African and a white German nurse, Hans lived a privileged toddler's life befitting the grandson of a diplomat. Concern for Hans's frail health caused his mother to remain with him in Germany when his grandfather and father were compelled to return to Liberia. He and his mother become part of Hamburg's poor working class, forced to live in a cramped attic apartment without hot water and electricity. But their change in social status was to be only the beginning of their hardships. For twelve agonizing years following Hitler's rise to power, Hans, like all non-Aryans, was dehumanized and devalued by the Nazis. Living in constant fear of death, by either the Gestapo executioners or Allied bombs, Hans's existence became increasingly precarious until liberation by British troops in 1945. What sets Hans's story apart from other memoirs of the Holocaust era is that his high visibility made him an easily recognizable target, stranded without the comfort of a racial community of any sort. Destined to Witness is a memoir filled with courage, feeling, and intelligence that will touch readers everywhere.

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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.
Filled with courage, feeling, and intelligence...intriguing.
Miami Herald
Washington Post Book World entirely engaging story of accomplishment despite adversity.
Riveting and unique...An indispensable addition to writing on the Holocaust era.
Ebony 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

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.41(d)

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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What People are saying about this

Studs Terkel
The most non-Aryan of our species, a black kid, as actor-witness, observes the daily behavior of Hitler's ordinary Germans. Hans Massaquoi, Hamburg born, offers a growing-up memoir that is revelatory as well as unique. It is natural, yet astonishing.
Maya Angelou
To say that Hans Massaquoi had it all, is not to say only that he had Black skin, in Germany, where and when White skin and Aryan blood were revered nor to suggest that he lived without money when only money could have saved him and his mother from the degradation of racial hate and deprivation. Massaquoi, indeed, did have it all, keen observation, an important intelligence and a remarkable memory. Here is a story rarely lived and even more rarely told. We need this book for a balanced picture of the Holocaust, which was not only a Jewish thing. Hate is hate, it knows no color, and knows all colors all too well.

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