When I showed them »Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany«, the moving autobiography of Hans Jürgen Massaquoi, both my wife and daughter immediately asked, »How did he survive?« When I interviewed the former managing editor of Ebony he said: »Everyone's first question always is: How did you survive?«
As a black child in Germany, Massaquoi lived in a time and place where the odds were indeed stacked against his survival. His grandfather was Momolu Massaquoi, king of the Vai people, a tribe in the African republic of Liberia: He went on to become his country's first consul general in Hamburg, Germany. Hans Jürgen's father was Al-Haj Massaquoi, the diplomat's son, who had fallen in love with Bertha Baetz, a nurse from the Harz region of Nothern Germany. Although the young German woman appreciated the sophisticated charm of the well-educated African, the two never married, and when the diplomat returned to Liberia, Bertha stayed behind.
Bertha's decision vastly changed Hans Jürgen's young life. Barely four years old, the little dark-skinned, curly-haired kid and his mother had to move from a villa in one of Hamburg's most prestigious districts to the working class neighborhood of Barmbek, where other kids taunted him by singing »Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger« (»Negro, Negro, chimneysweeper«). »But after people had gotten used to me and my exotic appearance, they treated me as one of their own,« says Massaquoi.
By the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, Hans Jürgen Massaquoi was fairly well integrated in Barmbek, with an elderly neighbor he called »Aunt Möller« taking care of him while Bertha went to work in a hospital. Although he was threatened and bullied many times by some of his teachers, the local Nazis abstained from persecuting this boy who presented such a stark contrast to their racist ideals. But Massaquoi was under no illusion: »Blacks were not too numerous at that time. They did not pose a threat to the Nazi regime, but they would have been exterminated event-ually. The war ended so rapidly that the SS did not get around to killing me.«
That didn't mean life was easy, though: Hans Jürgen had to deal with teachers who held him up as an example of racial inferiority and told him »after we have finished with the Jews, people like you will be next,« as well as living in constant fear everytime he encountered a policeman or dealt with local Nazi officials. The regime lost no opportunity in making Hans Jürgen painfully aware that he was not considered a true German: Although he wanted to join the Hitler Youth and later volunteered for the army after the war started, the Nazis turned him down. Massaquoi says: »I wanted to belong. I had no alternative; I could not say «I'd rather be African?.» So he looked at Hitler as a father figure, as most Germans did in those days.
The war dissolved the social cohesion of Barmbek, as Hans Jürgen's classmates were drafted and heavy bombing in 1943 destroyed his neighborhood. Survival got harder every month, as Hans Jürgen and Berta had to move from place to place to find shelter and work. On one occasion, the young man barely escaped being lynched by an enraged mob who thought he was an Allied pilot.
By the end of the war, Massaquoi was an accomplished mechanic and had also learned to play the saxophone and box. He idolized African-American athletes like Joe Louis, whose triumphs reminded him that he had a choice: If the Germans did not accept him, his »30 million black brothers and sisters in the U.S.« certainly would.
As British troops marched into Hamburg, Hans Jürgen, realizing that his neighbors regarded him with suspicion, decided to leave. Getting in touch with the father he had not seen for 18 years, the young man first headed to Liberia, where he attempted to build a relationship with the older man; his hopes were dashed when his father was killed in an automobile accident.
In 1950, Hans Jürgen received a student visa from the United States, allowing him to embark on a new part of his life journey. After a few months in school, he was drafted by the U.S. Army - and despite not having to join because of his student status, his »erstwhile wish of becoming an American GI finally caught up« with him, and he headed off to boot camp.
After an honorable discharge, he headed back to school and embarked on a journalism career, working his way to managing editor of Ebony, the leading magazine for African-American readers in the United States.
The racism and anti-Semitism he encountered in America surprised him at first, but also gave him the strength to try and make a difference. To do so, he drew on the fortitude that helped him survive Nazi Germany. Today, Massaquoi says: »There is no doubt that since the time I arrived in America in the Fifties, there has been a vast improvement in race relations. When I came, some whites lynched blacks, churches were bombed with little children in them. We have suc-ceeded in eliminating legal discrimination. American Blacks have to be taken seriously now.«
Today, Massaquoi resides in New Orleans with his second wife and lectures on »the evils of racism.« Massaquoi alerts his audience to the dangers of Neo-Nazism and intolerance in the country of his birth as well as problems in America. He takes note of the careers of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, but insists: »We still are a long way from being equal. Wealth is still not fairly distributed in this country. The tendency of the group in power to hang on to power at the expense of the underdog - that is still the problem.« But Massaquoi is not a pessimist. He be-lieves in the good fight: »Whenever we feel we are discriminated against, we have to create political pressure with our votes and our dollars.«
Andreas Mink, 44, is an editor at Aufbau, a American magazine founded in 1934 by German Jews who fled to the United States