Drama about Nazi-era black German airs on TV
The remarkable life story of Hans J Massaquoi, who grew up as a black German during the Nazi period, is being dramatised on German television. Ernest Gill reports.
As Allied bombs rained down on the port city of Hamburg in 1943, a German woman and her 12-year-old son raced to an air raid shelter. But the uniformed guard at the entrance took one look at them and slammed the door in their faces.
Though the boy was a German, he was also black.
That incident is part of the remarkable life of Hans J Massaquoi, whose life story is being brought to television in a precedent- setting two-part docu-drama to be aired on primetime television in Germany.
Massaquoi, now 79 and living in the United States, has become a celebrity late in life in his native country. His memoirs, entitled "Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany," became a best-seller nationwide when they were published five years ago.
Now the TV docu-drama is introducing the former managing editor of Ebony magazine to a broader audience in the tens of millions.
Most Germans are familiar with the book's cover photo, a real-life snapshot taken when Massaquoi was a schoolboy in Hamburg in the 1930s. It shows a sweet-faced black boy wearing a swastika badge over his heart and standing among blond Aryan classmates.
Massaquoi is greyer now, but still has the same sweet face and enquiring eyes that make the book cover photograph so intriguing.
"This is my home," he tells interviewers. "For better or worse, it is my childhood home and I can't help feeling at home here, even though I have made my adult home in America for nearly 60 years."
It was a shock to visit the set where his own life story was being produced for television.
"My whole life I have tried to put my dark past behind me," he says. "But this television production has confronted me with unsettling memories of my childhood in Nazi Germany in 1935 that I had thought I had come to terms with."
His eyes turn sad as he adds, "A lot of those memories that have come flooding back are incredibly sad."
Grandson of the Liberian consul general to Hamburg, Massaquoi was born in 1926 to a well-to-do African father and a German mother. His early life was one of privilege, befitting the grandson of a diplomat.
*quote1*"I associated black skin with superiority, since our servants were white," says Massaquoi. "My grandfather was 'the man'," he jokes.
His circumstances changed dramatically when his father and grandfather returned to Liberia in 1929. Refusing to expose her sickly son to a tropical climate, his mother chose instead to raise her son in Germany as best she could on her meagre wages as a nurse's aide. Suddenly he was not something special, he was something strange.
"It was a constant problem," he recalls. "I was always pointed at because of my exotic looks. I just wanted to be like everyone else." Like other boys, he wanted nothing more than to join the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth Movement).
"The Nazis put on the best show of all the political parties. There were parades, fireworks and uniforms - these were the devices by which Hitler won over young people to his ideas. Hitler always boasted that despite parents' political persuasion, Germany's youth belonged to him."
Massaquoi was dealt a crushing blow when he learned that the Hitlerjugend as well as the local playground were not open to "non-Aryans."
*quote2*Two events that occurred during the summer of 1936 gave him "a genuine pride in my African heritage at a time when such pride was extremely difficult to come by."
Two young black American athletes, boxer Joe Louis and Olympic runner Jesse Owens, dominated the news. Massaquoi initially supported Germany's Max Schmeling, who was scheduled to fight Louis, but quickly switched his allegiance to "the Brown Bomber" in the wake of racist remarks attributed to Schmeling.
"I think I was more crushed than Louis when he lost to Schmeling," he remembers fondly. In a rematch several months later, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round.
Massaquoi took similar pride in Jesse Owens' now legendary performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He had the good fortune to be included when the father of one of his classmates took a group of boys to the games.
Years later, while working as a journalist, Massaquoi met Owens and Louis and thanked them "for allowing me to walk a little taller among my peers that summer."
In contrast to German Jews or German Roma, Massaquoi was not persecuted. He was "just" a second-class citizen, which was actually a blessing in disguise. During World War II, his "impurity" spared him from being drafted into the German army.
After the war, he emigrated to the United States, serving two years in the army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He studied journalism at the University of Illinois followed by a career at Jet magazine and then Ebony magazine, where he became managing editor.
Over the years he has visited Germany many times.
"It's always a home-coming for me," says Massaquoi, who makes his home in New Orleans. "You can't believe how happy and proud I am that my story is being done for television. It is so very important for young Germans to understand how precious freedom is."
29 September 2006
Copyright DPA with Expatica
Subject: German news